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Monday, 20 August 2012
Page: 9236


Mr FLETCHER (Bradfield) (11:25): We can all agree on the principle that a vibrant, independent news media is vital to a healthy democracy; it is vital in keeping citizens informed; and it operates generally by testing and holding up to scrutiny the government's policies and actions. It offers a forum for dissenting voices to be heard and it often discloses information that the government of the day may regard as inconvenient. In fact, it is a universal truth that governments of all persuasions are generally unhappy with the media coverage they receive. This government has been unhappy across a whole range of issues, be it pink batts, be it Building the Education Revolution or be it the inconsistency between its pre-election promise on a carbon tax and its actions after the election. So it is not surprising that this government has been frustrated with the press coverage it has received. Perhaps it is timely to remember the maxim of Lord Northcliffe, who said, 'News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.'

There can be no question that reporting is a messy business, and journalists and news outlets will often make mistakes, sometimes with very serious consequences—for example, people who are the subject of false allegations or imputations. But the question presented by this motion is whether further regulatory intervention is desirable to foster a vibrant, independent news media—regulatory intervention such as that proposed in the Finkelstein report to establish a new regulator to be called the News Media Council. I believe the answer to that question is 'No', firstly on the grounds that I doubt the government's motives in proposing such greater regulation of the media, and secondly on the grounds that I doubt the merits of the proposal.

Let us turn firstly to the government's motives. Who can forget the then Leader of the Greens, Senator Bob Brown describing criticism of his party by the Australian as the work of the News Limited 'hate media'. We know that the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy, is furious with the Australian for its coverage of the NBN. In fact, in Senate estimates he accused the Australian newspaper of 'waging a war' against Labor and trying to destroy the NBN.

So the so-called independent media inquiry was a perfect piece of political payback from an experienced practitioner of that particular art. We might ask the question: if an inquiry was truly needed, why was its principle focus on the print and traditional media, as opposed to, for example, the booming online sector? Is it because that is about the closest you can come to having an inquiry into News Limited without expressly stating that you are targeting that company?

There has been some link suggested to the phone hacking scandal in Britain, but absolutely no evidence or credible allegations of similar conduct in Australia. Senator Conroy said that this inquiry would deal with the impact of technological change, for example, the migration of digital to digital and online platforms. But why is this necessary? Why was such an inquiry necessary when he already had an inquiry underway to consider these very issues, the Convergence Review announced in December 2010?

If we can question the government's motives, the merits of its proposal are even more questionable. What we can all agree on as the terms of the motion before us suggest, is that the business models of newspapers are under pressure. Newspapers have a commercial interest in surviving, but there is a great public interest in the survival of newspapers as well; if newspapers disappear and nothing replaces them, there is a risk that our citizens will be less well informed and our democracy will suffer.

The motion appears to suggest that falling revenue is some kind of evidence of a loss of the social licence to operate due to lower editorial standards. If that were true, then presumably the problem would solve itself, as the mover sees it, because newspapers would collapse and this evil would no longer go on. In fact, that analysis is completely wrong. The real issue is that the business model of expensive journalism, cross-subsidised by classified advertising revenue, is no longer sustainable and newspapers are struggling to find a new and workable business model. Like many Australians, I am very concerned about this and I very much hope the transformation exercise currently being carried out by the management of companies like News Limited, Fairfax, APN and others is successfully achieved.

The key issue is this: if you want to maximise the prospects of success and survival of the newspaper sector, the last thing you would do at this stage is burden them with additional expensive regulatory compliance. The fundamental reason that we on this side of the House object to the proposed new model is that a robust, inquisitive, unconstrained free press is critical to our democracy. It is not surprising that it gets up the government's nose. But that is not the question; the question is about sustaining a robust free press.

Debate interrupted.