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Thursday, 14 March 2013
Page: 2196


Mr TURNBULL (Wentworth) (15:14): Our democracy depends on a free press as much as it depends on free elections. The work that journalists do, the work that newspapers, broadcasters and website bloggers do, is as important as the work that we do here as legislators. A key test of a democracy is the extent to which the press is free—not free from anything but free from government. Around the world the greatest threat to press freedom is governments—governments that seek to have the press tell them what they want. We know that every government feels it is being treated unfairly by the press, and I have to say that any government that read the press every day and was satisfied with the reports would have a press that was not doing its job. The job of the press is to make governments and the powerful uncomfortable. The job of journalists is to uncover wrongdoing. The job of journalists is to hold governments to account. I will come to some great examples of that in a moment.

When you have a government in a country such as ours which has never sought to regulate newspapers—to interfere with the content of newspapers in peacetime—take that step for government oversight of the content and the standards of newspapers, that is an incredibly big step. That is a momentous moment. It begins with a walk with the Public Interest Media Advocate and could end with a press that is virtually controlled by the government. Keeping government's hands off the press is fundamental; it is vital to our democracy. So, you would think that if a government, a competent government—were we to have one—were even to consider a step such as this, it would do so with the greatest of care, with the greatest consultation, with lengthy hearings, with extensive debate.

But, oh, no. These so-called media reforms are really a jumble of measures, each of which has virtually nothing to do with the others—some relate to licence fees, some to content, some to newspapers. They are a complete dog's breakfast of measures which have no coherent unity among them. They have been flung into the parliament by Senator Conroy, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, and the only question that his action has settled is this: he is without question the least competent minister in this most shambolic and inept of governments. Yesterday, when the Leader of the House was sitting opposite me, I asked him to nominate a more incompetent minister and he was unable to nominate one. So that title is without question.

Mr Adams: What about the editor of the Australian?

Mr TURNBULL: Clearly, honourable members opposite have some other nominations for the most incompetent minister. I will put my case to you. Senator Conroy has been unable to persuade the proprietors of television stations, including Mr Kerry Stokes, that they should accept a media law package which includes a 50 per cent cut in their licence fees. Anyone who cannot sell a 50 per cent cut in licence fees to a television station proprietor must be the worst salesman of all time. I put it to you, Madam Speaker, Senator Conroy could not sell fresh fish to starving seals. This is a long cavalcade of incompetence. This is the same government that introduced a mining tax that generated little or no revenue. We should give credit where credit is due—the gentleman's name has been bandied around today, and the truth is that the only Labor politician so far that has succeeded in spreading the benefits of the mining boom is Mr Eddie Obeid. It is fair to say he has spread it fairly narrowly within his immediate family, but every single one of the profound defects in the way this government operates is on display here: a lack of consultation, even a lack of consultation within their own cabinet.

Yesterday we even had the chief executive of News Limited, Kim Williams, say that he had not been engaged by the government in the preparation and the discussions relating to this legislation. Whether you are a fan of News Limited or not, whether you are a fan of Kim Williams or not, they do employ 14,000 Australians. It is a large media company and, just as the government would have been well advised to consult the mining industry before they introduced that hopeless mining tax, so you should talk to the various stakeholders and interest groups within the media industry before you proceed. The reality is that this is a case of malicious, malevolent intent, revenge directed at the News Limited newspaper group, coupled with that characteristic indelible, unmistakable Conrovian incompetence.

I say this to you, Madam Speaker: in terms of the importance of protecting freedom of speech and freedom of the press, remember this: I mentioned Mr Eddie Obeid a moment ago, and it was not a government agency or the New South Wales police or in fact ICAC that uncovered what appears to be the largest example of corruption in our lives—the scale of the corruption is colossal; it disgraces the Labor Party indelibly. Who uncovered that? Kate McClymont, one courageous journalist working for the Sydney Morning Herald. She was able to pursue that because of cooperation and collaboration with the ABC—cooperation between media outlets which this government is threatening to ban. Imagine that! Is it a payback against Kate McClymont as well?

The coalition is profoundly opposed to any measures which restrict freedom of the press. We know that if we are fortunate enough to be returned to government, we will grind our teeth at the injustices meted out to us by the newspapers of the day. We will rant and rage against the unfair broadcasts and criticisms of us. We know all that, but we know that that is vital to our democracy and we would never seek to restrict that freedom.

The government has tried to suggest that the Public Interest Media Advocate is just a sort of teddy bear and is not going to involve any serious restriction on the newspaper industry. Senator Conroy told the ABC AM program:

The public interest advocate when it comes to the Press Council functions is simply a registration function, that the Press Council itself is upholding its own positions.

What Australians want to see is the media be accountable through the Australian Press Council. The Government or the advocate are not changing a single standard that the Press Council currently has.

Yet, as we know from the language of the bill itself, the Public Interest Media Advocate will judge the extent to which standards formulated under the news media self-regulation scheme, the Press Council, deal with privacy, fairness, accuracy and all other matters relating to the professional conduct of journalism. If the Public Interest Media Advocate comes to the conclusion that the Press Council is not doing its job and deregisters the Press Council, then all of its members will lose the exemptions under the privacy law without which they are not able to conduct their business. If a newspaper or media group that is covered decides it does not want to join the Press Council, as the West Australian has decided—and that should be its perfect right—it will not have the protection of the exemptions under the Privacy Act. This is getting the government, through this bureaucrap, absolutely, directly involved in the standards that affect journalism.

There is an even more sinister element here. We have many laws that deal or relate to media industry acquisitions. In terms of diversity and competition, the competition regulator, the ACCC, has extensive powers under its act and, of course, has recently used them to ensure that Kerry Stokes did not buy a larger share in Fox. So, there is protection there already. This new regulator will be able to approve or prevent media acquisitions if they fail a public interest test. What does that mean? It is a completely vague concept which is utterly unworkable in any practical sense and meaningless because it has no other purpose than to protect not the public interest but political interest. Every media acquisition will require extensive consultation with the government. It will be the government that will determine who can buy what newspaper.

Of course governments will make those decisions on political grounds, just as the Labor Party government did in 1986 when it allowed Rupert Murdoch to buy the Herald and Weekly Times group. That is a very important point to bear in mind, because it was not the coalition. We are accused of being lickspittles of the media moguls. Let me tell you: I have been involved with media moguls most of my life. I have never seen anything as sycophantic as a Labor politician in the presence of a billionaire. Remember this: they rant and rave about media concentration but they allowed Rupert Murdoch's News Limited to buy the Herald and Weekly Times in 1986, and that is what gave Murdoch the domination of the metropolitan daily newspaper market. In the nearly 30 years that has intervened, Murdoch still has the same domination in the metropolitan dailies, but the slice of the overall news and information pie represented by newspapers gets smaller every day because we have never had such a diversity of voices, courtesy of the technology of the internet, that we have available today. We have access to more news, more views, more opinion and more sources of factual information than ever before.

Social media alone gives every individual their own little megaphone, which, if aggregated with others, can be an enormous megaphone. It means that politicians such as any of us do not have to suck up to an editor or a producer to get our views out into the public domain. We can post them via social media on our own sites on Twitter or on Facebook and we can be heard. We have a more diverse media world than we have ever had. Yet this is the moment, a time when diversity is greater than ever and a time when it is actually increasing and not diminishing, when the Labor Party—the architects of the largest media acquisition in our country's history, the one that created the dominance of metropolitan newspapers that they rail against today—say we must regulate the media.

We know that their motives have nothing to do with diversity. They have nothing to do with protecting a diversity of voices. What they want to do is pay back News Limited. They want to send a message to Kim Williams and his editors that says: 'If you don't play nice, there will be a stick waiting for you. If you don't play nice, next time you want to buy something, next time you want to buy a business like Alan Kohler's Business Spectator and the Eureka Report, you're going to have to pass the Public Interest Media Advocate's public interest test. That's going to be, of course, whether we think you pass our political interest test.'

I say this to you, Madam Speaker, if by some mischance this shambolic set of reforms manages to get through this parliament, if we are returned to government after the election, we will repeal them. If this Labor Party, this Labor government, gives to future governments the tools to manipulate the media, we will disown them and abandon them, and we will return Australia's media to the state it has today of being free.