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Wednesday, 13 March 2013
Page: 1599

Senator THORP (Tasmania) (15:17): In rising here today I must express a certain amount of—the perfect word is not coming to me, but it seems to me there is a mismatch in the arguments coming from the other side when it comes to the issue of freedom of speech, because it is those opposite who were responsible for the legislation that required not-for-profit organisations to have gag clauses in their contracts. These organisations are groups that look after issues such as welfare, job seekers or people who are involved in juvenile justice or in sexual assault. They are community groups, environmental groups, child protection groups—the list goes on. All of these front-line people know very well the reality of what is happening out in the real world and have an opportunity to give feedback to any government of the day about the reality of their work, yet it was those opposite whose government made sure that those people would not get funded for the important community work that they do, unless they signed a gag clause in their contracts. To come out from a position like that and then turn around and say that the legislation that we are talking about here is a restriction on freedom of speech is to completely misrepresent what is going on and in fact, I would have to say, is disingenuous.

In doing so, those opposite have proven once again that they care more about the interests of media moguls than the public good. They do not care about diversity or quality journalism and they clearly do not care about freedom of speech. What they really care about is protecting their big business buddies against any moves to secure diversity in the public arena. When we have an environment where two newspaper companies hold 86 per cent market share, it is entirely appropriate for an independent regulator to make judgements upon further consolidation of media companies. We know that the smaller the number of newspapers and other media owners, the less opportunity the Australian people have to hear a range of points of view. As a result, clearly, they are less able to form an opinion based on fact, which has a terrible impact on their ability to make effective decisions on issues that affect them.

This bill will help to ensure that we do not lose this vital diversity from our community—factors like audience reach. As opposed to what the honourable senator opposite said about everyone today being a writer, that is one thing, but not everybody is part of that audience that is getting its information from these two sources that I just mentioned—86 per cent of audience reach. We have to talk about the frequency and depth of services and the cumulative impact. They all have to be taken into account before we accept any moves that will reduce the diversity of media in this country. What the proposed bill will do is to ensure that smaller voices do not get drowned out and that a multiplicity of voices are communicated through our media.

I want to be clear here: this is not an attack on freedom of speech, despite the way some have attempted to portray it. Freedom of the press and freedom of expression are a cornerstone of our democracy and something that this government supports passionately. This government is not directly regulating in any way the activities of journalists, and the bill will in no way take away from individual journalists the benefit of shield laws, as my colleague said earlier. It simply is not true and all the reframing in the world from those opposite will not make it true. Similarly, the bill will make absolutely no changes to the standards that are applied to journalists. It is not about making new standards; it is about making sure the standards that we currently have are adhered to. There have long been concerns about how self-regulation is working through the Press Council, and this bill is an important part of addressing some of those weaknesses.

You only have to look at the News of the World debacle that happened last year to realise the mistakes that can be made with self-regulation. Those opposite also conveniently omitted the fact that they themselves would be involved in the public interest media advocate appointments.

Senator Fifield: We don't want them!

Senator THORP: Well, to participate in democracy is a privilege and a right. This bill is an important step forward for the diversity of voices in our public sphere and for the quality of journalism. Frankly, all the baying and howling that we have seen today from those opposite is just a desperate attempt to protect those with the most to lose.