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Monday, 20 August 2012
Page: 9232

Mr NEVILLE (HinklerThe Nationals Deputy Whip) (11:10): It gives me great pleasure to speak on this private member's motion concerning the proposed News Media Council and to canvass issues that arise around the recommendations of the Finkelstein report. I have great regard for the member for Bendigo. I have worked with him on committees and I have enjoyed the pleasures of his very pleasant electorate. But on this issue I cannot agree with his direction, much less that of his party.

Let there be no doubt where I stand on this matter. In conscience I stand for a free, vibrant and robust media as a guarantee of an informed public and, ultimately, for the proper function of democracy. I also stand for a diverse media and, in my time in this place, I have railed against the concentration of media ownership. I take some pride in being one of the architects of the Howard government's cross-media laws, which limit ownership of newspapers, television and radio stations in particular markets to two out of three.

I hold the view that a radio licence is a privileged instrument and carries with it an obligation of diversity, community engagement and news delivery. I do not believe that this obligation is satisfied by endless, if not mindless, networking. For that reason, radio stations should be required to maintain local content and use. Time does not permit an analysis of television which is competitive and which offers a wide range of news and current affairs. But I would make the observation that, after the 6 pm regional news bulletins in the early evening, all subsequent news and current affairs programs are very much Sydney-centric.

As new means of news, information sharing and even advertising move into uncharted waters of electronic dissemination and convergence with old media, we need to have a vibrant independent news and that is the most important thing of all. We do not need, nor will I support, the external control of media content. That is ultimately what would happen with a news media council. That said, it is evident that the motivation for the Finkelstein inquiry was the insecurity of the Gillard government in the face of sustained media inquiry, scrutiny and comment. In the face of one of the poorest government performances in our history, replete with stumble after stumble—the mining tax, the carbon tax, the wasteful school halls program, the pink batts scheme and the growing enormity of the illegal boat people saga—is it any wonder that the media should be critical and that the best of our print commentators should fiercely hold the government to account? To claim that this is unfair or a biased attack on the Gillard government and to desperately try to link it to the UK hacking scandal and the Leveson inquiry is as pathetic as it is opportunistic. I suspect that the member for Bendigo has been asked to put his toe in the water and test the mood of the public with respect to greater media control.

Honourable members interjecting

Mr NEVILLE: He is a very brave man and I am sure he would be capable of it. Although the government's position is not yet plain, a core recommendation of the Finkelstein inquiry revolves around the establishment of a new body, the News Media Council, to set journalistic standards for news media, in consultation with the industry, and to handle complaints made by the public when those standards are breached.

Finkelstein says the News Media Council would:

… have those roles in respect of news and current affairs coverage on all platforms, that is, print, online, radio and television. It will thus explicitly cover online news for the first time, and will involve transferring ACMA functions for standards and complaints concerning news and current affairs. It will replace the voluntary APC with a statutory entity.

Further, Finkelstein says:

The News Media Council should have secure funding from government and its decisions made binding, but beyond that government should have no role.

He claims:

The establishment of a council is not about increasing the power of government or about imposing some form of censorship.

But I, for one, doubt that very much.

In essence, the report proposes an outside body to take over the role of the Australian Press Council and the media regulatory role of ACMA as well as having control functions over convergence content. While I concede the Press Council has at times been accused of self-interest and of being dismissive of public complaints well made, I am sure an internal renewal of the council and a code of conduct composed by the industry itself is infinitely preferable to a heavy-handed external regulator.

In a media release on 2 March this year, Malcolm Turnbull, the member for Wentworth, made this point about the comparative powers of ACMA and the Press Council:

It is worth noting that the segment of the media which is most criticised for bias and inaccuracy—

and indeed the member for Bendigo did this in his speech this morning—

is in fact commercial radio which is already subject to regulation by ACMA. Mr Finkelstein is critical of ACMA in its media regulation role, but if media outlets unregulated by Government (such as metropolitan newspapers) have a better track record for balance and accuracy than commercial radio (which is regulated), doesn’t that make an equally valid case for reducing rather than increasing the regulation of the media?

Former High Court Judge Ian Callinan made the point that any form of regulation is far too risky. He said:

The struggle for free speech has been long and painfully achieved and I wouldn't want to go back on it.

He made the further point that the way to control the media was through focused defamation laws.

Senator George Brandis, even in this last week, described to the Samuel Griffith Society how freedom of the press is watered down by the appeal to victimhood. He said: 'Today it is the self-styled progressives of the Left who want to ban things. In particular, they want to eliminate expressions of opinions which they find offensive. Sometimes this takes the form of overt prohibitions, of which section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is an egregious example. As witnessed in the Bolt case, freedom of speech and its corollary, freedom of the press, are, for these people, values of less importance than respect for certain favoured groups which are identified in the minds of the—

An honourable member interjecting—

alleged victimhood. Thus, paradoxically, victimhood becomes the basis for the new privilege. Is it really the role of government to be telling people what they might say? But this is the very point of the political correctness movement: to shape the language so that the ideas of which it disapproves are eliminated from public discourse.' And haven't we seen enough of that?

You can go back over history, and a free press has been able to give opinions which have been criticised here this morning. You can go right back to 1898 and Emile Zola's famous article 'J'Accuse' in the Paris newspaper L'Aurore.

Captain Dreyfus, who had been given a life sentence on Devil's Island in Guiana, was saved as a result of Zola giving his opinion on the front page of that paper—a very brave opinion. And in All the President's Men we had Woodward and Bernstein virtually bringing down President Nixon. There are many examples of this in the history of good journalism. What I do not want is some external body controlling that sort of freedom, and I will oppose it bitterly.