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Monday, 3 April 2000
Page: 15046


Mr ROSS CAMERON (5:25 PM) —I move:

That the House:

(1) recognises the debt we owe to those entrepreneurial publishers who have built Australia's thriving, free and independent press which is the envy of the world;

(2) upholds, to the greatest extent consistent with the laws of decency and libel, the unfettered right to freedom of speech and freedom of opinion upon which our vigorous democracy is built;

(3) recognises, nonetheless, that the high concentration of media ownership, and the diversity of commercial interests among the few media players, creates potential for conflicts of interest in reporting of news, opinion and current affairs;

(4) notes, in the interests of transparency, the decision of the Australian Broadcasting Authority to require current affairs radio programs to disclose the previously unnamed commercial sponsors of the broadcaster; and

(5) resolves to find simple, enforceable means by which print journalists, radio broadcasters and television news and current affairs reporters, can declare their personal financial interests, and those of their employers, in the issues about which they provide media comment.

The little known standing order 28A requires the Committee of Members' Interests `to consider what classes of persons (if any) other than members ought to be required to register and declare their interests'. It is referring to the fact that we, as members, are required to disclose commercial interests that have the potential to create a conflict or the perception of conflict between our duty and our interest. This section has received consideration by that committee over the years. I want to go back, in the first instance, to 1985. Mick Young, then Special Minister of State, reported to the House:

Finally, I should like to comment on the Committee's suggestion that a similar scheme might also be applied to journalists working in the Parliament. As the Committee pointed out, members of the parliamentary press gallery are uniquely placed to exert considerable influence in the decision-making process. The Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) advised the House in September 1983 that the Government would consider inviting both the Australian Journalists Association and the parliamentary Press Gallery to develop a similar system to the one that we will be adopting to register their members' interests. We stick by that view. After we finalise our registration scheme I will be writing to the AJA and the gallery drawing their attention to our arrangements and inviting them to formulate and introduce similar requirements for their members.

That was never actually acted upon, but it was taken up the following year by Dr Klugman in October 1986 when he referred to what had taken place in the House of Commons. He said:

Under paragraph (v) of standing order 28a, the Committee is required to consider what classes of person, if any, other than members ought to be required to register and disclose their interests. The Committee has noted that on 17 December 1985 the United Kingdom House of Commons adopted resolutions requiring in part:

(1) Those holding permanent passes as lobby journalists, as journalists accredited to the Parliamentary Press Gallery or for parliamentary broadcasting to register not only the employment for which they had received their pass, but also any other paid occupation or employment where their privileged access to Parliament is relevant ...

The issue of disclosure and transparency has received a fair bit of attention in recent times, deriving largely from an inquiry into the Australian Broadcasting Authority, which was actually five separate inquiries into radio broadcasting. That series of inquiries found that the voluntary codes of conduct which govern the radio broadcasting industry are being observed much more in the breach than in any other way. I think it is fair to say that as those inquiries have drawn to a conclusion in each state where they were considered and in the case of each radio station and indeed each broadcaster we saw very substantial breaches of the code. Either that means the code is out of touch with reality and should be changed or it means that its enforcement has got to be substantially beefed up by voluntary means or it means that we need to introduce the element of compulsion.

I note that at the conclusion of those inquiries on 13 March the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Beazley, actually called for the scrapping of the voluntary codes of practice and argued that they should be replaced with compulsory codes of conduct. The radio broadcast area has already received and continues to receive a lot of attention, and it is not my principal purpose to focus on that part of the fourth estate today.

I want to turn to the question of disclosure of interest by the press: our newspaper reporters and commentators. The Press Council actually has a voluntary code of conduct, a statement of principles, which says:

A publication is justified in strongly advocating its own views on controversial topics provided that it treats its readers fairly by

making fact and opinion clearly distinguishable;

not misrepresenting or suppressing relevant facts;

not distorting the facts in text, headlines, pictures, billboards or posters;

disclosing any commercial or other interest which might be construed as influencing the publication's presentation of news or opinion.

In the whole realm of press disclosure, there is only one area where it is actually required, and that is under Corporations Law as it relates to financial journalists who are required, under sections 879 to 887 inclusive, to disclose their interests and securities in a register that is maintained by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. I asked the chief executive of the commission, Alan Cameron, last week what level of scrutiny takes place in the management of the register, and he indicated that, with the pressure on resources and the view of the commission about priorities, it was virtually nil. In fact, when I called the commission today and asked them if the powers of compulsory disclosure under sections 885, 886 and 887 of the register's contents had ever been used, I was informed that, in the entire life of the commission and since the existence of the provision, the disclosure requirements had never in fact been used. I also asked a journo in the gallery who had spent 12 months as a financial journalist if he were aware of the register, if he had anything to declare and if he had declared it. He indicated quite frankly—he is now reporting more generally, not exclusively on financial matters—that he did have shares and interests that would be reportable and he had heard something about the existence of the register but no-one in the industry took it very seriously and he had not ever bothered to register his interests.

The reason why I am concentrating on the press is that we have this convergence of circumstances where radio and television are regulated by the Broadcasting Services Act by a licensing system under which if licensees are in breach their licences can be terminated. No such arrangement operates in the area of licensing of newspaper proprietors. At the same time, we have a situation where one major player in the Australian context controls a very substantial proportion of the print media in this country. News Ltd controls 49 per cent of all regional newspapers, 67 per cent of all national and metropolitan dailies and 76 per cent of all Sunday papers. That is an extraordinary chunk of ownership. At the same time you have this one organisation valued at $110 billion—the largest stock on the Australian stock market—representing 20 per cent of the total value of the Australian stock market. The potential for conflicts of interest in reporting between the news instruments—the newspapers—and the commercial interests of the wider parent company are very substantial. Frankly, this to me is the main game. While I am interested in pursuing this question of greater personal disclosure by journalists either in a register but actually, more importantly, in the actual articles they write, I am more interested in this wider question of the potential for conflict of interest in the reporting of News's commercial activities by News publications.

I want to refer to a number of areas where that sort of conflict can come into play, and I think it has come into play. For example, if you take the issue of Olympic sponsorship, Matthew Moore in the Sydney Morning Herald recently provided a critique of an article by Glenda Korporaal, the news reporter, which showed that News was, in effect, threatening SOCOG with adverse consequences in their coverage of news items if they were not given a particular commercial benefit in relation to photography of the torch relay. More recently, we have seen coverage of the creation of Super League. In my city of Sydney, particularly, there has been coverage of the Super League ARL contest in the Daily Telegraph. Most of my constituents in a rugby league city like Parramatta were frankly astonished by the one-sided coverage of that contest. I am not saying that in the long run it might not be good for rugby league, but the interest of the organisation ought to be disclosed. Another example is digital television. The Australian journos here in the gallery are usually quite good about disclosing the interests of News in the digital campaign. I note that that is not the case with all News publications. For example, it is not the universal practice of News organs, such as the Adelaide Advertiser, to declare the fact that News Ltd, which owns the paper, has an interest in the debate which is the subject of the report. In the long run, I believe it is in the interests of the gallery and of the masthead to retain public confidence. That can be done by greater emphasis on disclosure both by, preferably, voluntary but also, if necessary, involuntary means. (Time expired)