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Thursday, 14 March 2013
Page: 1769

Senator BILYK (Tasmania) (16:01): I am not really surprised that the opposition have come into this place and engaged in the kind of hysteria they have over the issue of media reforms. It is the same kind of Henny Penny—'The sky is falling!'—attitude that they take to every other issue. It is hysteria from an opposition that claimed that Australia would go into recession, that we would kill the mining boom and that Whyalla would be wiped off the map. Now they have the audacity to bring forward a motion that says:

That the Senate notes Labor's relentless attacks on free speech.

How can we be expected to have a reasoned debate with hysterical claims like that? How can we be expected to have a reasoned debate with papers like the Daily Telegraph comparing the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy, to Chairman Mao, Joseph Stalin and Robert Mugabe? Given the hysteria that this has been met with, anyone would think that the government was planning to censor the media in the manner of Frank Bainimarama or that we were proposing some kind of Syrian style police state.

If we are going to have a reasoned debate, perhaps we should recognise a few facts that even the opposition would not disagree with, such as the fact that there has never been a right to unfettered free speech in Australia and nor should there be. Even those opposite would agree with that. We have defamation laws that stop unwarranted attacks against the reputation or character of other persons. We have laws under the Trade Practices Act which stop corporations making misleading or deceptive claims in their advertising. We have laws which stop people from revealing the names of minors involved in criminal court matters. Even in the United States, where the right to free speech is protected under their constitution, there are rules around what people can and cannot say, just as there are in any liberal Western democracy.

Along with the rights to free speech, there are responsibilities. Where could these responsibilities be more important than when it comes to the media? The print, online and broadcast media are the most powerful instruments for influencing public opinion in Australia, and the community therefore rightly expects certain standards of the media. They expect that the media will respect their privacy, report with fairness and accuracy, and provide a diversity of voices. Freedom of the press is the cornerstone of our democracy, but it is too much for the Australian public to expect that the media, in addition to having the freedom to report, will report with accuracy and not attempt to mislead the public.

It should be pointed out to the opposition that the government's media reform proposals were informed by two independent reviews: the independent media inquiry led by Mr Ray Finkelstein QC and the Convergence Review. Mr John Hartigan of News Ltd said in evidence to the Finkelstein inquiry that there was no need for regulation of the news media and that any suggestion of bias by News Ltd against the government was an insult to readers who are capable of making up their own minds. But here is what Mr Finkelstein had to say in his report about Mr Hartigan's claims. He said:

Often, however, readers are not in a position to make an appropriately informed judgment. They expect news stories they read to be accurate. Usually only the authors/publishers, and the subjects of the story, know the extent to which a story lives up to that expectation.

Mr Finkelstein presented a wide range of evidence, including opinion polls and studies into the conduct of the media, to demonstrate that the media does not live up to community expectations. For example, Professor Robert Manne from the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism examined articles in the Australian on climate change and found that the articles unfavourable to action on climate change outnumbered favourable articles by a ratio of four to one. A report by Victoria's Office of Police Integrity into a media campaign against the former Chief Commissioner of Police Simon Overland, while focused on the conduct of police officer Tristan Weston, also found that the media's role in the affair warranted investigation. In his report into corruption in Queensland, Mr Tony Fitzgerald QC commented that the media are able to be used by politicians, police officers and other public officials who wish to put out propaganda to advance their own interests and harm their enemies if journalists do not search for motivation or check information from their sources for accuracy.

A survey in 2000 by ACNielsen asked voters whether the media exercised its power responsibly or irresponsibly. Fifty-two per cent, a bare majority, said they exercised it responsibly and 43 per cent said they exercised it irresponsibly. But a parallel survey of voters and journalists in 2004 found distinct differences between the two sets of respondents in their responses to ethical questions in relation to privacy and deception. Ninety-two per cent of voters said it was never right to take a picture of someone in their backyard from outside the property without their knowledge and consent, but only 38 per cent of journalists agreed. On deception, 85 per cent of voters but only 38 per cent of journalists said it was never right to obtain access by pretending to be someone other than a journalist. Anyone who doubts the lack of standards within much of Australia's media only has to watch the weekly episodes of ABC's Media Watch. In looking at the evidence, Mr Finkelstein concluded:

…there is a widely-held public view that, despite industry-developed codes of practice that state this, the reporting of news is not fair, accurate and balanced.

This is an important conclusion when it comes to the debate about free speech raised by the motion currently before the Senate. Free speech is not just about the rights of the media; it is also about the rights of those who wish to access the media to have their voice heard. If stories that are in the public interest are being shut out or not given an airing by the media, free speech suffers. Free speech is not promoted by the news media deciding what it does and does not publish according to its own commercial interests. Free speech is promoted by news reporting that is fair, balanced and accurate. Free speech is promoted through having a news media industry with a diversity of voices.

It should be acknowledged that the government did not go nearly as far as Finkelstein or the convergence review proposed, a point that seems to be fairly lost on the opposition. While the Finkelstein inquiry proposed a statutory body to perform the functions of the Australian Press Council and the news and current affairs standards function of the ACMA, we have opted instead for self-regulation overseen by an independent Public Interest Media Advocate, a position that will be a bipartisan appointment. The proposed Public Interest Media Advocate does not control the news media. It does not handle independent complaints against journalists or news outlets. It simply authorises the regulatory schemes proposed by the industry itself.

News media that participate in schemes authorised by the Public Interest Media Advocate will be able to maintain their exemptions from privacy law. I do not hear anyone from the opposition or the Murdoch media acknowledging these facts, but I suppose to rail against the great Stalinist conspiracy to allow the media to self-regulate does not really have the same ring to it. We are not determining what the media can and cannot publish. We are not even defining the standards to which they are to adhere. In fact, we are allowing the media to develop their own standards, which are expected to maintain fairness and accuracy. The decisions as to whether those standards are adequate is made by the independent authority at arms-length from government.

I will just briefly go through the arrangements that the Public Interest Media Advocate would require in an independent standards and complaints body. And in doing so, I challenge the next coalition spokesperson in this debate to explain which of these arrangements they find so objectionable. This is what the advocate would require: standards of practice which reflect community standards and expectations about news and current affairs, and to which all members of organisations would be required to adhere; appropriate and responsive complaints handling provisions; arrangements to require that the body publish agreed standards and publish decisions, performance and compliance statistics in relation to complaints lodged with the body; appropriate remedies and measures for enforcing decisions of the body; appropriate governance arrangements that ensure independence from news media organisations, including appropriate arrangements for appointing members of the body; suitable funding arrangements which would include requirements for each member of the body to contribute funding with the specific arrangements to be determined by the body itself. I ask once again—and when the next coalition speaker takes the floor, I would be keen to hear the explanation—which of these arrangements do they find so objectionable? Which of these requirements of the Public Interest Media Advocate represents a relentless attack on free speech?

I will go to the other aspect of this package of legislation that the opposition has criticised, and that is the strengthening of diversity in the media. They say about our proposed public interest test, 'Why not just leave it to the competition policy?' What this approach ignores is that competition and diversity are two different things. When we talk about news media we are not just talking about any other commodity. We are talking about something which has the potential to dramatically influence public opinion. The public interest test, like the authorisation of the regulatory schemes, is made by the Public Interest Media Advocate, which I stress again, is an independent role. Those opposite accuse us of attacking free speech, but I cannot think of anything that furthers the cause of promoting free speech than maintaining a diversity of voices in the media.

In fact, if we are going to talk about genuine attacks on free speech, let us talk about the Howard government's watering down of cross-media ownership rules. Surely, if there is anything that is going to stifle free speech in Australia it would be the further concentration of media ownership. It is what those opposite did in government, and they have the gall to accuse us of attacking free speech. It just goes to show that there is no shortage of hypocrisy when it comes to those on the other side.

Those who would like to make out our media reforms to be some kind of radical proposal would do well to examine what happens in other countries. In 2003, the United Kingdom introduced laws aimed at ensuring a greater diversity of owners of media enterprises. The laws enable the UK Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, when they consider a merger raises public interest concerns, to issue an intervention notice. Following an intervention notice, the regulator, Ofcom, must then provide a report to the Secretary of State with advice and recommendations on the specified media public interest considerations and representations made with regard to the potential merger. Following receipt of the Ofcom report, the Secretary of State will consider whether to refer the test to the Competition Commission, and will also have final decision-making over whether the merger can proceed following the Competition Commission report.

The Australian model is an improvement on the UK model because it keeps the decision-making at arms-length from the government. In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission has, since its creation, assessed whether media or telecommunication mergers would benefit or harm the public interest. In addition to media diversity rules in the UK and the US, media diversity safeguards have been legislated in Canada, Germany, South Africa and many other free democratic nations.

While this debate has focused on media reforms, let us have a good look at our record when it comes to free speech in other areas compared to that of the coalition. When it came to relentless attacks on free speech, the Howard government took the cake. Just yesterday, the government in the other place introduced the Not-for-profit Sector Freedom to Advocate Bill 2013 into parliament. This bill bans gag clauses in government contracts with not-for-profit organisations, effectively ensuring that the not-for-profit sector has an independent voice in advocating for those in the community most in need. This builds on our action to remove gag clauses from all government contracts with the not-for-profit sector in 2008. I ask those opposite: is this the action of government that does not stand up for and defend free speech? No.

If you want to see the actions of a government that relentlessly attacks free speech, as this motion suggests, you should look at the previous, coalition government, which widely used gag clauses to try to silence the not-for-profit sector. If the opposition want to put themselves forward as the virtuous defenders of the free media then I would like to ask them: where were they when the press were joined by NGOs and lawyers to complain about the Howard government's freedom of information laws? Where were they when the government ministers, through the issue of conclusive certificates, were able to withhold documents according to whatever they deemed to be the public interest? Our reforms to freedom of information laws, including the abolition of conclusive certificates, allowed the release of documents when the public interest is genuinely served, not just at the whim of ministers. This is another great example where we have the runs on the board when it comes to protecting free speech.

I could reel off several other examples, but I think we all get the point about the opposition's hypocrisy in lecturing us about free speech. Instead I am going to use my remaining few minutes to talk about what this debate is really about. This debate is not about free speech. This debate is about cowardice. It is about the cowardice of those opposite when it comes to promoting the public interest over the interests of media moguls. It is about the federal opposition doing their best to curry favour with the major players in the news media.

We require no more from the media than a self-regulatory regime that has some teeth, a regime that ensures fairness and accuracy. But the federal opposition do not want fairness and accuracy in reporting, because it does not suit their interest. They do not want a diversity of voices in the news media, because it does not suit their interest. Those on this side of the chamber know from the surveys and submissions considered by the Finkelstein inquiry that it is what the Australian public want. We know they want diversity. We know they want fairness. We know they want accuracy. Not only do they want these things; they demand them.

The characterisation of our reform proposals as an attack on free speech is just another red herring. The coalition's behaviour in government demonstrates that they are not serious about protecting free speech. All they are interested in is bending to powerful media interests in return for favourable reporting. As I have said, while this debate is focused on media reforms, we really should have a good look at what those on the other side have done. When it comes to relentless attacks on free speech, the Howard government took the cake. I mentioned that just yesterday the Gillard government introduced the Not-for-profit Sector Freedom to Advocate Bill 2013 into this parliament and how important that is. I have also asked where the government ministers were through the issue of conclusive certificates. I am not quite sure there; where were they?

Our reforms to the freedom of information laws, including the abolition of conclusive certificates, allowed the release of documents when the public interest is genuinely served, not just at the whim of ministers, as those on the other side wanted. As I said, this is just another great example where we have the runs on the board when it comes to protecting free speech. It is a beat-up. It is hypocrisy. It is the opposition once again coming in. 'The sky is falling.' 'Whyalla's going to be wiped off the map.' 'The world's ending.' But they know in their hearts that it is just them coming in and attacking for no real reason. It is because that is what they want to do, because it does not suit their interest.

The characterisation of our reform proposals as an attack on free speech is a red herring. The coalition's behaviour in government demonstrates that they are not serious about protecting free speech. All they are interested in, as we all know and the Australian public certainly know, is kowtowing to powerful media interests in return for favourable reporting. Unlike those opposite, we on this side are on the side of the public.