Australia defends media reforms amid strong condemnation

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 March, 2013, 2:14pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 March, 2013, 5:09pm

Australia defended proposed media reforms arising from Britain’s phone-hacking scandal on Wednesday after a heated backlash from Rupert Murdoch’s local operations, which labelled them dictatorial.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy was condemned after unveiling the changes, which will include a new public interest test for major mergers and stronger self-regulation requirements for the print media.

News Limited, Murdoch’s Australian arm, was particularly strident in its commentary, likening Conroy on the front page of its Sydney Daily Telegraph tabloid to leaders including Kim Jong-Un and Robert Mugabe.

The newspaper lampooned Conroy as Stalin in a doctored image imposing his face on the former Soviet dictator’s body.

“This government will go down in history as the first Australian government outside of wartime to attack freedom of speech by seeking to introduce a regime which effectively institutes government-sanctioned journalism,” said News Limited chief Kim Williams.

News Limited is the dominant player in Australia’s print media scene, owning 70 per cent of newspapers as well as extensive online assets.

Conroy hit back at the criticisms, joking that he had “said before that people shouldn’t buy The Daily Telegraph for its political commentary, they should buy it for the sports pages”.

“And I think The Daily Telegraph proves again why that remains a truism,” he said.

A central feature of the government’s proposed reforms is a new statutory authority called the Public Interest Media Advocate which will assess whether mergers of “national significance” are in the public interest.

It will also oversee self-regulatory authorities such as the Press Council to ensure they are transparent and independent of both the government and major proprietors, and apply greater enforcement of existing press standards.

The newspaper lampooned Conroy as Stalin in a doctored image imposing his face on the former Soviet dictator’s body.

Conroy said there was “no government intervention” in media content and there were no new rules being introduced.

“What the advocate does is it ensures that the rules of self-regulation actually do apply,” he said, describing the current model as a “lap-dog” to media companies.

“There’s no governance model that suggests that the proprietors should control the regulatory watchdog and that’s what we’ve got at the moment,” he added.

“Australians want the press to be as accountable as they want politicians, sports people and business people.”