Thursday, 21 June 2012
Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers
That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (Senator Conroy) to a question without notice asked by Senator Birmingham today relating to the media.
To paraphrase Edmund Burke, in the reporters' gallery yonder there sit a fourth estate more important than all of us. Indeed, he was quoted by Thomas Carlyle, who in his book French Revolutiontalked about a fourth estate of able editors springing up, 'increases and multiplies, irrepressible, incalculable'.
I thank Senator Wong for her gratuitous advice. The reality is that not since the advent of the printing press have we seen such a multiplication of able editors and reporters across the media—but of course they are all found in the new media, in the emerging areas of the media, as a result of the transformation that is happening at present in the media. We are getting a very different media environment than we have had before.
The real risk inherent in Senator Conroy's answer today is that we have not a fourth estate but a government that desires to apply instead a fourth branch of government, as it is referred to elsewhere. This fourth branch will be created as a result of what the government proposes to do out of its Convergence Review and the review of the Finkelstein inquiry. The government is seeking to impose more regulation at a time when media should be facing less regulation. Today Senator Conroy was given the opportunity to provide some assurances to the media industry that they would not face increased regulation, that they would not face increased costs at a time when the media industry on its traditional platforms is bleeding jobs and bleeding profits. Instead Senator Conroy chose to defer and deflect. He chose to take his old-fashioned approach, the usual modus operandi of Senator Conroy, which of course is to go and attack somebody else; to ignore the question and go on the attack.
That is what started this whole process of potential new media regulation—Senator Conroy's desire to attack News Ltd. He called them the hate media. They were the focus of his attack for many a month. They were the reason we ended up with a media inquiry in the first place. Now, he has moved on. He has new targets of attack. His new target of attack is no longer News Ltd but instead Gina Rinehart and Fairfax. They instead are the new targets for Senator Conroy's attack. In doing that Senator Conroy is overlooking the very serious issues that are at play here when it comes to the future of media in Australia. I stand, the Liberal Party stands and the coalition stands for free speech in this country—
We stand for free speech supported by a free media. It is the most important accountability mechanism to hold this parliament and governments of whatever political persuasion to account. It is what we must fight to preserve at all costs regardless of who the government of the day is. The government proposals that have come forth from the Finkelstein inquiry and the Convergence Review to establish either a news media council or a new independent communications regulator are of course all, in the end, just code for greater government regulation that will give governments of the day greater potential to influence what appears in the media; greater potential to say what it is right to publish or what it is wrong to publish, what is appropriate speech or what is inappropriate speech.
The role of government should not be in that space, save for extremely limited circumstances. This government seeks such an expansionary power to dictate what is the appropriate speech and what is inappropriate speech that all Australians should rightly be concerned. Today Senator Conroy had a chance to at least provide some certainty that an industry under pain and threat will not face greater costs and that free speech in this country will be preserved. He chose to reject the opportunity to provide any such assurances and instead continued with his MO, which has always been to find something to attack instead.
Part of the way through Senator Birmingham's contribution, he made a reference to the fact that the Liberal Party believes in free speech and a free media. There is a very simple response to that: ditto. Because, in the four years that we have been in government, there has been not one whit of change and not one response from the current government that in any way interferes with the concepts of free speech or a free media. What we have witnessed over the last four years is the market operating, and there has been enormous technological change for content providers and new players entering the market. Over the last fortnight, we have seen the two principal media companies in this country engaging in revision—occasioned by technological change—of their own particular business models. We have seen it in News Limited's headline paper, the Australian, today, outlining their changes, and we saw it earlier in the week from the Fairfax press, which operates in the country's two largest states and the ACT. What is occurring—and it is not caused by government; the government has not interfered and it has not sought change—is the operation of the market.
Senator Birmingham made some references in his contribution to the independent inquiry into the media and the Convergence Review Committee inquiry. The government has received the findings and recommendations of the independent inquiry. What have we done with those? They have been sent off to be Convergence Review Committee for its consideration. And both the convergence review and the independent media inquiry have recommended to the government—which the government has not yet decided on and cabinet has not even considered—that the framework for news media regulation in Australia needs to be strengthened. That is hardly a remarkable proposition when the media industry, whether radio, TV, the press or the internet, is going through such radical change that it would occur to anyone who takes an interest in this that the degree, nature and type of regulation that has occurred under successive governments in this country for the last 100 or 150 years might need to be looked at and possibly altered into the future. That is all that is occurring.
One of the principal proposals so far, from the Convergence Review Committee, is that all content service enterprises be required to join and fund a body. What is that body going to do? It will require those enterprises to join that body to administer self-regulatory codes of practice. Content providers in the media, entertainment and news industry will be required to join a body to administer self-regulatory codes of practice. So all of these organisations develop their own behaviour and establish codes of practice, and all of the players in that market, whether it be TV, radio, newspaper or internet, who provide content will simply be required to join that body and then they can administer their own codes of behaviour, which they themselves—not the government, not the parliament, not some bureaucrat somewhere—have determined. This is hardly a remarkable proposition. And what has happened with that? It is only a recommendation to the government and it will be considered by the government at the appropriate time.
Let us not kid ourselves: the media plays a fundamental role in our society. A healthy, robust, growing and differentiated media is not only fundamental to a market economy such as ours but also fundamental to the democratic society that we work in, live in and wish to retain. It cannot be argued that, as a result of technological change, the media is not facing significant challenges; regrettably and regretfully, we have seen those played out on the front pages over the last week. We are told that, over the next two or three years, 1,900 people are going to be laid off from the Fairfax organisation alone. The number of people to be laid off by News Limited has not yet been identified. (Time expired)
Mr Deputy President:
The time, it is to be hoped, is gone by, when any defence would be necessary of the "liberty of the press" as one of the securities against corrupt or tyrannical government. No argument, we may suppose, can now be needed, against permitting a legislature or an executive … to prescribe opinions to them—
that is, the people—
and determine what doctrines or what arguments they shall be allowed to hear.
They are not my words but the words of John Stuart Mill writing not now in the early 21st century but more than a century and a half ago, in 1859, in On Liberty. How bizarre that what was considered beyond argument more than 150 years ago, the defence of the absolute liberty of the press, is now necessary in the second decade of the 21st century in Australia, but it is. It is necessary because the freedom of the press can no longer be taken for granted in the era of the Gillard Labor government.
I see a member of the cabinet, Senator Penny Wong, is in the chamber. So listen carefully, Senator Wong; I have a challenge for you. We heard Senator Mark Bishop, in the contribution he just made, say that there has never been an occasion in the life of this government when there has been any interference with the freedom of the press. Well, Mr Deputy President, you may recall, as I do, that late last year a column by the respected veteran political journalist Mr Glenn Milne was actually removed from the Australian newspaper. It was withdrawn after it had been published and it was taken down from the Australian's website. That column contained serious allegations concerning the Prime Minister. Let Senator Wong deny, because I am giving her the opportunity to do so, that the withdrawal of Mr Milne's column and its removal from the Australian's website was directly consequent upon the Prime Minister demanding of the then CEO of News Limited, Mr John Hartigan, that the piece be removed. Was it a defamatory piece? No defamation was alleged. No proceedings were ever issued by the Prime Minister against News Limited or Mr Glenn Milne. Do you deny, Senator Wong, that that act of political censorship was demanded by the Prime Minister of the then CEO of News Limited? If a government, a Prime Minister, can get away with that, then the freedom of the press, particularly the freedom of the print media in this country can no longer be assured.
You are a member of a government, Senator Wong, which is in coalition with a political party, the Greens, whose policy is to license journalists presumably so they can express politically correct opinions, opinions congenial to the Green's ideology. You are a member of a government whose 'minister for truth', Senator Conroy, refused in question time today to rule out greater government regulation of the print as well as the broadcast media. You are a member of a government, Senator Wong, whose ministers opened the champagne bottles last year when a conservative columnist, Mr Andrew Bolt, was the subject of censorship by a court ruling applying an act of parliament, the Racial Discrimination Act, which a previous Labor government instituted. There has not been a time when the freedom of the press in this country has been under such threat.
It is always fun to follow Senator Brandis when he is in one of his Shakespearean, theatrical moods. He started his contribution with lofty quotes from a century and a half ago, espousing freedom of the press and challenging us about what has changed, putting challenges across the chamber to the minister. It is all fun stuff, Senator Brandis, but seriously: come on, get a grip! A century and a half ago is a century and a half ago. We on this side absolutely support free speech and we absolutely support a free media but what underpins a free media? What underpins a free media is in fact editorial independence. That is something you can pretend does not matter and does not figure in your quotes from a century and a half ago and in your theatrical presentation to the Senate today, but it matters in real life. It matters in the business models of today. It matters in the internet world of today, Senator Brandis, as you go back to your 1850s world where you think everything is wonderful and lofty, but it is not.
This is 2012. We have the internet world, we have different business models, we have different standards, we have different things applying to the way media works and does not work. Only yesterday—or it might have been the day before—we had Senator Brandis blaming all the problems in the Fairfax media on the carbon tax. He was not talking about editorial independence or anything else when he was making that accusation. He cannot quite get his lines right because he was reading from a script of a century and a half ago and putting all his effort into great challenges across the chamber, as if anyone pays attention to him any more.
Editorial independence is an important thing. It is something readers of the Age, in particular, and the Sydney Morning Herald have always appreciated. It makes reading a newspaper enjoyable because you know journalists are going out, researching things and reporting the news—not reporting the owner's views but reporting the news. Editorial independence is the cornerstone of a free media. The existing charter in the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald reads, in part:
... full editorial control of the newspapers within agreed budgets shall be vested in the editors. They alone shall determine editorial content and appoint, dismiss, deploy and direct editorial staff.
That is the way it should be if you want to claim to be a newspaper. If you want to claim to be free media, you ought to have editorial independence. If you want simply to be a spin doctor or an advertising person for different owners, you should declare that, but if you are going to be a newspaper, editorial independence is the cornerstone and what underwrites a free press.
Let us not misunderstand the importance that a genuinely free press has in our society. It is absolutely crucial to inform people so that they know what is going on, to do all those things Senator Brandis referred to about exposing difficulties, about informing the public about current affairs and different views within the community, and about views from this chamber itself. That is exactly what editorial independence, an independent charter, does in the free press. A system where people put their point of view and present it as news—that is not news and people ought not pretend it is. An important aspect of free media in this country is ensuring free speech. It is the cornerstone of editorial independence.
Were anyone to deliberately seek to breach the charter in the case of the Ageor the Sydney Morning Herald, that would lead to a crisis of confidence among the readership. If the readership deserts the papers, that will undermine the whole media industry and that would be a shame. It is of interest to the government and that is why we have undertaken the convergence review. It is why we undertook the Finkelstein inquiry and— (Time expired)
In this area it is always the 'but' that gets you. Every tyrant or every person who has tried to suppress what people may say, print or broadcast has always claimed to be in favour of freedom of speech. When they were censoring student newspapers at universities they said it was about freedom of speech but only for certain groups on campus. What we have here in Australia today is freedom of speech, not just of the press but freedom of speech and expression more generally, which is under more serious threat than at any time since Labor was last in office and they tried to ban political advertising. But the High Court drew a line under that and said: 'No. This parliament does not have the power to ban political advertising because that counts as expression and that is an implied right of freedom in our Constitution.' It is a ruling that I strongly support, because the greatest threat to freedom of speech has always been government.
The greatest threat to freedom of speech and freedom of expression has always been the power of the state. Just last year we had a columnist in Australia dragged through the courts for expressing an opinion. They were not found to have defamed someone, they were not found to have libelled someone but they were dragged through the courts for expressing an opinion that some people found offensive. I am quite proudly in the American school of free speech. The courts should take a minimalist view of every single law. There is no country on earth, no country in the history of humanity, where freedom of speech and expression has been as strongly guaranteed as in the United States.
Always the threat to freedom of expression comes from people in places like this. It comes from experts and people who think they have some right to determine what is the correct opinion and who are the correct people to express it. That the government on the other side here would tolerate the idea of the licensing of journalists, that it would unilaterally, automatically and immediately dismiss that whole idea, is offensive to the democratic history of this country. It is absolutely offensive. This is the idea that you would need a ticket from a body appointed by government, no matter at what arm's length, before you could write in a newspaper. Let us just put that into historical context: countries in the world that no longer exist had rules like that.
Where is the problem that freedom of expression has got to us in this country? In fact, I put it to you and to the people, Mr Deputy President, that the problem in this country has been a lack of freedom of expression. Our laws on defamation have protected people who could be exposed. Our laws on sedition have occasionally in the past, with things like D-notices, been too strict when we compare them to what has happened in the United States. Always we should be aiming to err on the side of freedom of expression, but that is not the approach of this government and their Greens allies. The approach of this government and their Greens allies is that there is a correct opinion to express and there is a correct form or way to express it. What we have seen is a proposal to regulate blog sites.
Senator Wong, maybe you are afraid of the fact that your religious crusade has been exposed by this very freedom of expression.
Senator Wong interjecting—
I point out, Mr Deputy President, that it is on this side of the chamber that people are free to express their opinions and to vote as their consciences see fit. It is on that side of the chamber, in the Labor Party, that expressing an individual opinion outside the caucus has since the day they were formed been forbidden. That binding caucus rule means that, no matter what opinions are expressed inside a now leaking Labor Party caucus, the people of Australia will never hear them in an official sense.
The internet is the equivalent of the modern day Gutenberg press. It has made the ability to write—to become an author, a publisher, a journalist or whatever you might want to describe yourself as—cheaper and more available than at any time in human history. Yet, from the Labor Party, from the government, we see proposals which, again, have not been immediately dismissed to somehow start regulating blog sites. How are we going to do this? Rather than have the contest of freedom of speech being out there in the public domain, we want to try to regulate what people do. It is not just legal action that suppresses freedom of speech; it is the threat of legal action. It is the threat of people being dragged through the courts. It is the threat of bloggers having regulators come down upon them. Freedom of speech is under more threat than it has been in this country for many years because of those opposite.
Question agreed to.