Coali­tion should have a ‘hands-off’ me­dia pol­icy

The Bulletin - - Opinion - MAL­COLM COL­LESS Mal­colm Col­less is a for­mer se­nior ex­ec­u­tive at News Ltd. face­­colm.col­less

FREE­DOM of speech, cen­sor­ship and var­i­ous other is­sues af­fect­ing the me­dia did not fea­ture dur­ing the re­cent Fed­eral elec­tion cam­paign.

This is not sur­pris­ing as politi­cians re­gard them as well down their vote catch­ing pri­or­ity list. They might be right, but this does not make them any less im­por­tant to so­ci­ety at large and to the me­dia in­dus­try in par­tic­u­lar.

Me­dia cen­sor­ship of one kind or another is never very far away from the in­dus­try no mat­ter which po­lit­i­cal party is in power. For ex­am­ple, the me­dia fought an in­tense bat­tle for many years to get a greater de­gree of free­dom of speech into the defama­tion laws which have tra­di­tion­ally been weighted in favour of politi­cians. Some im­prove­ments were achieved dur­ing the life of the con­ser­va­tive Howard Gov­ern­ment, but th­ese gains did not come eas­ily.

The for­mer fed­eral La­bor gov­ern­ment made sev­eral at­tempts to tighten its con­trol of the me­dia and cen­sor the flow of pub­lic in­for­ma­tion. It tried re­peat­edly to in­tro­duce online cen­sor­ship through the manda­tory use of in­ter­net fil­ter­ing, ar­gu­ing that this could be jus­ti­fied in the bat­tle against child pornog­ra­phy.

La­bor’s Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Min­is­ter, Se­na­tor Stephen Con­roy, fi­nally gave up in the face of sus­tained ob­jec­tions from the in­ter­net in­dus­try that this could be used for wider gov­ern­ment cen­sor­ship – but it did not end there.

La­bor used the UK phone hack­ing scan­dal as an ex­cuse to launch an in­quiry into the need for greater gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tion into me­dia con­trol in Aus­tralia de­spite clear ev­i­dence that this could not be jus­ti­fied on the ba­sis of the UK ex­pe­ri­ence.

Mean­while it con­tin­ued on its merry way build­ing (ever so slowly) a gov­ern­ment-owned in­for­ma­tion su­per­high­way to re­place the ex­ist­ing pri­vately owned Tel­stra cop­per net­work. The end re­sult of this pol­icy would be to es­tab­lish the La­bor gov­ern­ment as the coun­try’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions gate­keeper.

The Ab­bott Gov­ern­ment, through its Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull, lost no time at­tack­ing what it saw as se­ri­ous mis­han­dling of the roll­out of this Na­tional Broad­band Net­work. Yet it needs to ad­dress the sin­is­ter in­for­ma­tion con­trol im­pli­ca­tions in this com­mu­ni­ca­tions strat­egy.

In the im­me­di­ate wake of the elec­tion, the new gov­ern­ment im­posed a seven-day black out on the re­lease of in­for­ma­tion about il­le­gal boats ar­rivals in Aus­tralia. Now, while there may be good rea­sons for this it does not send any sort of sig­nal that the Coali­tion is sym­pa­thetic to greater free­dom of speech.

This par­tic­u­lar is­sue will, al­most cer­tainly, blow over, but Turn­bull and Prime Min­is­ter, Tony Ab­bott (both for­mer jour­nal­ists) need to make it clear sooner rather than later that their gov­ern­ment is hands-off on mat­ters of me­dia con­trol.

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