Coalition should have a ‘hands-off’ media policy
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.