CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Stricken Labor picks fight with media in election year
, March 30, 2013
The Gillard Government’s sudden and kamikaze-like attempt to rein in the print media is in part borne out of long-running frustration at its failure to control the media in the way it would like.
As the death throes of the government are now apparent to all but the most starry-eyed Labor MP, Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy has decided to embark on a mini-crusade to bring the media to heel.
It is a far cry from the original demands made by sections of the Labor Caucus, angry as they are at the perceived mistreatment the government has received from sections of the media, namely but not exclusively News Limited publications.
In truth, however, the Rudd and Gillard’s “media management” has been woeful and symptomatic of its chaotic decision-making. Labor’s poor standing in the polls has been predominantly due to its ineptitude in office rather than to any alleged bias of the media.
For one thing, both the Rudd and Gillard governments have fallen for relying on the advice of a group of young staffer refugees from former failed Labor state governments, who prided themselves on being able to control local media and being adept at the art of releasing and then rehashing announcements.
Under their media strategies, new state road and hospital funding initiatives were often rolled out multiple times to an initially gullible public, but with less and less impact over time.
But the more unwieldy Canberra Press Gallery’s cohort of senior reporters, while not ideologically unsympathetic to Labor and the Greens, did not succumb to such tricks and simplistic media management.
Labor has also grown paranoid about certain individual media personalities, their commentary and the large audiences they reach, including individuals such as Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones, and would love nothing better than to shut them down. In the case of Jones, powers to curb commentary on television and radio are already in place, while print commentators remain free.
To compound the situation, Labor scored an own goal with News Limited (part owner of Sky News) through its decision to ignore multiple layers of advice and award the contract renewal of Australia Network (formerly ABC Asia Pacific) to the ABC rather than to Sky.
But the chief reason Labor has been on the nose with the media is because of its broken promises, such as the carbon tax and failure to secure a single balanced budget in five years of the most prosperous times in decades.
Julia Gillard seized on the scandals caused by British tabloids to start her own inquisition into the Australian media without any evidence to suggest that similar practices were occurring in Australia.
Two inquiries into the Australian media were launched, one by Ray Finkelstein QC into media regulation, and a second on the digital economy.
Under the Conroy proposals, for the first time an Australian government would have the power to regulate the print media, including content, and for the first time there would be a test as to who is and who is not a fit and proper person to own a media organisation.
The government argues that its measures give the Press Council (funded by the media companies) more teeth and security and put an additional layer of safeguards beyond those provided by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) into who should be able to own a media company.
It argued that its legislation was designed to enhance media standards and media diversity.
To compound matters, the Conroy proposals were rushed through Cabinet without the presence of ministers such as Senator Bob Carr, a former journalist, and then given to the Parliament as a fait accompli with just one week and four days to pass or reject.
Kerry Stokes, boss of the Seven Network, summed up the bizarre actions by the government like this: “I can only recall legislation being pushed in haste in the wake of 9/11.
“The simple question I ask is in our instance what have we done to warrant such an intrusion into our company?”
Most commentators could divine no sense in the government’s deciding to take on Australia’s major media organisations in an election year.
All that seems to have occurred is that the government has succeeded in uniting every major news organisation against itself. Some individual journalists and academics are supportive, not necessarily in barracking for the Gillard Government, but in the sense that they believe governments must somehow know best.
Unfortunately, the Gillard Government has such a poor record in policy implementation and delivery that something as fundamental as freedom of expression cannot be rammed through the Parliament on a whim.