The Australian media could be subject to a single regulator with tougher powers to seek redress over reader and viewer complaints, under proposed changes to be considered by the first major inquiry into the sector in two decades.
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy on Wednesday announced the independent inquiry would be headed by former Federal Court judge Ray Finkelstein and assisted by journalism academic Dr Matthew Ricketson.
The inquiry came out of talks between Labor and the Greens, sparked by recent Labor and Greens MP concerns about the blurring of news and opinion in local political coverage and the News of the World phone hacking scandal in the UK involving News Corp publications.
Opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull immediately dismissed the inquiry as a “stunt” and an attack on the freedom of the press.
Currently, the electronic media is regulated by a statutory body, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) and the print media is covered by an independent industry-funded body, the Australian Press Council (APC).
Senator Conroy said the APC was widely seen as a “toothless tiger” and less relevant in a world of 24-hour news cycles and converging media platforms. “I don’t think any editor and any of you quake in your boots about a complaint to the Press Council,” Senator Conroy told reporters in Canberra.
He said the idea of a single regulator – overseeing complaints about all media from print to television and the internet – was “a legitimate question in the converged world”.
Greens leader Bob Brown said the inquiry would be a good complement to the current government inquiry into media convergence, headed by former IBM managing director Glen Boreham.
While he did not think media barons should be forced to divest their interests, he hoped the inquiry would find other ways to improve the number of voices in the Australian media and improve quality.
Senator Brown also questioned whether the APC was serving the public interest and flagged his support for a single regulator.
“Surely that seems to be one good option that inquiry might assess,” he said. Australian Associated Press CEO Bruce Davidson said it was vital the print media remained independent and free from any regulation that would impede its role in a democratic society.
“The moment you start contemplating government regulation into the activities of the press, you run the risk of some form of control on the press,” Mr Davidson said.
“I trust that this inquiry would rightly reject such a notion, and AAP certainly will be pressing that point in any submission to the inquiry.”
The inquiry will also look at the effectiveness of media codes of practice and the impact of technological change on the media business model.
But Mr Turnbull said the inquiry had come about only at the insistence of the Greens and that all of the four terms of reference could easily have been covered by the convergence review.
“This is just a political stunt by a government that is bitter about being criticised by the media, in particular by News Limited,” Mr Turnbull said.
Australians should be suspicious of more regulation placed on the media, he said. “You cannot have a democracy, even a democracy as lively as Australia without a free media,” he added.
“The freedom that you exercise here (in Parliament House), while it may annoy us, it may upset politicians, certainly annoyed me over the years, it is as important a part of our democracy as anything that goes on in the House of Representatives and the Senate.”
Senator Conroy said the government was interested in fostering a “healthy and robust media”.
The inquiry will report to the government by February 28, 2012.