Reporters Without Borders is concerned at the possibility that too much power will be given to the Australian Press Council, a regulatory body that monitors conduct and responsibility in the print media.
On 14 September, the minister for broadband, communications and the digital economy, Stephen Conroy, announced an independent enquiry into the print media that will look at the effectiveness of current codes of practices, ways to enhance media diversity, and “ways of substantially strengthening” the Press Council’s effectiveness.
“Given the current tension between the Australian government and the press, which is very critical of this government, it is legitimate to wonder whether this inquiry into the print media is politically motivated,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We understand why the authorities would want to adapt the regulatory bodies to the new realities in the media sector, marked by the emergence of new technologies. But there is no need to reinforce control of the press. This council should not become a censor.
“The government must also ensure that the Press Council, which until now has been funded by the media, is completely independent. Government funding of the council, as the council’s new chairman, Julian Disney, has proposed, would cause a conflict of interest that would threaten media freedom.”
The announcement of the enquiry follows the phone-hacking scandal in Britain involving the News of the World tabloid, owned by Australian-born Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Murdoch’s company controls 70 per cent of Australia’s newspapers, some of which are extremely critical of the government. This initiative therefore gives the impression that the government wants to rein in these overly critical media.
The enquiry is to be chaired by a retired federal judge, Ray Finkelstein, assisted by Matthew Ricketson, a professor of journalism at the University of Canberra and by a former journalist. They have been told to deliver their report to the government by the end of February.
It will complement a parallel inquiry into the convergence of broadcast and Internet media, and how this should affect their regulation, which was launched last year and which is supposed to deliver its report by the end of March.