Media reform: has Conroy got it right?

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THE fanatical response of News Limited to the Gillard Government’s media reforms suggests that Communications Minister Stephen Conroy may have come some way to getting the balance between freedom and regulation right.

Stephen Conroy
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy

The reforms represent a strike by an elected government attempting to mitigate against the dominant force and control of vested interests in influencing the population. Dominance is a greater threat to liberty than a poorly regulated media.

There is a power struggle internationally between extraordinarily narrow media control such as the Murdoch empire and elected governments. It is not so long ago that a squirming Rupert Murdoch appeared before a British Parliamentary Committee apologising for the abuse of power by his UK papers.

The conflict lies between a small number of powerful players and elected governments rather than a struggle that involves all forms of the media.

Right now this same struggle is being repeated in Britain and other places. The Murdoch papers, as exemplified by the Sydney “Daily Telegraph”, have been running story after story against reform – arguing that a free media is fundamental to democracy.

The most effective lies carry a substantial amount of truth. In the past the curtailment of free media has been associated with dictatorships and theocracies. The rampant bias of a concentrated stable of media outlets owned by News Limited has really highlighted the changing role of this type of media. As the concentration of ownership has increased, so too has the misuse of the power.

On the surface, Senator Conroy’s reforms are largely about arm’s length checks and balances, focusing primarily on the main media corporations – dealing with such issues as control and media ownership, complaints mechanisms with teeth and an independent regulator. Of course, these reforms should be reviewed carefully by the Senate Committee to ensure that they meet the intended goals and do not move too far into interfering more broadly with freedom of expression.

However, the fundamental issue is about domination and ethical standards. The question that the Senate Committee should be wrestling with is who should be the dominant controlling force regarding media? When it draws the conclusion it is inconsistent with democratic principles for anyone to have such controls as it undermines freedom of thought and expressions, then it needs to ask if the package put forward by Senator Conroy does the job.

The good news for those who value freedom and democracy is that although concentration of media has grown, the major metropolitan newspapers are losing their prominent position in society – although their residual influence cannot be underestimated. And the combination of related control over newspapers, television and radio still remains a considerable threat.

Some of the answer lies in the growth of social media. Messages through blogs, Facebook and Twitter are gaining in influence. Alternative ideas are floated, considered and debated in these forums. However, they still do not have the level of influence that a narrow control of mainstream media provides.

Propaganda is about domination of the media. It is bad enough when an elected government controls the propaganda. It is so much worse when the dominant force is extraordinarily wealthy, unelected individuals who use their media ownership to further their own interests.

Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health.

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Michael Moore
Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health in the Carnell government. He has been a political columnist with "CityNews" since 2006.

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