Who's afraid of Stephen Conroy?

Holes in Labor's media reform plan and Stephen Conroy's obvious dislike of some journalists shouldn't obscure the fact that Australia's media has misled the public in essential policy areas.

Judging this Labor government, as with any government, requires a steady focus on outcomes – the ultimate test of any public policy. And some of the outcomes are stinkers.

Refugee policy is probably top of the list, simply because of the gross human suffering it is causing. Labor points the finger back at the coalition for its belligerent blocking role on this issue, but that's not good enough. Labor has to take the blame for bungling the politics, if not every area of policy thinking, on this issue.

Public debt is another appalling outcome for Labor. It's not that the debt is large by global standards, so much as the fact that most of it simply didn't need to be accrued, and is increasingly hard to pay down.

The mining tax revenue disaster is another poor outcome – better design would have netted something for the federal budget bottom line, but the terms given to the big miners on asset depreciation make the whole exercise, from chaotic start to finish (when an Abbott government abolishes it), nothing more than a period of political noise that achieved nothing.

I'll stop there, as I'm not really concerned today with Labor's litany of errors.

Rather, the day after Communication Minister Stephen Conroy announced his government's response to the Finkelstein Review and the Convergence Review, my concern is to apply the same test to my own industry – journalism/media. It's outcomes that matter.

Many voices have been raised by journalists yesterday and today to the effect that Labor's reforms aren't needed. We're doing our job marvellously, it would seem, so why change? Malcolm Turnbull made this point in several interviews yesterday, asking during one media conference: "Should the government be setting, defining what press standards should be, what media standards should be?"

Turnbull knows full well the governments of all colours already do that –  for reasons Turnbull understands better than most – but there is easy political gain to be made from raising the question at every opportunity.

Ownership rules, which Conroy is refining in this package, are designed to prevent media-owners monopolising information to the detriment of democratic institutions.

Take, for instance, the infamous claim of the Sun newspaper in Britain in 1992, that "It's the Sun wot won it!" for the Major conservative government. That paper claimed that it's previous front-page splash, "If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights" had helped prevent the Labour Party's Neil Kinnock winning government.

That, in itself, is not a challenge to democracy. However, when too many papers, broadcasters or online publishers are owned and controlled by one board, democracy is on thin ice.

Beyond media ownership laws, journalists are constrained by the 'Official Secrets' section of the Crimes Act, as well as legislation and common law rulings on defamation, contempt of court and racial vilification.

Journalists operate under layers of regulation, and nobody is seriously calling for those defences of democracy to be weakened.

That's not to say there aren't holes in the package Conroy announced yesterday. Exempting online publication Crikey, for instance, because it has too few paying subscribers, overlooks the disproportionate influence it has in political circles. It might have only 15,000 subscribers (the figure Conroy used yesterday), but probably half of them are intimately involved in running the country – public servants, political staffers and pollies themselves.

Such failures of this legislation notwithstanding, the Conroy plans are far from an assault on press freedom, as so many commentators claim today.

And though in its heart of hearts Labor would love to silence its critics within the News Ltd stable (publisher of Business Spectator), that is not what the new ownership laws, or plans for industry self-regulation are about.

To be quite clear, Conroy would send many journalists from The Australian, The Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun to Siberia if he could, but as he can't he's worked up a mild set of media reforms that at least attempt to keep media diversity alive in Australia.

His plan to rush the package of three bills through parliament by the end of next week should not be defended – it's a politically driven move to get media regulation done and dusted well before the sharp end of the seven-month election campaign. Some are even suggesting that Conroy's "we won't be bartering" line is designed to make the reforms fail. If the cross benchers he needs to pass the bill block it, Conroy would have the luxury of shrugging his shoulders and saying "Hey, I tried. Now let's talk about something else."

But the truth is that media ownership laws, and self-regulation of press standards, do need refreshing for something like real democracy to continue to flourish in Australia.

Under the Conroy plan, the Australian Press Council (and a couple of other industry self-regulation bodies) will not be told what is acceptible to print and broadcast. However, whatever their members (media owners and journalists) think is acceptable to publish, will be enforced by the new Public Interest Media Advocate – the penalities and corrections the self-regulators decide upon will be enforced by the government (though Conroy didn't spell out the mechanism for doing this).

Conroy also promised to force media owners to commit to self-regulation by preventing companies that don't like individual rulings to suddenly withdraw their financial support for the body they have helped set up, and whose decisions they have helped make.

Conroy is effectively saying: "You want self-regulation? Well now you've got it."

And why do we journalists need it? Why can't we just '"write crap", as Julia Gillard put it? Why do we need to prevent monopolies of ownership and control getting too much of one message out into the community? As I said above, it's all about outcomes.

And some of the outcomes in recent history are stinkers.

The biggest stinker created by media coverage since the Gillard government was formed, is that most punters put the carbon tax at the very top of the list of their public policy concerns. A great many voters think it's wreaking havoc on the economy. As the WA election exit polls show, a majority of voters think it's to blame for the lion's share of power price increases. Journalists have allowed these fallacies to rule the news cycle for far too long.

And while the entire nation is fixated on carbon pricing and the 'lie' that created it, there is scant attention given to the really tough public policy problems.

How many Australians know that they are paying more in superannuation fees each year than they spend on electricity? Labor should be held to account for that, before the nation's front pages waste days, months and years screaming about a carbon tax cost of living hike that actually didn't happen – the CPI effect on pricing came in well below Treasury's forecasts.

How many voters know that Labor had ample opportunity in the last couple of budgets to explain to the nation that we don't need a good chunk of family tax benefits paid to wealthier families? Labor did not make the tough calls, but how would people know? Mostly, the front pages were full of carbon guff.

Who knows that super tax concessions are worth almost as much as the national defence budget and will soon far outstrip it, blowing out from $30 billion to $45 billion by 2016?

These are big issues. And they're just some of the stories that don't get a good enough run from journalists and our current pattern of media ownership.

In light of some shocking outcomes in my own industry, I'd say a few adjustments to the media landscape are not unwarranted. The fact that Stephen Conroy would string up so many journos if he could, should not be allowed to obscure that fact.

InvestSMART FORUM: Come and meet the team

We're loading up the van and going on tour from April to June, with events on the NSW central & north coast, the QLD mid-north coast and in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra. Come and meet the team and take home simple strategies that you can use to build an investment portfolio to weather any storm. Book your spot here.

Want access to our latest research and new buy ideas?

Start a free 15 day trial and gain access to our research, recommendations and market-beating model portfolios.

Sign up for free

Related Articles