SOPHIE McNEILL: It’s an election year and the Government has picked a fight with the loudest voice in the country – the media. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy wants to appoint a public interest officer to make sure that the media behaves itself. He says the current system of self-regulation just isn’t working and news organisations can just ignore rulings that they don’t agree with but he’s not having much luck getting the Independents and other parties to agree to his laws which he says he wants passed by this Thursday.
SOPHIE McNEILL: Now, joining me in the Hack studio tonight is Matt Thistlethwaite. He’s a Senator from New South Wales and he’s the Chair of the Joint Select Committee for [on] Broadcasting Legislation. How’s it going, Matt?
MATT THISTLETHWAITE: G’day, Sophie, good to talk with you.
SOPHIE McNEILL: Thanks for joining us. Now, Matt, how would the appointment of this Public Interest Media Advocate… how would that hold the media to account?
MATT THISTLETHWAITE: Well, look, as a result of a number of inquiries over recent years, there’s been a lot of evidence presented to the Convergence Review, to the Finkelstein inquiry, about press standards and there’s also been a lot of misinformation about this Public Interest Media Advocate. The first role of the Public Interest Media Advocate will be to scrutinise merger and acquisition transactions, to make sure that there’s a diversity of voices and that there’s not a concentration of the media, but the second role will be to accredit the self-regulatory bodies – the Press Councils, ACMA [Australian Communications and Media Authority] and the like – to ensure that they’re observing community standards in the way that they deal with particularly the complaints from the general public and that’s something that came out in these two inquiries and that’s why the Government’s acting on that.
SOPHIE McNEILL: But, Matt, if the Government chooses this person, this new Public Interest Media Advocate, doesn’t that give you too much power? Aren’t you going to choose someone in, you know… sees the world in the way you see it?
MATT THISTLETHWAITE: No, not at all. In fact, if you look at the UK legislation, it’s actually the Minister, the Communications Minister in their democracy, that has this role, so we’re taking it a step removed from that and saying that we’ll appoint an independent person, someone that has expertise in dealing with the media environment in Australia, to oversee this particular role and they’ll be independent, just as judges are independent, the ASIC [Australian Securities and Investments Commission] Chairman is independent, the ACCC [Australian Competition and Consumer Commission] Chairman is independent. They have to be appointed by someone and the Communications Minister is the best person to make that appointment.
SOPHIE McNEILL: I’m going to go to Coalition Senator Simon Birmingham, who we have on the line here. Hi, Simon, thanks for joining us.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: G’day, Sophie, a pleasure.
SOPHIE McNEILL: Now, I want to give you a chance to respond to Matt Thistlethwaite, who we have in the studio here, because you don’t think it’s a good idea to have this Public Interest Media Advocate. Why not, if they’re going to, you know, stand up for the public and make sure that the media doesn’t abuse them or invade their privacy?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Sophie, look, a few reasons and, firstly, I just don’t think that the Government has made the case as to why we need this – what exactly is the problem that they are trying to fix here? – and one of the reasons why I don’t think there’s a problem to fix is that we’ve got greater opportunity for people to have their say than ever before. Whether it is in terms of bloggers, microblogging like Twitter or other opportunities for people to get their voices heard, we’re seeing more and more competition, especially through online sources, with the media than’s ever happened previously… greater opportunity for people to criticise the media as well… and we’ve seen, in the case of things like the campaigns against certain radio stations last year, that consumer power, media campaigns, especially social media campaigns, have far more power than some plodding-along bureaucrat and regulator does.
SOPHIE McNEILL: But do you concede, Simon, that the [Australian] Press Council, as it is now, is pretty much widely regarded as a bit of a toothless tiger – corrections are buried, there’s no real power behind its findings… do you agree that that council needs more teeth?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Sophie, this is one of the internal inconsistencies in the Government’s argument. Senator Conroy says that these changes won’t change the operation of the Press Council at all, so he’s trying to say this is completely minimalist and won’t change the operation of the Press Council. Now, if you look at the detail of his legislation, that’s not true and you can’t possibly give that commitment and what it actually does is sets up a single arbiter – one person – who will be able to basically say, of their own volition, whether the Press Council is meeting community standards – they get to choose whatever those community standards are… whether the Press Council is operating in a fair and balanced way – they get to decide what fairness is… I mean, these are sweeping powers that are being given to basically determine how the print media should operate and…
SOPHIE McNEILL: Well, let’s go back to Matt Thistlethwaite from the Government…
SOPHIE McNEILL: Well, Coalition Senator Simon Birmingham, who we did have… he has had to go…