There’s been a lot of hype this week from News Ltd and the Coalition about the purported threat to a free press from Stephen Conroy’s plan to require the print and online media’s self-regulatory bodies to show they can self-regulate. Conroy has been compared to the vilest dictators in history for this outrage.

Well, if you want an example of a government imposing direct control on journalism, look no further than the Howard government’s 2006 media ownership laws.

In 2006, as part of the price for securing the support of the National Party to free up media ownership laws, Communications Minister Helen Coonan added amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act to the media ownership package affecting both regional television and radio news services. In the end, Barnaby Joyce was the only National to vote against the package; Ron Boswell was believed to be intending to do until a last-minute intervention by John Howard’s office that scared Boswell back into the fold. The package passed, with the vote of Steve Fielding, who entered the Senate to vote on the bills on a mobility scooter, because of an injured leg.

The regional media amendments were dictated by Queensland National Paul Neville, who had previously conducted an inquiry into regional radio issues, and who was considered to be the Coalition’s expert on local media content issues.

For regional television, ACMA was made to impose a licence condition on regional television broadcasters to broadcast “a minimum level of material of local significance” regardless of whether that material would be watched or was wanted by audiences.

For regional radio, ACMA was made to impose a licence condition on any radio licensee that changed ownership, containing a number of requirements:

  • to maintain an “existing level of local presence” relating to staffing levels, studios and production facilities;
  • to require at least 4.5 hours of local content
  • to require a minimum number of minutes of local news – 12.5 minutes a day; and
  • to lodge with ACMA a “local content plan” to explain how licensees would meet local content requirements.

Moreover, the Minister was given a power to direct ACMA about how it was to oversee all these requirements, and given an unrestricted power to direct ACMA to impose more conditions on licensees about local content.

The commercial radio industry was outraged about these additional requirements and powers, and long complained about them. In 2012, the current government passed legislation that removed the more onerous radio licensee local content requirements.

The impact of the amendments passed by the Howard government was to dictate to broadcasters what material they should broadcast, give the government-appointed regulator the power to directly dictate the nature of news material on threat of losing a licence, and to give the Minister power to directly dictate the same matters. Under these amendments, a communications minister had the power to tell ACMA to impose a licence condition on radio broadcasters requiring them to shape their news content in a particular way.

What did News Ltd, which claims to be the only media company in Australia genuinely concerned about free speech and the importance of a free press, say about the Howard government giving itself the power to dictate news content to radio broadcasters?

Well, News Ltd made a submission to the 3-week Senate inquiry into the legislation (that’s the inquiry that Stephen Conroy angrily complained was too short to be effective). News Ltd was opposed to the package, but only because it would allow television broadcasters to multichannel while keeping the same anti-competitive restraints on Foxtel in relation to sports, via anti-siphoning. Nowhere in its submission is the issue of a free press mentioned and there is no mention of radio at all in the submission.

It’s not as if this was an arcane issue that no one was aware of. The Commercial Radio Association in its submission expressed particular concern about the wide powers of the minister, and raised the possibility of ministers “punishing” broadcasters for issues other than their compliance with their licence conditions.

So, when the Howard government gave ACMA the power to dictate to television and radio broadcasters the kind of content they should be broadcasting, and gave itself the power to dictate to broadcasters what kind of news broadcasters should put to air, News Ltd was entirely uninterested and expressed no concern about free speech or a free press. And the Liberal Party cabinet and backbench waved through these draconian powers as the price of securing National Party support for other media law reforms.

When the Gillard government proposes that the newspaper industry’s existing self-regulatory model, which the industry claims is highly effective, be demonstrated to be so, without any direct role for government of any kind, it’s Stalinism and Stephen Conroy is compared to worst mass murderers of history by News Ltd, while the Coalition claims it’s the worst attack on a free press since WW2.

Go figure that one.

Bernard Keane worked in the Department of Communications from 2000-08 and worked on the 2006 media reform package.

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