Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has declared his support for a public interest test for media ownership, as prominent Labor caucus members John Murphy and Doug Cameron say they will support a parliamentary inquiry into ownership.
Concerns over the possible influence of Ms Rinehart on the editorial direction of Fairfax publications as a board member has led the Australian Greens to attempt to force the government’s hand by proposing a private member’s bill.
The bill would result in media companies having to meet a “public interest test” before changing ownership.
The proposed test would take into consideration the effect on diversity of ownership, the likely impact on editorial independence, the free expression of opinion, and the fair and accurate presentation of news.
Last month, News Limited secured a takeover of Australian Independent Business Media and bid for Consolidated Media Holdings which would increase the publisher’s stake to 50 percent of Foxtel and 100 percent of Fox Sports.
Ms Rinehart, Australia’s richest person and Fairfax’s largest shareholder, also increased her stake in Fairfax Media to almost 19 percent.
Greens leader Christine Milne said that if Australians were to benefit from a flourishing, independent, diverse media landscape “we have an obligation to start acting to protect that landscape”.
“This public interest test for changes in media control is a sensible place to start,” she said.
The test would be enforced by the current regulator – the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Any decisions by the authority could be appealed in court.
The Government is currently considering the recommendations made to it by the two media inquiries – Finkelstein and Convergence – including a public interest test.
Newspaper publishers stridently oppose many of the reviews’ recommendations.
News Limited chief executive Kim Williams described the Finkelstein report’s proposals for a new system of media ownership rules as “remarkably superficial, at times quite trivial, and [an] entirely poorly argued piece of work”.
“If the government were to take some kind of action to promote regulatory intervention in print technology at this stage in print’s lifecycle, it would be a deliberate act of sabotage of free speech, quite frankly.
“This test is unnecessary given the extensive pro-competition powers of the ACCC [Australian Competition and Consumer Commission]. It is exceedingly vague and imprecise, will increase business uncertainty and will be subject to political interference.
“Under these recommendations Australia would move away from clear and precise media ownership and competition rules to a highly subjective test, determined by a government appointed regulator from time to time, subject to political interference.”
Some in parliament agree. Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull said such a test “would in effect mean the politicisation of decisions involving changes of control”. Mr Conroy remains unswayed.
“I’ve been a strong supporter of public interest tests, and the government is considering the recommendations of the Convergence review, and I would hope that the public interest test would work its way through that process,” he said.
“What you will see is that we will bring forward a package in the relatively near future that deals with some of the issues around the public interest test, some of the issues around the Finkelstein and Convergence review reports.”
Many in the Labor caucus have also publicly criticised Ms Rinehart’s refusal to sign Fairfax’s charter of editorial independence.
Treasurer Wayne Swan said: “No one has so publicly and blatantly said they intend to impose their commercial imperatives on the essential role of journalists when they are trying to report in a fair and balanced way.”
Mr Conroy has also been critical of Ms Rinehart for being “only interested in influencing the editorial content of Fairfax”.
Foreign Minister Bob Carr said Australians should be very concerned about Ms Rinehart’s launching a takeover bid for Fairfax.
“It would be impossible to separate her position as a controlling influence on the board. . . from the way the paper behaves.”
Government backbencher John Murphy says he will support an inquiry into any bid to control Fairfax by Ms Rinehart unless she supported a charter of independence and could give an acceptable vision for the future of the group.
The Greens have also not ruled out support for a Leveson-style inquiry into the future of Australia’s media following the restructures. A spokesman for Ms Milne said the party was “keeping all avenues open”.