An inquiry into the Australian print media will examine increasing regulation but will not go as far as breaking up the nation’s largest newspaper empire owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, a government minister said today.
The government today released the terms of reference of the inquiry promised after the New York-based media company closed its top-selling British tabloid News of the World in July over illegal phone hacking allegations. News Corp owns 70% of Australia’s newspapers through its subsidiary, News Ltd.
Many government politicians argue that News Ltd’s newspaper holdings are too large and are biased against the ruling centre-left Labour Party.
The inquiry, headed by a retired judge assisted by a journalism professor, will examine strengthening the independence and effectiveness of the print media’s self-regulatory watchdog, the Australian Press Council. It will also examine the effectiveness of media codes of practice and impacts of technological change.
But Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said the inquiry would not look at ownership concentration of the media or consider breaking up the Murdoch newspaper empire in Australia.
“In terms of a witch hunt to demand that we break up News Ltd or to attack News Ltd, I’m not interested,” he told reporters.
“I don’t need an inquiry to establish that the Murdoch press owns 70% of the newspapers in this country. I don’t need an inquiry to establish that some organs of the Murdoch press are clearly running a campaign against this government.”
Mr Conroy, who has accused New Ltd’s top-selling Sydney tabloid The Daily Telegraph of “running a campaign on regime change”, called the Australian Press Council a “toothless tiger” with inadequate complaint processes.
“The government believes that this inquiry will shed light on the real pressures facing media organisations today and enable us to consider what regulatory or legislative changes might be needed in order to ensure that Australia continues to benefit from strong independent and diverse media,” he said.
The inquiry was welcomed by Senator Bob Brown, leader of the minor Greens party which supports Labour’s minority government and a vocal critic of News Corp. Opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull dismissed it as a waste of money.
The inquiry, which covers online as well as printed news, will report next year. It complements an inquiry that began last year into regulating broadcast media as it converges with online media.
News Ltd chairman and chief executive John Hartigan described the inquiry as “a politically motivated compromise”.
“This inquiry started life as a witch hunt by the Greens and has morphed into a fairly narrow look at a mixed bag of issues ostensibly focussed on print journalism,” he said in a statement.
“For our part, we have strong editorial standards and we welcome public scrutiny of what we do. We will participate fully in this inquiry.”
There have been no allegations in Australia of the type of phone hacking that has led to at least 16 arrests in Britain. The News of the World stands accused of illegally hacking into the voicemails of celebrities, politicians and even a murder victim in search of scoops.