Canberra denies media probe a Murdoch 'witch-hunt'

14th September 2011, Comments 0 comments

Australia denied Wednesday that an independent inquiry into the nation's print media, which could see tougher regulation and penalties for newspapers, was a "witch-hunt" against the Murdoch press.

To be chaired by retired Federal Court judge Ray Finkelstein, the probe will examine the diversity and effectiveness of Australia's highly-concentrated newspaper industry.

In particular, it will look at ways to strengthen the powers of the nation's newspaper watchdog, the Press Council, and "enhance remedies" for breaches of its rules.

The government also left open the possibility of bringing print media under a statutory authority to police its conduct, flagging possible "regulatory or legislative changes", despite earlier ruling out press regulation.

The ruling Labor party's relationship with News Limited, the Australian arm of Rupert Murdoch's operations, is strained, with Communications Minister Stephen Conroy previously accusing it of having a "regime change" agenda.

Murdoch controls 70 percent of Australia's newspapers, has a stake in broadcasters Sky News and Fox Sports, and is angling to run the Australia Network, the international public TV channel.

But Conroy stopped short of asking Finkelstein to examine media ownership, which was identified as a critical issue by the powerful Greens party, a key partner in the government's coalition rule.

Despite a stinging attack in which he accused "some organs" of News Limited of "running a campaign against this government", Conroy denied the inquiry was a "witch-hunt" against Murdoch's firm.

"In terms of a witch-hunt to demand that we break up News Limited, the fact is we are not interested," he said.

Prompted by the phone-hacking scandal in Britain which saw Australian-born Murdoch close his best-selling tabloid News of the World, the inquiry will have no powers to subpoena witnesses or call evidence.

It will have to provide a preliminary report to government by February 2012 and will complement a probe into broadcast media convergence, which was launched last year.

Conroy said the Press Council, an independent body with limited powers of redress for complainants, was a "fairly toothless tiger".

Increasing its powers would ensure the press was more accountable, he added, denying the government was seeking to "reduce necessary scrutiny of the political process".

"The media expect an enormous amount of accountability across the political world, the business world, the broader sporting world," Conroy told reporters.

"It's only fair... that the community's able to, through the Press Council, hold accountable what they consider to be egregious reporting."

Press Council chair Julian Disney welcomed the review but warned greater resources and stronger legislation would be needed to boost the body's effectiveness.

Many of the current "problems", including accusations of bias from the government, would be addressed by a new "systemic monitoring of compliance" scheme being developed by the Council, he added.

"Our principles are pretty good but one of the main weaknesses has been in getting them across to the public and the media and really enforcing them vigorously," Disney told ABC television.

The conservative opposition dismissed the inquiry as an attack on press freedom.

"This is just a political stunt by a government that is bitter about being criticised by the media, in particular by News Limited," said opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull.

© 2011 AFP

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