Senate report calls for royal commission-like judicial inquiry into media diversity

A parliamentary inquiry into media diversity has backed former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s calls for a broader probe into the Australian media industry.

Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young speaks during a Senate inquiry at Parliament House in Canberra, Monday, September 06, 2021. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch) NO ARCHIVING

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young is chair of the committee. Source: AAP

Australia should set up a judicial inquiry with the powers of a royal commission to look into media diversity, ownership and regulation in the country, a Senate committee dominated by Labor and the Greens says.

But the deputy chair of the committee, Liberal Senator Andrew Bragg, said calls for such a judicial inquiry should not be taken seriously, describing it as a “shameless political stunt”.

The committee inquiry was set up following a mass petition by former prime minister Kevin Rudd, who has been critical of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp outlets, calling for a royal commission into Australian media. The petition garnered more than half a million signatures, making it the largest electronic petition in Australian history.

In its report released on Thursday, the inquiry recommended the establishment of a judicial inquiry, with the powers of the royal commission called for by Mr Rudd’s petition, into media diversity, ownership and regulation.

The report said such an inquiry would have broader powers than its parliamentary one.

“This kind of inquiry would have the power to compel witnesses to give evidence, and would have the capacity, resourcing and expertise to undertake a more thorough investigation than a Parliamentary committee is able to do,” it said.

“It would also be able to undertake broad consultation with all media players and other interested parties, at arms-length from government, to ensure its findings are independent, rigorous and based in the most solid evidence and analysis.”

Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young speaks to Sky News Australia CEO Paul Whittaker during a Senate inquiry at Parliament House in September 06, 2021.
Source: AAP

The inquiry focused on media outlets including News Corp, describing the outlet as "the clearest example of a troubling media monopoly in Australia". 

"Evidence submitted to the committee also shows a very high degree of public dissatisfaction with the concentration of media ownership in Australia, particularly the dominance of News Corp mastheads in print media, in broadcasting through Sky News, and in the subsequent re-sharing of content through the Google-owned YouTube and the Meta-owned Facebook," it said.

"These submissions were overwhelmingly critical of News Corp's influence on political and social issues, which were alleged to be partisan, biased, and skewed."

The report also called for a single platform-neutral news regulator which would have the power to oversee all platforms, including the digital giants.

It said this was needed because the current regulatory framework, governed by the Australian Press Council and the Australian Communications and Media Authority, was “insufficient and slow”.

“There was clear evidence that the self‑regulation model for print media through the Australian Press Council is woefully inadequate. Equally, the Australian Communication and Media Authority’s oversight of broadcast media is slow, complex, onerous for complainants and often inconclusive,” the report said.

“The committee believes that with the convergence of media platforms brought about by the internet, there is merit in the creation of a single regulator with powers across all platforms.”

Senator Bragg said he agreed with the committee that the Press Council, which receives funding from publisher members, was a “toothless tiger”, but said it should be allowed to reform through its members and adopt stronger self-regulation powers.

He blasted the “recklesss” recommendation for a judicial inquiry, saying it would undermine freedom of the press in Australia.

“The recommendations are aimed at one particular organisation which has a large exposure to newspapers,” he said.

“Assessing media concentration upon the ownership of newspapers in the digital age is a deeply embarrassing and totally inappropriate measurement.

“It would be like conducting an assessment on the prospects of Kodak film without considering digital cameras and iPhones.”

Published 9 December 2021 at 5:47pm
By Rashida Yosufzai