By MARK PEARSON
The oxymoron in the name of the proposed media reform legislation says it all: It is the “News Media (Self-regulation) Bill 2013”. (See here).
Here we have a piece of legislation proposing a statutory mechanism for the supervision of industry-based self-regulation of print and online news media.
That, dear readers, is “regulation”.
Just as it is troubling when proposed legislation purports to be what it is not, it is of even greater concern when a government moves to rush such laws through Parliament in just one week.
This blog is about media and social media law and regulation and their impact on free expression – not about politics.
But it is politics that has cruelled this whole media regulation review over the past 18 months.
The Independent Media Inquiry, chaired by former Federal Court justice Ray Finkelstein, was mired in politics when it was announced in late 2011 against the backdrop of both Labor and Greens stoushes with Murdoch titles.
And it seems to be politics that is now driving the desire to enact ‘something’ in the life of this government.
But that ‘something’ is problematic on a range of measures.
The basic ‘self-regulatory’ proposal is that a Public Interest Media Advocate be appointed with the power to declare bodies like the Australian Press Council to be a suitable ‘news media self-regulation body’.
If such bodies do not meet the government-appointed Advocate’s criteria, their member media outlets would be stripped of their current Privacy Act exemptions – leaving them exposed to potential privacy compensation orders and a bureaucratic reporting regime that would cripple their news operations.
At present, media organisations just have to be signed up to the Press Council or an equivalent body and be ‘publicly committed to observe’ its privacy standards.
If a media company falls foul of the self-regulator, refuses to join one, or joins one that does not meet the requirements, then the new Public Interest Media Advocate would have the power to strip them of their Privacy Act exemption under Section 7B(4) – leaving them obliged to follow all the privacy protocols associated with ‘obtaining, keeping and disclosing of personal information’ related to any of their stories and photographs.
This would leave the newspaper or online news company having to get every person in a group photograph to sign consent forms and to refrain from publishing sensitive personal information about people like their financial dealings, medical conditions, employment history and a host of other material commonly appearing in news stories.
They would also have to go to the expense of safely storing all the personal information they gathered for news reports and deal with requests from individuals who might want to withdraw their permission for them to retain that information about them.
There is no ‘public interest’ exemption to this requirement under the Privacy Act – other than formally seeking a ‘public interest determination’ from the Privacy Commissioner in a specific case.
Of course, there may be other protections for investigative reporters – perhaps the permission to publish details already released under the privacy provisions of Freedom of Information laws, and of course privileges extending to material tabled in court or Parliament.
There might also be an argument that the High Court’s implied freedom to communicate on matters of government and politics might apply to some private information in limited circumstances, although recent decisions from that court seem to render that freedom problematic and dependent on the views of individual judges.
There is a long principle ‘against prior restraint’ in our legal system – shackles by governments and courts to stop the news media before they have the opportunity to publish something.
The most famous example were the attempts in earlier centuries to license the printing presses – government measures opposed by famous statesmen and jurists like John Milton, John Stuart Mill and our own colony’s first Chief Justice, Sir Francis Forbes.
This proposal is for a system of de facto licensing because the statutory alternative to joining the self-regulatory regime would almost guarantee financial ruin for a newspaper company in this environment, when they are already facing huge challenges retaining readership and winning advertising in the Web 2.0 era.
The Privacy Act provisions would only apply to media companies earning more than $3 million per year – which is the threshold for corporations – and the proposed bill also offers a ‘small business’ exemption to its requirements.
This would potentially leave us with a two-speed news media – small operators, bloggers, citizen journalists and social media users sharing private information willy-nilly while larger news organisations falling outside the ‘self-regulatory’ regime are left to expend valuable time and resources filling out all that privacy paperwork.
Unlike other Western democracies, Australia has no written constitutional protection of free expression in the form of a Bill of Rights or a regional human rights document. The explanatory notes to the proposed laws go through the usual routine of giving a ‘Statement of Compatibility with Human Rights’, in accordance with Part 3 of the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act 2011.
But the imposition of the proposals on free expression is dispensed with in just three paragraphs excusing it because of its capacity for respecting the privacy and reputations of other citizens.
There is no doubt Australia’s media self-regulation can be improved, and there is even scope for some fine-tuning of media laws.
It is also evident that the Australian Press Council has markedly improved its systems and funding under the leadership of its chair, Professor Julian Disney.
There are already several hundred media laws in this country – enough to fill at least three major journalism textbooks in the field and several more in the specialist areas of torts, criminal law and intellectual property.
Even a tort of privacy invasion with a strong public interest exemption for journalism would be preferable to this proposal for a system of ‘death by a thousand consent forms’ for struggling news organisations who should have the right to be lone wolves and refuse to play the government’s game.
Call it what you like, but this Bill is not ‘self-regulation’.
© Mark Pearson 2013
Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.