Different rules not logical: Bob Brown submission to Media Inquiry

Submissions to the media inquiry closed this week. Senator Bob Brown’s submission was one of 16 received by the Inquiry. In it he comments on the difference between print and broadcast rules, saying: With the move of newspapers into the digital age it is not logical that broadcast proprietors must be licensed and subject to a suitability test when print proprietors are not.”  Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim, in his submission, contends that media should be subject to more stringent privacy controls and that the definitions in the Privacy Act do not cover the new trend of ‘citizen journalism.’


Pilgrim called on the federal government to give a better definition of the media in the Privacy Act and to introduce uniform standards. He says the act “does not currently apply to a news organisation if it publicly committed to observe privacy standards and was engaged in journalism at the time.”


In his submission from The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (previously the Privacy Commission), he says:  

The OAIC notes that the rise of web 2.0 technology such as blogs, podcasting and video services such as YouTube has made it possible for a much broader cross-section of society to research and disseminate news stories and opinion pieces, outside the context of employment in ‘media organisations’. This independent activity is sometimes referred to as ‘citizen journalism’.

The activities of ‘citizen journalists’ are potentially not currently addressed by the Privacy Act. In the context of so much activity by non-professionals, it has become more difficult to define ‘journalism’ for the purposes of regulation. The ALRC has recommended that the Privacy Act be amended to include a definition of journalism. 


Discussing the differing rules for print and broadcast media he says:

The OAIC notes that there are currently two models of media regulation operating in Australia. Print media are self-regulated while broadcast media are subject to a co-regulatory model in conjunction with the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). The existence of different regulatory models can result in inconsistency in the protections offered to personal information in different media contexts. Due to the increased web-presence of traditional ‘print’ media, the availability of television and radio broadcast materials online as podcasts and ‘catch-up’ viewing services,23 and other online initiatives of media organisations, the distinction between print and broadcast media is being eroded. In the context of this trend towards convergence, the OAIC suggests that any inconsistency in privacy protections in different media contexts is increasingly difficult to justify.


Greens Leader Bob Brown’s submission comments on criticism of him in the media, and justifies the Inquiry, saying:

The very call for this review of the media’s role, two decades since any previous review, was met with some extraordinary claims that proponents (this one included) are ‘totalitarian’ and Gestapo-like. A call to review the press was branded by the press as a call to destroy the press. If successful this biased self-advocacy would leave the media alone – unlike politics, business, culture, sport, education and civic progress – closed to the scrutiny of representative democracy.

This Inquiry begins trammelled by the fear that it has been branded in the newspapers as well as opinion columns as unwarranted or illegitimate before a submission is collected, a hearing held or a finding contemplated.

However, and perhaps all the more so, the Inquiry is important, not just for ensuring the national ethos of a fair go, but to see if the self-advocated ethics of the fourth estate are more than a relict of theoretical probity.

Brown’s submission champions ‘quality journalism’ across all media forms, print, radio, tv and online and deals with the inequality of restrictions on broadcast media but not print:

Television and radio broadcasters must be licensed and are regulated by a statutory authority, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). The Broadcasting Services Act imposes a ‘suitability test’. This means that the ACMA‚ must consider the suitability of a person or company to be a licensee having regard to whether or not there is a significant risk of an offence, breach of civil penalty provision, or breach of broadcasting licence condition occurring. ? Prior to the suitability test a broader fit and proper person test applied for broadcasting licences. With the move of newspapers into the digital age it is not logical that broadcast proprietors must be licensed and subject to a suitability test when print proprietors are not.

The concept of a fit and proper person is in a great deal of legislation that regulates the private use of a public resource or good. Should not a fit and proper person test for the people and corporations who control the flow of information, the currency of our democracy, be considered as an appropriate policy response to media regulation?  


In other submissions, the Australian Press Council used the process to lobby for more funding and support and to make a bid for coverage of online publications. The submission outlines changes the Press Council has recently made to strengthen its watchdog role.


A submission from academic Dr Johan Lidberg says:

For a number of decades the public’s trust in Australian journalists’ honesty and ethics has consistently ranked in the bottom third of the Roy Morgan ‘Image of Professions Survey’ that has been conducted since 1979 (Morgan, 2010). The survey does not provide the full picture, but it is a potent indicator.

It is peculiar that a profession, indeed an entire industry, that is dependent on public trust in its independence, integrity and ethical standards has not taken further steps to safeguard these standards and to win back lost trust. With the advent of new forms of “journalisms” it would seem that defending professional journalistic and editorial ethical standards are more important than ever.


Arguing that regulation can be used against broadcasters, Chris Berg, a Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs says:

The way similar provisions are used to encourage regulatory interference in radio and television is a further illustration of why the issues paper’s suggestions are objectionable.

The radio broadcaster’s code of practice claims to ensure that “reasonable efforts are made… to present significant viewpoints when dealing with controversial issues of public importance.” In March, the activist group GetUp lodged a formal complaint with the Australian Communications and Media Authority that the 2GB host Alan Jones had breached this code by failing to air a balanced perspective on the science of climate change. This followed an episode of ABC’s Media Watch program that alleged Jones and other broadcasters only interviewed a select group of scientists.4

The GetUp action demonstrates clearly how provisions designed to enforce balance can be used as a weapon in the political debate, rather than illuminating it. Climate change is one of the most important public issues of our time. If a parallel code – with legal backing – was introduced for the print media, it would invite such regulatory manipulation.


All the submissions are available at the link below.