Sydney: Australia's centre-left Labor government unveiled a shake-up of media laws Tuesday, introducing a public interest test for mergers but stopping short of press regulation as feared by the industry.
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said the reforms, drafted after an inquiry into Australia's media following the phone-hacking scandal in Britain, were aimed at modernising the industry and guarding fairness and diversity.
If passed into law, the changes would bring a public interest test to "nationally significant" mergers and acquisitions, which Conroy said was not the same as the "fit and proper person" test seen in Britain.
It would be monitored by a new statutory authority called the Public Interest Media Advocate, which would oversee a robust self-regulation model, the minister said, stressing that the government would have no role.
"The government will not fund or oversee press standards bodies, they will be run, funded and operated by the print media themselves," he said.Proprietors, most vocally Rupert Murdoch's dominant local arm News Limited, had feared official regulation of the press, but Conroy said the present model of self-regulation would continue, although it would be tightened.
Conroy added that the government would be seeking a "more transparent and open process" on appointments to regulatory bodies such as the current Press Council and better enforcement of existing press standards.
The Press Council could apply to be authorised under the new framework, but Conroy said it would be expected to be "transparent, open and independent" of proprietors, not just the government, to address community concerns.
"In Australia there is a real risk that over time there will be fewer and fewer organisations owning and controlling sources of news and commentary," Conroy told reporters."There are two existing mechanisms that address this risk: competition law and foreign ownership restrictions. But these alone do not reflect the full question of public interest in media diversity."
Conroy said the government would not barter on the legislation, which he believed had enough backing in parliament. Labor would abandon the push if the laws did not pass by the end of next week, he added.
News Limited condemned the moves, saying the advocate would be little more than a "Tsar beholden to the government" acting as its "gatekeeper"."Its highly interventionist, vague and unnecessary public interest test on media ownership is nothing more than a political interest test which governments will use to punish outlets they don't like," said News Limited CEO Kim Williams.
Williams said there was "more media diversity today than in all of human history" and the current broadcasting and competition watchdogs already had "extensive powers" to enforce it.
There is little love lost between Murdoch's Australian operators and the Labor government; Conroy has accused it of campaigning for "regime change" in favour of the conservative opposition.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard also said it had "questions to answer" after the phone-hacking scandal in Britain that resulted in the closure of Murdoch tabloid News of the World and triggered a wave of arrests.
News Limited controls 70 percent of Australia's newspapers.