Government charting wrong course on regulation

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Gina Rinehart must be scratching her head. After investing more than A$88 million to gain just under 20 percent of Fairfax Media, both the board and journalists are waving a 20-year-old bit of paper in front of her to endorse before she takes a board seat.

According to its supporters, the document is the Holy Grail of press freedom – the company’s charter of editorial independence.

From the perspective of an editor who rejected a similar charter in the tenuous early years of the Sunday Herald Sun, I can say it is nothing of the sort. It is a document that can fetter editors from properly doing their job and neuter the board from having any real input into the direction of the company’s core business.

It gives staff the right to essentially dictate to the company the editorial policy of its mastheads – with no accountability for the outcome. This is policy that must be set by the board, which has a responsibility to act in the best interests of both the product and shareholders.

In recent weeks, even former Fairfax chairman Ron Walker has questioned whether the charter – born out of a takeover bid for Fairfax last century by the late British newspaper publisher Robert Maxwell – held any relevance for current directors. Drawn up by Sir Zelman Cowen when he was chairman of the company, the charter is not signed by board members. It is regarded as a code of practice to which directors are expected to agree – so any legal binding is dubious.

However the most disconcerting aspect surrounding the Fairfax charter is that politicians – including ministers – are using Ms Rinehart’s refusal to abide by its terms to renew a push towards draconian legislation that ushers in more government control of the media.

Labor backbencher John Murphy says he will support any inquiry into a Rinehart bid for Fairfax control, a move also supported by the Left.

“The Government has no role in the boardroom, nor in limiting the power of directors”.

The Greens have left open an option of support for a Leveson-style parliamentary inquiry and have foreshadowed a private member’s bill for a public interest ownership test would that would curtail any influence Ms Rinehart could exert as a board member.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy supports a public interest test, adding that “the Government is considering the recommendations of the convergence review, and I would hope that the public interest test would work its way through that process”.

Mr Conroy also demanded that Ms Rinehart support the charter, as has Treasurer Wayne Swan, who lifted the level of hyperbole to extraordinary levels, on little or no evidence.

“No one has so publicly and blatantly said they intend to impose their commercial imperatives on the essential role of journalists when they are trying to report in a fair and balanced way,” Mr Swan said. “I think that has very big implications for our democracy.”

The hypocrisy was lost on both Mr Swan and Mr Conroy. Here we have ministers wanting to assert government controls on publishers to reaffirm the independence and freedom of the press. Even George Orwell could not have come up with a clearer example of political “doublethink”.

If the Government has concerns for our democracy, it could start by upholding democratic principles itself. The Government has no role in the boardroom, nor in limiting the power of directors to act in the best interests of shareholders. It also has no role in determining who can, and cannot, own media assets.

Equally as important, it has no role in the newsroom through the presence of a government-funded media regulator.

Ian Moore was the founding editor of the Sunday Herald Sun and a former editor of The Sunday Telegraph

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