Keeping Conroy out of bed with Rinehart

Mining magnate Gina Rinehart has many Australians worried about the future of Australian democracy after increasing her shareholding in Fairfax Media to just under 15 per cent. This, they believe, is just the beginning of her attempt to spoil the tradition of independent journalism we'[ve enjoyed as readers of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

Former Age editor Andrew Jaspan summarised his fears in the newsletter of the group of eight universities' topical ideas website The Conversation, which he now runs.

In a 1979 polemic called 'Wake up Australia', Gina's father, Lang Hancock argued: 'We can change the situation so as to limit the power of government', before concluding: 'it could be broken by obtaining control of the media and then educating the public'.

The obvious response to this is that the government can and should do more to limit the power of wealthy Australians seeking to dominate debate. This is being done, but only to an extent. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy admits there is a need to strengthen regulations to ensure media diversity, but is essentially quite relaxed about Rinehart's move on Fairfax.

'It has always been the case in Australia over my lifetime in politics that a small number of families have had a controlling interest in the majority of the media in this country,' he told ABC Radio.

Conroy has cultivated good relations with at least some of these families. Two years ago he enjoyed a game of golf with James Packer on the day the government announced a $250 million licence fee rebate for free-to-air television stations. The stations subsequently reaped further huge rewards from the success of the extra digital channels the government allowed them.

Despite the UK Government's current hard line against Murdoch, it is unlikely politicians will ever take decisive action to limit the power of the dominant media owners because their electoral success is linked to positive media coverage. i

If we accept that politicians cannot be trusted to regulate the media without fear or favour, we must consider taking certain fundamental aspects of media regulation out of the hands of government altogether. This could be done by making media diversity subject to a charter of human rights. 

Obviously we do not have a human rights charter, and are unlikely to have one in the immediate future because the Government rejected the recommendations of the Brennan committee in 2010.

But media diversity is indeed a human right, and the Government's weak performance in legislating in this area represents a powerful argument for Australians to insist upon revisiting the human rights charter that was proposed.