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D-day looms for Gillard in her fight with the media barons

Date

As tabloid TV stoops lower still, Labor is being urged to take on the press.

A FORMER sex worker in a blonde wig versus the executive producer of a tabloid television current affairs show. Now that's some ''she said, he said'' journalism for you. Pick your rogue; who do you believe?

It seemed impossible, but the strange tale of federal Labor MP Craig Thomson and his credit card has actually become stranger. The Nine Network found itself drawn into a debate about media standards after the lady in the wig raced off to the rival Seven Network to recant a sworn statement that she'd slept with Thomson, and he'd settled the bill by credit card.

The government wants to keep the national conversation on its cash handouts and the economy. Picking a fight with media barons would, as they say in the political backrooms, change the conversation. 

Channel Nine broadcast her supposition anyway, even though in her mind, she'd already run a mile from it (almost to New Zealand, where she'd discovered on reflection she'd actually been at the time of the alleged encounter).

Unsurprisingly, the network had to defend its decision to ignore the minor inconvenience of her retraction. The Nine defence was this: the woman had actually stood by her identification of Thomson in a conversation with reporter Justin Armsden. She'd just finally twigged the man she was identifying was that Craig Thomson - the chap who people say might bring down the Gillard government. There might just be consequences in positively identifying that Craig Thomson.

She recanted in a ''mad panic'', said A Current Affair executive producer Grant Williams. He said she'd rung them during Thomson's statement to Parliament. You could hear the MP talking in the background.

And for the record, they had not broadcast her on-camera interview. They had handed material over to police. They had never said the lady in the wig was the prostitute they alleged slept with Thomson in May 2005; in fact they were aware of allegations that there was another party involved.

This was an episode of tabloid TV Underbelly - an outbreak of prime time, bitch-slapping madness. A manifestation of the vicious competition for ratings between A Current Affair and Today Tonight.

And regardless of who was telling the truth about who said what to whom when, and of the merits of journalists continuing to investigate Thomson and his activities, the low-rent imbroglio became a neat case study for folks feeling the media in Australia is all power and swagger and no responsibility.

Which inevitably raised the question (as Bob Brown also did, when the former Greens leader said farewell to politics at the National Press Club last week): where is that Finkelstein review of our media?

In March, Ray Finkelstein, QC, recommended much tougher regulation for the print media. His contentious blueprint has not been sighted since, apart from generating a great deal of thunder in The Australian about the venality of any future curbs on press freedom - serving as a warning to the Gillard government in 40-point bold type. Back off, busters; take us on at your peril.

Word is that media policy is coming up for cabinet consideration over the next little while.

The official conversation is yet to be had, but the government appears to have mixed feelings about whether to accept Finkelstein's recommendations.

The government must also decide whether it wants all media, television, print and online, to be policed by a single regulator. A no-brainer, right? Nope, that's deeply contentious in the industry, where newspapers have had self-regulation.

Newspaper publishers are adamantly opposed to the central Finkelstein recommendation of a government-funded News Media Council. Some in Labor point to the watchful presence in the Prime Minister's office of former Fairfax executive Bruce Wolpe, who now tends Julia Gillard's relations with business. Word is Wolpe is backing the publishers, counselling Gillard to be cautious.

The Australian Press Council now has an activist chairman, Julian Disney, who takes standards and ethics seriously. Question is, is Disney proactive enough to convince Communications Minister Stephen Conroy to stick with an enhanced Press Council model for newspapers?

Some Labor backbenchers want more forceful change. Joel Fitzgibbon and Steve Gibbons used the tabloid television episode to urge the government to push on. ''Those of us with a strong interest in these matters will actively and aggressively push,'' Fitzgibbon said.

But pushing ahead with significant media reform has the potential to strand the government between political pragmatism and what some would regard as sound policy principle (those who regard this industry as lazy, lax, complacent, self-referential, over-opinionated and deserving of a good hard kick in the pants).

The government wants to keep the national conversation on its cash handouts and the economy. It's fully intent on its empathy offensive about cost-of-living pressures. Picking a fight with media barons would, as they say in the political backrooms, change the conversation.

It's a conundrum this, because the public would probably be on board with tougher media standards. If the feedback I get about our deficiencies is any indicator, the public would think - regardless of the merits of our industry's legitimate ''free expression'' rebuttal - that we had it coming.

Problem is, the media will tell the public what the government is doing on media regulation. It's an unavoidable filter - and one that has inspired governments throughout history to tread gently.

Katharine Murphy is national affairs correspondent.

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172 comments

  • Censorship by stealth is what Waddles' latest experiment is really all about. No wonder the big Gibbon Fitzy is in favour of it, the less embarrassing questions the better no doubt.

    Commenter
    SteveH.
    Date and time
    June 11, 2012, 8:11AM
    • Steve - just look down to the intellectual quality of those who support your contentions ( Thinkb2g ). Not even smart enough to have his own name; has to plagiarise someone else's.

      What Labor has been on about and repeated ad nauseum is merely holding journos to their own ethical standards.

      If they can't do that, then, like every other self-interested group they should be held to those standards by sanction.

      Commenter
      BillR
      Date and time
      June 11, 2012, 9:09AM
    • "censorship by stealth" ....... gee I wonder what Operation Tuleta, Operation Weeting & Operation Weeting are all about ?

      Perhaps "SteveH" only believes in Media making their own rules.

      And

      "He said she'd rung them during Thomson's statement to Parliament. You could hear the MP talking in the background." attributed to Grant Williams Channel 9.

      No doubt the television station warned that the phone call was being recorded otherwise it would be breaking the telecommunications law.

      Commenter
      J. Fraser
      Location
      Queensland
      Date and time
      June 11, 2012, 9:31AM
    • @BillR. Papers are a private asset. Their responsibility is to their shareholders and noone else. If you don't like what they print, then don't read their publication. Nobody is forcing you to. The reason broadcasters are regulated is because they're using public spectrum. News papers aren't using any public resource and so don't have any obligation to provide "balance" or any other such tripe. Maybe we should look closer at the ABC instead which IS funded by tax dollars (much of which come from conservative voters).

      Oh, and don't be naieve enough to think parties on the right won't use this regulation for their own political ends once in office, just like you/Labor/Greens are trying to do. Just like Labor did with stacking FWA with union officials. I think you should be careful what you wish for.

      Commenter
      LiamH
      Date and time
      June 11, 2012, 9:46AM
    • @BillR. Oh, and if we're talking about media standards, perhaps we should take a look at Labor's corrupt overseas network tender that cost the taxpayers millions of dollars in compensation to Sky News last month. We've all seen the "ethical standards" that Conroy has. Or perhaps the go-slow by FWA wrt Thompson. We all know how "ethical and unbiased" these regulatory bodies are... HAHA

      Commenter
      LiamH
      Date and time
      June 11, 2012, 9:49AM
    • So BillR, we have to hold journalists to ethical standards when there isn't a single politician on either side of the house in this country with any?

      Commenter
      TC
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      June 11, 2012, 10:01AM
    • This is not about Government regulation of the media. It is about the profession having ethical and professional standards and being held to them - as is almost any other profession apart from architecture and economics.
      It is unbelievable that people can go to print without any requirement for approximating reality in their analysis and opinions

      Commenter
      Christopher
      Location
      State of Stupidity
      Date and time
      June 11, 2012, 10:02AM
    • Your use of the infantile Waddles gives a clear indication as to how seriously one should take the rest of your comment.

      Commenter
      fred
      Date and time
      June 11, 2012, 10:11AM
    • Don't worry, SteveH - Gillard will find some way to muck it up - she always does. However, old Bob Menzies was right when he described television as 'the most intimate form of propaganda known to modern science'. Rupert Murdoch's Foxtel has gone out of its way to prove it!!

      Commenter
      EBAB
      Location
      St Lucia
      Date and time
      June 11, 2012, 10:12AM
    • Labor and the Greens want to control us totally. To them freedom of the press is the right for them to say & do what they want - but no one else! They'll pay for this and their many other transgressions at the polling booth.

      Commenter
      marnie
      Date and time
      June 11, 2012, 10:14AM

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