Come in No. 26, your media freedom is ready for pick-up
Prime Minister Julia Gillard reacts to a question on her judgment from Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. Photo: Andrew Meares
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Prime Minister Julia Gillard sounded suspiciously like a Politician Without Refuge when she sought comfort on Monday in the finding of Reporters Without Borders that her nation was ranked 26th in its world index on media freedoms.
It seemed startling candour, for it meant Australia lagged behind much of Europe, all of Scandinavia, plus Jamaica, Cyprus and Cape Verde, a mid-Atlantic island nation that has two television stations and three newspapers.
Ms Gillard, curiously, was attempting to reassure Parliament that her government had no unkind intent towards the media under its proposed new regulations.
No one, she said, would deny that the Paris-based international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders was well-regarded. It currently ranked Australia No. 26 on press freedoms, she added, as if this were a boast.
Ms Gillard might have boosted her case if she had relied on the trusty antipodean brag that regularly has some Australian achievement as ''the best in the southern hemisphere''. Unfortunately, New Zealand is regarded by Reporters Without Borders as rather freer, ranking 8th in the world.
This, however, wasn't Ms Gillard's argument. She wanted to point out that Finland was No 1. And Finland's press council, which could force news organisations to retract errors and publish apologies, was government-funded. Her government wasn't requiring any such thing under its proposed regulations, whatever critics might say.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and his defender of freedoms, Malcolm Turnbull, weren't having it. They wanted to condemn Ms Gillard for attempting to ram through legislation ''without due regard to freedom of speech and freedom of the press''.
And they shared a trump card.
''The job of the media is to speak truth to power,'' thundered Mr Abbott. ''I know that because I have worked as a journalist. The shadow minister [Mr Turnbull] knows that because he has worked as a journalist, perhaps a more distinguished journalist than I was.''
Ms Gillard's government was not concerned about high-minded matters like diversity, Mr Turnbull accused. ''Their concern is for opinion - they don't like getting a shellacking.''
Labor's Anthony Albanese considered this altogether too rich from a fellow like Turnbull, who had once sued Fairfax over a story concerning the fate of an old girlfriend's deceased cat.
The Opposition's attempted condemnation of Ms Gillard and her media legislation failed on the numbers, leaving the intrigued to study the reasons for Australia's poor international standing on press freedom.
Turns out that apart from concerns about restrictions on media access to detention centres, police investigations into journalists and the like, Reporters Without Borders was unimpressed with the outbreak of, ahem, Labor government inquiries into the media.
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