PM says media laws uphold freedom
Proposed media law changes won't allow the federal government to control the news or force a break-up of media companies, Prime Minister Julia Gillard says.
But Labor is facing a herculean task to get its three bills through parliament by its self-imposed March 21 deadline.
Labor will on Thursday introduce to parliament the laws to create a new public interest media advocate (PIMA) to ensure the self-regulatory body that handles complaints about the print and online media does its job properly.
The PIMA would also be charged with ensuring media mergers and acquisitions don't reduce diversity.
As well, a parliamentary committee will look at whether the 75 per cent rule - which limits the audience reach of television networks - should be dropped.
The changes have been attacked by the industry, the federal opposition and crossbench MPs as undermining media freedom.
Ms Gillard says she's "passionately committed" to freedom of speech and diversity in the media.
"Both are essential underpinnings of our democracy," she told reporters in Canberra on Wednesday.
But it was proper that the Press Council - an independent body funded by the industry which deals with complaints - should come up to "certain standards".
Only when those standards were met would news organisations get the benefit of an exemption under the Privacy Act, Ms Gillard said.
The prime minister said there was evidence media ownership had become concentrated in fewer hands.
She cited figures showing the two major news companies in Australia - Fairfax and News Limited - covered 86 per cent of the market. In the US, the top two newspaper companies covered 14 per cent of the market.
But asked how the proposed laws would stop further ownership concentration, Ms Gillard said: "They don't."
Independent MP Bob Katter, who holds a key vote, said a panel including senior journalists, an academic, retirees and indigenous Australians should pick the advocate.
Australian Associated Press chief executive Bruce Davidson said it was "unnecessary, dangerous regulation".
"On the face of it, this legislation means a government bureaucrat can decide what is an appropriate set of standards and processes for an industry body," Mr Davidson said.
"And if he or she doesn't like the way they are being applied, they can slap sanctions on publishers that will prevent them doing the very job the community expects them to do."
News Ltd boss Kim Williams says he'll consider a legal challenge to the government's planned reforms.
He derided the proposed advocate as a "Public Interest Soviet Tsar" to be used by the government to control media.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said the coalition would abolish the laws if elected.
"It's the first time in peacetime we've seen any such draconian attempt to regulate the media," he said.
Independent senator Nick Xenophon believes the measures won't be passed even though some, such as a cut in licence broadcast licence fees, have merit.
Australian Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt questioned whether the government was serious.
"You do wonder if Labor would be happy, if in fact it fell over," he said.
Crossbenchers Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor are awaiting the detailed legislation before deciding whether to support it.
The one-day parliamentary inquiry into the 75 per cent rule will be held on Friday.