Memo to Gillard: Hands off the Press

ImagePRESIDENT’S COLUMN: One of the problems with the kind of media we have in this country is that it tends to focus on what we might term a cocktail of saloon bar politics and the requirements of the 24-hour news cycle.

In this, serious discussion of international affairs rarely gets a look in. When it does it is often spooked by domestic considerations.

For example, last week The Australian’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan reported under an ‘exclusive label’ the hawkish former US assistant secretary of state Richard Armitage  as suggesting Australia was taking a “free ride” from America in the Asia Pacific region. Armitage had earlier criticised the Gillard government’s cut in the defence budget to 1.56% of GDP.

Tony Abbott, in Washington for the same junket, latched on to this dubious statement, and grabbed yet another anti-Gillard headline. The prime minister bit back, accusing Abbott of talking Australia down and undermining national security.

Neither The Australian, which gave these stories considerable prominence, nor any of my other reading matter, took into account the fact that one good reason for the cuts was that much of the hardware identified as needed in the flawed white paper of the former Rudd government two years ago is not yet available or needed.

And that leaves aside the point that many critics of Defence have pointed to considerable waste in defence budgets.

Meanwhile a new defence white paper is being drafted on Russell Hill with precious little public debate or discussion about its contents. We badly need that debate, in Parliament and in public, before deciding what the correct cost for protecting our country and its essential trade routes should be.

Of course it is just this kind of beat-up journalism by Sheridan that has prompted the Gillard government to consider new regulations to deal with news and comment in newspapers.

This – and another plan to have media mergers subjected to a “public interest test” –  is a very bad idea. There are many imperfections in Australia’s media – but they will not be solved by a bruised government attempting to push through legislation that restricts free speech and access to media – and it is a move they will regret if he polls are right and they go to the Opposition benches next November.

It is a pity we do not have a 5th Amendment. A free press is essential to democracy, particularly in a country where Parliament meets so seldom, and where, when it does, it devotes so little time to serious debate. It is good that Kim Williams, the chief of executive of News Limited, is prepared to challenge the Gillard Government in the High Court if it is unwise enough to proceed with this plan , which is due to go to Cabinet in two weeks’ time.

You also have to question the idea of a “public interest” test for media ownership, especially when the present holder of the appropriate portfolio is Senator Stephen Conroy, whose record in the handling of the tender for the production of the Australia Network is a disgrace.

You will hear people make a case for Australian ownership, but many people now get their global news direct from overseas sources, via the internet, via various networks like Sky News, CNN and BBC on Foxtel, or from Australian newspapers that increasingly use articles from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and three London dailies.

Even the Financial Review’s world section now seems to be composed mostly from syndicated material. The Sydney Morning Herald’s political editor doubles up as its international editor. There is a paucity of analysis of foreign affairs.

There is our ABC, of course, but it does not have a program devoted to international affairs, except the quirky Foreign Correspondent, though ABC1’s Lateline and ABC News24’s The World, make a solid contribution.

The ABC has a large college of foreign correspondents, but they seem to be mainly delivering sound bites rather than analysis. Am I alone in a preference to seeing and hearing them on air, rather than blogging their opinions on The Drum and other web sites?  Why can’t we have programs like All Things Considered that has run for years on National Public radio in the US, or From Our Own Correspondent on the BBC.

We started the Glover Cottages portal, with very limited resources, to try and bring to our members serious comment and analysis from around the world. We welcome contributions from those who have read something they think worth passing on.

We are not the only ones doing this. Mark Colvin, the well-informed veteran presenter of PM, tweets scores of suggested reading each week, and makes an invaluable contribution to the international affairs debate. So does Chatham House, the famed London institution that was the original founder of the AIIA. And many more.

Colin Chapman is the President of the AIIA NSW.

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