The press in Australia would answer to a state regulator under a package Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s minority government said Wednesday would go before parliament this week.
The plan for a media overseer comes 18 months after Ms. Gillard announced an inquiry into the local press in the wake of the phone hacking scandal that led to the closure of a British tabloid.
The proposed “public interest media advocate” would stand above the current self-regulating Press Council and would have the power to block media mergers and takeovers deemed detrimental to the public interest.
The advocate plan was denounced by media proprietors and the opposition conservatives.
Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt, whose vote will be crucial in whether the bill passes into law within the 10—day timeframe the government has set, speculated the bill was a rushed job to clear the legislative decks before campaigning began ahead of the September 14 parliamentary election.
“You do wonder if Labour would be happy if in fact it fell over and whether that’s behind the odd, arbitrary deadlines on such an important reform,” he said.
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy denied the draft legislation was an attack on press freedom and said the intent was to avoid a concentration of media ownership.
“We’ve got greater economic pressure today to see greater merger activity and that’s not going to be in the public interest of all Australians or the interest of a democracy to have fewer voices,” he said.
The bill is widely seen as aimed at curbing the influence of News Ltd, the local arm of media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
News Ltd chief Kim Williams said the reforms were neither necessary nor sensible.
“This government will go down in history as the first Australian government outside of wartime to attack freedom of speech by seeking to introduce a regime which effectively institutes government—sanctioned journalism,” he said.