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Free speech is safe from Conroy's feather duster

  • 20 March 2013

Never has a minister bearing new legislation seemed so unenthusiastic about the task. Last week, when Communications Minister Stephen Conroy announced that the Gillard Government was proposing to overhaul the regulation of Australia's news media, his demeanour suggested he did not expect it to happen, and perhaps that he did not really want it to happen.

The necessary bills must be passed by the end of this week, Conroy said, or the Government would let the matter drop. He insisted that the package was not negotiable: there would be none of the by now familiar haggling with crossbench MPs to secure their support.

Since most of these quickly declared doubts about aspects of the bills, the project appeared to be doomed. It still does, despite some wavering by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who has hinted that an amendment or two might be accepted after all.

It is as if the Government wants to be able to wallow in the politics of the too-hard basket: 'Hey, we did our best. We tried to stand up for decency but the fiendish, bullying media proprietors and their stooges in the coalition just wouldn't see reason. So let's move on.'

For their part, the bullying proprietors have obliged by playing well and truly to type. The day after Conroy's announcement, News Ltd's Sydney tabloid, the Daily Telegraph, produced a collectors-item front page that luridly and absurdly compared the minister with a swag of most brutal dictators of the past century: Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong-un and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The message was that, just like all of these beasts, Conroy was an enemy of free speech, democracy and civilisation as we know it, and the proof lay in his plans to muzzle the media.

This line, only slightly muted, has been repeated in the Telegraph's News Ltd stablemates ever since. 'Fight for Freedom' Melbourne's Herald Sun screamed, a splash head glossed with the overline 'Media giants warn Conroy power grab threatens us all'.

Among the 'giants' was, of course, News Ltd chief Kim Williams, who, not to be outdone by his tabloid underlings, told a Senate committee hearing that the proposed new regulatory regime would be a star chamber. In assailing the legislation Williams received rare support from other media CEOs, including Fairfax's Greg Hywood and Seven West Media's Kerry Stokes. 'What have we done to deserve this?' bleated Stokes.

So just what is it that Conroy is