Australia Moves on Privacy Laws Amid News Of The World Scandal

PM says News Corp. has to answer "hard questions."

SYDNEY -- The Australian government Thursday announced a public inquiry into whether it should introduce “right to privacy” laws here as a result of the News Of The World phone hacking scandal.

The government’s announcement followed a war of words that erupted between Prime Minster Julia Gillard and John Hartigan, chairman and CEO of News  Corp's. Australian subsidiary, News Ltd., over the PM’s statement Wednesday that News had to “answer some hard questions” here.

Announcing the inquiry, the minister for privacy and freedom of information, Brendan O’Connor said, “right now there is no general right to privacy in Australia, and that means there’s no certainty for anyone wanting to sue for an invasion of their privacy. The News of the World scandal and other recent mass breaches of privacy, both at home and abroad, have put the spotlight on whether there should be such a right.”

“This Government strongly believes in the principle of freedom of expression and also the right to privacy. Any changes to our laws will have to strike a balance between the two ideals. Privacy is emerging as a defining issue of the modern era, especially as new technology provides more opportunities for communication, but also new challenges to privacy,” he said.

“We know that privacy is a growing concern for everyday Australians – whether it is in our dealings with individuals, businesses, government agencies or the media. I’m keen to hear from everyone with a stake in the privacy debate – that includes individuals, businesses and of course the media,” he added.

O’Connor noted that there are laws in place to deal with criminal offending related to privacy breaches, including the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act that outlaws phone tapping and other misuse of communications services, there are none covering serious breaches of privacy.

The announcement followed Gillard’s call for  News Ltd. to “answer some hard questions,” although what they were she didn’t detail.

Gillard’s government has been in a running battle with some of the Murdoch-owned papers here over her proposed carbon tax and the construction of the $26 billion National Broadband Network.

Hartigan said the prime minister’s comment were “unjustified and regrettable.”

“The Prime Minister’s comments seek to draw a link between News Corp. operations in the UK and those here in Australia. There is absolutely no connection between events in the U.K. and our business in Australia. There is no evidence that similar behavior has occurred at News in Australia,” Hartigan said.  “We have answered every question put to us on this issue openly. If the Prime Minister has more questions we would be happy to respond,” he added.

“No one is more appalled or is more concerned about what has happened in the U.K. than we are. It is an affront to everyone at News in Australia and a slur on the professionalism of our people, especially our journalists,” Hartigan said.

Several other political leaders in recent days have requested a review of media regulations and privacy laws.

It was the second time in a week that Hartigan has publicly defended the Murdoch-led company, publishing an open letter to staff last Friday denying that any of the practices including phone hacking that led to the closure of British tabloid News of The World and the biggest scandal to engulf Rupert Murdoch and News Corp., were in evidence in News’ Australian operations.

He said that any claims to connect to connect the behavior in the U.K. with News Ltd.’s conduct in Australia were “offensive and wrong.”

“I have absolutely no reason to suspect any wrongdoing at News Ltd. However, I believe it is essential that we can all have absolute confidence that ethical work practices are a fundamental requirement of employment at News Ltd.,” he said.

At the same time whoever the company would “conduct a thorough review of all editorial expenditure over the past three years to confirm that payments to contributors and other third parties were for legitimate services."

He also moved to publish the groups business codes of conduct and each of its papers editorial code of conducts and supported the Press Council and other media outlets move to” strengthen the Council’s ethical codes and guidelines and improve its complaints handling process.”

Australians are both proud of and sensitive to the Murdoch connection: Australia is both the birthplace of Rupert Murdoch and where News Corp. was founded and News Ltd. here holds a 70% share of the newspaper business as well as significant and growing broadcast interests.

News Ltd.’s stable of newspapers includes the national broadsheet The Australian and the top selling papers in the country , tabloids Sydney’s Daily Telegraph and Melbourne’s Herald Sun. News also has a 25% stake and management control of pay TV giant Foxtel, which is in the process of acquiring Austar, and a 50% stake in the country’s most profitable pay TV channel provider Fox Sports.

Hartigan is also chairman of 24-hour news channel Sky News Australia although News only holds an indirect stake it eh channel via BSkyB which is a one third shareholder in the channel.

Sky News Australia,  is currently tendering for the federal government’s $223 million contract to run Pan Asia satellite network, Australia Network, pitching against incumbent, public broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

The government said earlier this month it was extending the tender period for six months, citing changing events in the Middle East for the delay.

The media here has covered the News Of The World scandal in astonishing detail with three of five free to air broadcasters carrying James and Rupert’s appearance before the U.K.’s parliamentary committee live on Wednesday night here.

Murdoch family matriarch Dame Elisabeth and Rupert’s two eldest children Prue and Lachlan reside here. Lachlan has a high profile in Australia as a shareholder and acting CEO of broadcaster Network Ten and as a director of News Corp.