Australian Media Law Reforms Mostly Fail Amid Broad Industry Opposition

The country’s top media groups, including Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., had called the proposed laws unconstitutional.

SYDNEY -- The Australian government’s contentious media law reform plans have spectacularly failed, with the nation’s parliament on Thursday refusing to pass four of the six new bills just 10 days after communications minister Stephen Conroy unveiled the package.

The failure of the Labor Party government to get the reforms through parliament led to a leadership challenge against Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Australia's first female prime minister, on Thursday. She survived the challenge.

Conroy’s now defunct reform proposals included the introduction of a new media regulator, which was supposed to be dubbed the Public Interest Media Advocate (PIMA) and was designed to oversee the Australia Press Council and industry self-regulation of the news media, focusing specifically on print and online media. They also included a new structure and new public interest test for mergers and acquisitions between major media groups.

Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., whose Australian division News Limited had been one of the most vocal critics of the government’s plans, hailed the failed regulation plans on Thursday. "Oz media censorship beaten back," Murdoch tweeted.

STORY: News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch Calls U.K. Press Regulation Deal A 'Holy Mess'

News Corp. and others had painted the planned laws as “unconstitutional” and against the foundations of free speech. Under the plan, PIMA, for example, would have had to certify self-regulation of print and online media by organizations such as the Press Council to give journalists existing protections.

Other less contentious elements of the legislation, including license fee rebates for Australia’s commercial TV broadcasters in exchange for greater local content requirements, passed into law on Wednesday, but the production sector with the support of the Green Party already called for a review of the new legislation.

The lack of support for the laws from the independents in Australia’s hung parliament ensured that the legislation did not get through, and the government was forced to scrap four of the six pieces of legislation on Thursday.

However, it was also the short timetable -- just one week and four days - and the perceived lack of consultation with which Conroy introduced the legislation that triggered a firestorm of protest from the country’s major media proprietors. It was a rare spectacle, as the normally vicious competitors united in the nation’s capital on Monday to attend a hastily convened one-day Senate inquiry into the laws.

News Limited CEO Kim Williams, Seven Media Group chairman Kerry Stokes, Nine Entertainment CEO David Gyngell, Ten Network CEO Hamish McLennan -- in his first day on the job -- and Fairfax Media CEO Greg Hywood all appeared during the Senate discussion.

News’ Williams told the Senate committee the reforms breached constitutional rights and equated to "direct government intervention and regulation of the media." They were also, he said, "a direct attack on free speech, innovation, investment and job creation."

Williams said the legislation proposed "direct regulatory intervention in, and control of, print and digital media and [invoked] sanctions not seen outside of war time." He added: “They not only offend the constitutional freedom of political communication, but also are a direct assault on the independent operation of Australian journalism."

While some government members, including Senator Doug Cameron, referred executives to the News of the World phone hacking scandal in the U.K. as they pushed for tighter regulation of print and digital media, Seven Media chairman Stokes called the proposed laws draconian," saying: "The simple question I ask is in our instance what have we done ... to warrant such an intrusion into our company?"

Independent member of parliament Rob Oakeshott summed up the position of regulation critics. When asked by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. what would change his mind, he said: "Better policy and a process around that policy that gives a bit more time for deeper consideration."

"There's enormous dissent,” he said of the regulation proposals. “Not only from proprietors, which is the least of the worries, but from key regulators and also from content providers. For the first time in a long time the majority of writers, producers, directors, actors are all saying there's issues in there for them as well."

Meanwhile, the Greens have supported the production sector’s call for a review of Australian content quotas that will come into effect under the new rules.

The Screen Producers Association of Australia (SPAA), the Australian Writers Guild and the Australian Directors Guild said the new laws, which require commercial broadcasters to increase their quota levels of Australian content by 1,460 hours a year by 2015, would have the effect of “transmitting less high-quality Australian drama.”

“This is because they will be able to transmit drama programs and especially children`s television programs on the multi-channels, and, because the audience on the multi-channels, at least at present, is quite a bit lower than it is on what they call the primary channels, they will therefore pay less money to the producers for those programs,” according to opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull.

“A review of the impact this bill will have on the terms of trade for sub-quota Australian content is sensible,” said SPAA executive director Matthew Deaner. He pointed to the recent release of data on expenditures by commercial free-to-air networks in 2010/11, "which revealed an alarming fall in children’s drama and documentary, down 24 and 25 percent, respectively.“