Australia defends media reforms amid 'Stalinism' claims

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia defended proposed media reforms arising from Britain's phone-hacking scandal on Wednesday after a heated backlash from media baron Rupert Murdoch's local operations, which labelled them dictatorial.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy was condemned after unveiling the changes, which will include a new public interest test for major mergers and stronger self-regulation requirements for the print media.

News Limited, Mr Murdoch's Australian arm, was particularly strident in its commentary, likening Mr Conroy on the front page of its Sydney Daily Telegraph tabloid to leaders including Kim Jong-Un and Robert Mugabe.

The newspaper lampooned Mr Conroy as Stalin in a doctored image imposing his face on the former Soviet dictator's body.

News Limited chief Kim Williams lashed the government in a stinging speech to the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce, accusing Conroy of putting "a gun to the head of parliament, our industry and the Australian public".

Mr Conroy has given parliament until the end of next week to pass the reforms without amendment, which Mr Williams slammed as "Soviet style" given the government failed to consult him or any other senior newspaper executive.

"Effectively, a government-appointed advocate will have the power to close down our ability to report on that which is going on in our society," said Mr Williams.

News Limited owns 70 per cent of Australia's newspapers, as well as extensive online assets.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard called the arguments "absolute nonsense", declaring she was "passionately committed to free speech and also committed to a diversity of voices, I think both are essential underpinnings of our democracy".

"What the government is actually doing is supporting self-regulation of print (media), the government is not directing in any way the activities of journalists," she told reporters.

Mrs Gillard pointed to the dense concentration of Australia's print industry relative to other Western nations, noting that two newspaper companies - News and Fairfax - accounted for 86 per cent of the market.

That compares with 14 per cent market share for the top two US media firms and 54 perc ent for the top two in Canada.

Mrs Gillard said that since the 1950s, the Australian market had shrunk from 15 national or metropolitan newspapers owned by 10 individuals or firms to 11 papers with three distinct owners.

Eight of the top nine news websites are also owned by traditional media firms.

A central feature of the government's proposed reforms is a new statutory authority called the Public Interest Media Advocate which will assess whether mergers of "national significance" are in the public interest.

It will also oversee self-regulatory authorities such as the Press Council to ensure they are transparent and independent of both the government and major proprietors, and apply greater enforcement of existing press standards.

Analysts said the reforms were more modest than had been feared or recommended by two separate media inquiries - one specifically called after the phone-hacking scandal in Britain which closed Mr Murdoch's News of the World.

"Conroy has, for the most part, bowed to early criticism and concern from media owners, CEOs, editors-in-chief and conservative commentators and opted for some tame options which sound purposeful but will deliver little," said Griffith University journalism professor Susan Forde.

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