This is how far down the rabbit hole we’ve travelled. Steve Gibbons, a government MP for the electorate of Bendigo, told parliament on Tuesday that the media “has lost its social licence to operate”. His reasons: “socially unacceptable standards of factuality and veracity” and “a failure to distinguish between factual news reporting and editorial opinion”. Gibbons even thinks “falling circulations” are a reason that this “social licence” has expired.
So what on earth is a social licence? The concept of a social licence began as an attack on mining companies but is now used to criticise any industry some people don’t like. It has the added benefit of being completely vague and indeterminate. We don’t have newspaper licencing in Australia, but Gibbons reckons there’s a more ephemeral, communal, otherworldly form of “licencing” with conditions that include the separation of fact from opinion and strong circulation. It is, simply, nonsense. A society that believes freedom of speech and freedom of the press are values worth defending does not condition those values on whether circulation is going up or down.
Nonetheless, Gibbons has decided that the licence has been breached. His proposed sanction is unsurprising. He calls for a regulator to control “news media behaviour” – in other words, the Finkelstein media inquiry proposal. He’s not the only member of the government who has called for the same. Joel Fitzgibbon – the government’s chief whip – wrote in the Australian in March that “Letting our media police themselves has been a mistake.”
The Communications Minister Stephen Conroy is yet to respond to the Finkelstein Inquiry, but says a response is imminent. The upheaval in the print media of the last week will throw that response into flux. While the winds of technological change are altering the press forever, it’s hard to fathom that the government is considering whether to impose one of the most archaic attacks on freedom of the press seen in recent decades.