Australia PM signals changes to media reforms after outrage

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard Monday opened the way for "sensible" changes to proposed press reforms, after media proprietors attacked them as "draconian" and an "attack on free speech".

The reforms, which will include a new public interest test for major mergers and stronger self-regulation requirements for the print media, arose from Britain's phone-hacking scandal.

They provoked a fierce backlash from media groups including Rupert Murdoch's News Limited with one of its tabloids likening Communications Minister Stephen Conroy to Joseph Stalin and other dictators.

Gillard appeared to leave the way open for change as parliamentary committees examining the legislation opened their inquiries in Canberra.

"Our intention remains to pursue the legislation that is before the parliament now," she told journalists.

"If there are sensible suggestions consistent with our reform intentions that come out of the parliamentary committee process then certainly we will listen to those.

"But we're not in the business of cross-trading or horse-trading on these bills."

News Limited, the Australian arm of Murdoch's News Corporation, has led strident criticism of the proposals, but was joined by other media identities in Canberra on Monday to argue their case against the changes.

Businessman Kerry Stokes, boss of the Seven television network, attacked the proposed laws which include a new public interest media advocate (PIMA) to oversee press and online media standards and media mergers and acquisitions.

"The legislation is, in my opinion, draconian," he told a parliamentary committee, adding that they were also needlessly intrusive.

Kim Williams, who heads News Limited, said the bills breached the constitution and amounted to a "direct attack on free speech" and if passed his company would mount a High Court challenge.

Williams said the public interest media advocate would be appointed by and beholden to the government and would decide whether press standards bodies operated to its satisfaction in its "sole and absolute judgement".

But government Senator Doug Cameron said it was "breathtaking" to be lectured by the Murdoch press on privacy laws after the phone-hacking scandal in Britain which saw Murdoch's "News of the World" tabloid shut down.

Judge Brian Leveson, who led the British phone-hacking inquiry, found the newspaper industry had for decades "wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people" and ignored the codes that it had itself set up.

He recommended an independent press regulator, underpinned by legislation. On Monday MPs in Britain will take a crucial vote on how to set up a new press watchdog -- the British Prime Minister has opposed backing a regulator with statutory legislation but other parties have argued it is necessary.

The Australian government, which faces an election later this year, says the proposed press reforms in Australia are in the public interest and will promote media diversity.

Conroy said the Press Council -- a body funded by media companies -- had for many years been considered a toothless regulator.

He said the public interest media advocate would have no role in setting standards but would merely seek to ensure the Press Council upheld its own.

"So what we've got to do is have a Press Council that actually functions and upholds its own rules," he told commercial radio. "And that's got nothing to do with News Limited or anybody else."