A key crossbencher has provided qualified support for the Gillard government's proposed media law reforms, with Bob Katter saying that he was concerned about ''biased'' and ''irresponsible'' reporting.
Mr Katter told Fairfax Media on Wednesday that while he would wait to see the legislation before deciding how he would vote, he agreed with Communications Minister Stephen Conroy that ''something needed to be done'' about an often irresponsible press.
The independent MP singled out News Ltd's Australian newspaper for criticism.
''It has had a constant determination to enforce a free market philosophy. It has never printed the other side,'' Mr Katter said.
''If you exercise that power in such an unbalanced manner . . . Newspapers do not necessarily belong to the proprietors, they have a responsibility to society.''
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy depicted as Joseph Stalin in Wednesday's Daily Telegraph. Photo: Wolter Peeters
Mr Katter's comments come as News Limited waged a furious campaign against the media laws, with Sydney's Daily Telegraphphotoshopping Senator Conroy's head onto the body of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
Senator Conroy dismissed the Stalin reference saying, ''I'll let the public decide whether I equate to a mass murderer.''
The chief executives of Australia's biggest print and online news media, including Fairfax Media, publisher of this website, have come out against the reforms announced by Mr Conroy on Tuesday, saying they were unclear and would introduce uncertainty into the media landscape.
The reforms, which stop short of some of the more radical recommendations from the Finkelstein review a year ago, include a public interest test on media mergers to be administered by a government-appointed bureaucrat dubbed the ''public interest advocate''.
As well as approving mergers and acquisitions, the ''public interest advocate'' would oversee the existing press councils and judge whether media companies met their own standards.
Labor would need five of the seven crossbenchers to support the legislation for it to pass parliament.
Instead of a single ''tsar'' overseeing the media, as proposed by Senator Conroy, Mr Katter said he would rather a panel of judges that would include seasoned journalists. ''Michelle Grattan and Paul Kelly leap to mind,'' he said.
The government's long-awaited reforms to media laws are in the balance after it deferred a range of promised changes, refused to negotiate on those it did commit to, and gave Parliament just two weeks to pass the legislation.
Opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull said the proposals were ''bad law'' and vowed to block them now or repeal them if elected.
''It is an attempt to regulate the media because they don't like what you have been saying and writing about them,'' he told reporters. ''We're told we've got to pass it in less than two weeks, with a sort of a gun held to the Parliament's head.''
He said there was more diversity now thanks to the internet, blogs and social media, than in the past.
News Ltd chief executive Kim Williams said the reforms were ''nothing more than a political interest test which Governments will use to punish outlets they don't like''.
''This government will go down in history as the first Australian government outside of wartime to attack freedom of speech by seeking to introduce a regime which effectively institutes government sanctioned journalism,'' he said.
Fairfax Media chief executive Greg Hywood said there was no evidence in the media industry that there was a problem to solve. Fairfax Media is the owner of this website.
''We can't see the purpose of further regulation of news publications. Exactly what's going to happen is unclear based on today's press release,'' he said.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard rejected the criticism, saying the proposed media laws changes would not curtail the freedom of the press or allow governments to control the news.
Ms Gillard says she's ''passionately committed'' to freedom of speech and diversity in the media.
''Both are essential underpinnings of our democracy,'' she told reporters in Canberra on Wednesday.
She said the government wasn't trying to direct what journalists wrote.
''The only thing the government is saying is when media organisations come together to create a press council . . . that self-regulation model should come up to certain standards,'' she said.
''And when it comes up to certain standards the news organisations participating in that press council get the benefit of the exemption under the Privacy Act.''
Mr Turnbull's comments rejecting the reforms mean Labor would need five of the seven crossbenchers to support the legislation for it to pass parliament.
Craig Thomson told Fairfax Media he had ''some issues'' with the bill but would not make any further comments until he had the opportunity raise them with the government.
Peter Slipper said he was ''sympathetic to the desperate need for reform in the interest of balanced reporting and diversity of ownership in both print and electronic media including TV''.
But he was waiting on a detailed briefing of what is proposed in the legislation before he determined his position.
Greens communications spokesman Scott Ludlam said he was disappointed about Senator Conroy's lack of detail and ''my way or the highway'' presentation of the media reforms.
But Senator Ludlum said he was prepared to compromise given this might be the last chance for some time to pass media reforms after the Coalition voiced its opposition.
''If it turns out that it's better than nothing then I'd be advising my colleagues that we pass it,'' he said.
''But it's really difficult to do that sight unseen when you are fooling around with something as important as the relationship between government and a free press.''
Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie said he had not seen the legislation so was yet to decide his position but already had serious concerns.
NSW independent Rob Oakeshott also signalled his opposition unless changes were made, telling Fairfax Media's Breaking Politics on Wednesday that the reform package was ''a light touch''.
''The government has squibbed it in many ways. It is a massive missed opportunity for the journalists profession as well.
''We've got to have something and something that works if the journalists code of ethics is going to mean something,'' he said.
If Mr Katter, Mr Thomson, Mr Slipper and the Greens side with the government, the future of Australian media law will depend on the vote of NSW independent Tony Windsor. His spokesman said he had not yet decided how he will vote.
As the opposition accused Senator Conroy of holding a gun to Parliament's head, the tight deadline for passage of the complex changes has raised suspicions that even the government is not committed to their success.
The package also includes stronger self-regulation of ethical and professional standards by newspapers, and cuts to the licence fees of commercial TV broadcasters.
But stronger protection for individuals subject to intrusive media reporting, through the introduction of a ''tort'' of privacy, have not been included. It has been referred to the Australian Law Reform Commission.
Senator Conroy hesitated on one of the most contentious parts of the reform agenda, his preference for scrapping the so-called ''reach rule'', which limits the reach of any broadcaster to a maximum of 75 per cent of the market.
Abolishing this law would allow the Nine Network to go ahead with a $4 billion merger with the regional broadcaster, Southern Cross Media, but in the past few weeks the Seven and Ten networks have had second thoughts about dropping the rule, despite previously agreeing to its demise.
That aspect will be included in the final legislative package only if it is recommended by a super-quick parliamentary committee.
'Strike a balance'
On Tuesday Senator Conroy said the government had tried to strike a balance between protecting a free press and ensuring the media operated in the public interest.
''We are not prepared to barter this bill,'' he said, adding that if he did not get the needed support from the Coalition, Greens or crossbenchers, it would be scrapped.
''These reforms will ensure for the Australian public a media sector that is fair, diverse and able to tackle the challenges of the future.''
Curbing an often critical media has been a preoccupation of some Labor MPs such as John Murphy from NSW and the NSW senator Doug Cameron.
Both have voiced concerns about the political attitude of Rupert Murdoch and the extensive influence of his family.
But Mr Murphy said he was confident from Mr Conroy's presentation that Mr Murdoch would not be able to expand his media empire.