Canberra denies media probe a Murdoch 'witch-hunt'

SYDNEY, Sept 14, 2011 (AFP) - Australia denied Wednesday an independent inquiry into the nation's print media, which could see newspapers regulated and penalised, was a "witch-hunt" against the Murdoch press.

To be chaired by retired Federal Court judge Ray Finkelstein, the probe will examine the diversity and effectiveness of Australia's highly-concentrated newspaper industry.

In particular, it will look at ways to strengthen the powers of the nation's newspaper watchdog, the Press Council, and "enhance remedies" for breaches of its rules.

The government also left open the possibility of bringing the press under a statutory authority to regulate its conduct.

The ruling Labor party's relationship with News Limited, the Australian arm of Rupert Murdoch's operations, is strained, with Communications Minister Stephen Conroy previously accusing it of having a "regime change" agenda.

But Conroy stopped short of asking Finkelstein to examine media ownership, which was identified as a key issue by the powerful Greens party, a key partner in the government's coalition rule.

Despite a stinging attack in which he accused "some organs" of News Limited, of "running a campaign against this government", Conroy denied the inquiry was a "witch-hunt" against Murdoch's firm.

"In terms of a witch-hunt to demand that we break up News Limited, the fact is we are not interested," he said.

"The media expect an enormous amount of accountability across the political world, the business world, the broader sporting world," Conroy told reporters.

"It's only fair... that the community's able to, through the Press Council, hold accountable what they consider to be egregious reporting."

Prompted by the phone-hacking scandal in Britain which saw Australian-born Murdoch close his best-selling tabloid News of the World, the inquiry will have no powers to subpoena witnesses or call evidence.

It will have to provide a preliminary report to government by February 2012 and will complement a probe into broadcast media convergence, which was launched last year.

Murdoch controls about two-thirds of Australia's regional and metropolitan newspapers, has a stake in broadcasters Sky News and Fox Sports, and is angling to run the Australia Network, the international public TV channel.

Fairfax Media is the other key player in Australia's print media.

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