* Australia moves comes amid public concern after scandal
* News Corp's Australian arm: no link between UK hacking
scandal and Australia
* News Ltd says News of the World practices not occurring in
(Adds details, Greens, opposition comment)
By Rob Taylor
CANBERRA, July 21 Australia is looking at
strengthening privacy laws because of public concern over media
intrusion in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal at the
British operations of News Corp , the government said on
Home Affairs Minister Brendan O'Connor launched a
consultation process on a new statutory right for people to sue
for "serious invasion of privacy", pointing to increased public
unease after the News of the World scandal.
"The News of the World phone hacking drama is making people
across the world sit up and think about their own media
landscape: what's acceptable and what's not," O'Connor wrote in
The Australian newspaper.
The plans to tighten privacy laws come three years after the
Australian Law Reform Commission concluded Australians should
have the statutory right to sue. Previously rights and damages
have been determined in ad hoc legal decisions.
To deflect criticism levelled by media companies
including Rupert Murdoch's Australian arm News Ltd and
Australia's Fairfax Media that reforms could choke freedom of
speech, the commission also called for a strong 'public interest
defence' and a high threshold of what counted as 'serious
Australia has strong laws against communications
interception, but the Australian Privacy Foundation said that as
in most other countries, the courts had failed to develop a
civil liability of invasion of privacy, and parliaments had
provided limited and weak laws.
"It's a real patchwork quilt," foundation chairman Roger
Clarke told Reuters.
France and Canada have enshrined privacy rights in
law, along with the EU's Convention of Human Rights and several
U.S. states, including California, Virginia and New York.
BALANCE PRIVACY, MEDIA FREEDOM
O'Connor said he hoped any legislation generated
would balance press freedoms against the rights of ordinary
people to a private life.
"The great irony, of course, is that a newspaper famed for
its coverage of scandal is the greatest story of scandal in the
world. But maybe there's a silver lining: greater privacy
protection for us," he said.
Greg Baxter, director for corporate affairs at News Ltd,
told ABC News Radio there was no evidence of any link between
the UK hacking scandal and Australia.
"There isn't any link between what's happened at News of the
World and the way we run our business here," he said. "There is
no evidence that sort of practices are occurring in News Ltd or
any other media organisation here."
The government's consultation period for privacy reform
comes as Australia's influential Greens party, which holds upper
house balance of power, has called for a wider parliamentary
inquiry into media ownership and privacy issues.
The Greens said there was no evidence Australian
media had been involved in News of the World style breaches of
privacy, but that a media review was needed to keep pace with
the rapidly changing industry landscape.
"We know that media ownership laws in Australia
already exist, but they need to have comprehensive review,
especially in the light of the domination of News Ltd in the
print media," Greens party deputy leader Christine Milne told
Other issues which could be canvassed in a media
review may include the licensing of newspapers -- currently only
broadcasters require licenses -- and the creation of a "fit and
proper person" character test for media proprietors.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard said on Wednesday that
Australians generally had "hard questions" they wanted answered
by News Ltd executives, but did not say whether she would
support the Greens' inquiry proposals.
News Ltd chief John Hartigan said on Wednesday there was
"absolutely no connection between events in the UK and our
business in Australia", adding News Ltd had answered all
questions on the issue openly.
News Ltd, the Australian arm of News Corp, controls 70
percent of Australia's newspaper readership market. Lawmakers
will decide whether to support a review when parliament resumes
in August, after the current winter break.
Senior Australian ministers have for months accused News Ltd
of targeting the minority Labor government, with Communications
Minister Stephen Conroy this week accusing the company of
campaigning for "regime change".
For more stories on UK's hacking scandal:
(Additional reporting by Narayanan Somasundaram in Sydney;
Editing by Michael Perry; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)