CANBERRA (Reuters) - 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 Thursday.
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 intrusion'.
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 local radio.
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".
(Additional reporting by Narayanan Somasundaram in Sydney; Editing by Michael Perry; Editing by Daniel Magnowski)
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