Suggestions elsewhere in the media that Communications Minister Stephen Conroy's attitude to the print media resembles that of Josef Stalin serve as a memory jogger to the last time Labor confronted the newspapers in Australia. The year was 1944 and the Soviet Union, led by the totalitarian dictator Stalin, was an ally in the war against the Axis powers.

Quite a few members of the left do not much like the media and oppose a free press. Arthur Calwell, who was appointed information minister in John Curtin's Labor government in September 1943, was a life-long, left-wing media hater. He was wont to rail against what he termed ''the harlots of the press''. 

By the time Calwell made it into the cabinet, the immediate threat to Australia had passed and both Japan and Germany were experiencing setbacks. Nevertheless, he saw this as a time to increase censorship of newspapers, then the principal means of communicating news. Calwell, and his departmental head Edmund Bonney, decided to exercise censorship not only with respect to military secrets but also concerning what they regarded as public morale.

The intrusion of censorship into the area of morale led inevitably to a situation when Calwell and Bonney were deciding on whether or not political news and comment could be published. The full story is told in Paul Hasluck's official history, The Government and the People: 1942-1945. The matter came to a head in April 1944 when Frank was suppressed for publishing blank columns where censored sections had been deleted. Packer was supported by Warwick Fairfax's Sydney Morning Herald. Both papers were suppressed on April 17, 1944.

Calwell's actions were taken to the High Court. Chief Justice Sir John Latham suggested a conference which could resolve the tension between the minister and the press. In May the Curtin government accepted that, in future, ''censorship shall be imposed exclusively for reasons of defence security''. Calwell and Bonney were thwarted in their effort to regulate the media for political reasons.

It is no secret that some members of the Rudd and Gillard governments regard some News Limited papers – particularly The Australian and The Daily Telegraph – as having been unfair in their political reporting. John Howard and some of his colleagues held a similar view about The Australian's handling of the AWB wheat-for-food controversy concerning Iraq.

However, Howard did not see this as a reason to strike against News Limited. In any event, his government's decline was not due to criticism in the News Limited publications and he understood this.

Labor's recent problems are not due to News Limited. They turn essentially on its attempts to impose an unpopular emissions trading scheme, or carbon tax, and its policy approach to asylum seekers. However, Conroy and some of his colleagues are determined to punish News Limited. His proposed legislation has had the unintended consequence of rallying other media companies to oppose the governments' approach – since the proposed restrictions on press freedom affect virtually every business in the fold.

The legislation is complicated. Special attention has turned on Conroy's intention to appoint a public interest media advocate who would be chosen by the government and who would have substantial powers with respect to media ownership and media standards.

The concept of deciding the ''public interest'' in a democracy is all but impossible. The nature of representative government is that there are competing interests which are resolved in a non-violent manner.

It was much the same with the Prime Minister's interview published by Fairfax Media on Monday. Julia Gillard told journalist Michael Gordon on no fewer than three occasions that the government is serving ''the national interest''.

It is true that there are some matters which invariably equate with the national interest. Most notably, national security. However, the Prime Minister of a minority government has little standing to claim that her interpretation of the national interest is correct and rival interpretations are simply wrong.

In democratic politics, citizens genuinely disagree on what constitutes the national interest and/or the public interest with respect to political, economic and social matters. There are some Australians who agree that newspapers should be subjected to greater regulation by a government-appointed public interest media advocate. Others regard such an approach as involving excessive regulation at best and a degree of Stalinism at worst.

Labor's attempt at controlling the newspapers failed in the mid-1940s because, even in wartime, a majority of Australians wanted their political news as unfiltered as possible. Conroy's approach is not identical to Calwell's. What the two Labor politicians have in common is belief in regulation and a dislike of sections of the print media.

Gerard Henderson is the executive director of The Sydney Institute.

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