So the Convergence Review report is big — very big, in number of pages and in implications. We live in an increasingly media-enabled world, and the recommendations emerging from this seminal review will impact on just about every aspect of our lives over the decades to come.
Not many people have their heads around how media is presently regulated, from the quotas governing things such as Australian content to the way in which spectrum is divvied up and doled out. So what hope do we have of understanding, let alone forming a view on, the proposed new regimes?
It would be easy to criticise the coverage in most media this morning. Again, it is difficult to get a clear idea, in between the reporting of self-interested industry views, of what the report actually says, let alone why it says it.
There are also quite a few inaccuracies and misunderstandings in the news reports.
But to be fair, summarising and contextualising the report is difficult, because of its scope and complexity. Add to that the release time — in the middle of yesterday — which meant that most news organisations only had hours to read, think, collect comment and write.
Even those who had the privilege of some sort of advanced release — I am thinking Mark Day in The Australian a week ago — clearly did not have the whole thing, because he got some important matters of detail wrong.
So, what to do, given that mainstream media coverage from this day forth will inevitably be driven by reaction, while most Australians (if they are interested at all) will still be struggling to catch up with what the report said?
Crikey is here to help. Over the next seven publishing days, a team of media reporters will offer an idiot’s guide to the Convergence Review. And you don’t have to be an idiot to read it. The emphasis will be on reporting what the report says, summarising and contextualising, rather than opining. We will explain how the current system of media regulation works, as well as explaining what changes are proposed.
This is episode one, and in it we will try to answer two questions: why this report now, and what principles have guided the Convergence Review report?
Why now? Well, largely because it hasn’t been done before, and it probably should have been, but it is a very big and difficult task.
The last big review of media regulation was the Productivity Commission report of early 2000, the recommendations of which were comprehensively ignored or trashed by a succession of communications ministers for whom the big challenge of taking on media proprietors was simply too hard a political ask.
The Convergence Review report is the descendant of that Productivity Commission exercise, but with added urgency, responsibilities and imperatives brought about by the increasing speed of media convergence and new internet-enabled players.
One big question in the current situation is whether Stephen Conroy will have the political will, and longevity, to succeed with introducing a new system of regulation where his predecessors failed.
Conroy did at least set up the review, not a moment too soon, in 2011. He gave it comprehensive terms of reference covering media ownership, content standards, Australian and local content quotas and allocation of spectrum. The whole shebang, in other words. In the context of the News of the World scandal in the UK, the Finkelstein inquiry into news media was a late and hurried add-on, with its recommendations to be considered by the Convergence Review.
Our current system of media regulation is governed mostly by platforms. Different rules apply for different platforms. Video on a website run by print media is subject to different regulations than the same video broadcast on the airwaves, for example. Meanwhile, as the Convergence Review puts it:
“Users are increasingly at the centre of content service delivery. They are creating their own content and uploading it to social media platforms. They are controlling what content they want to view and when they want to view it, for example, through podcasts of popular radio programs and catch-up television services provided by free-to-air networks.”
Given this context, what are the guiding principles of the Convergence Review? They were adopted following a process of consultation, including various discussion papers, over the past year. The first and most fundamental states:
“Citizens and organisations should be able to communicate freely and, where regulation is required, it should be the minimum necessary to achieve a clear public purpose.”
This is what guided the review as it negotiated its way between industry arguing for no regulation at all other than that which was to its commercial benefit, and individuals and community groups wanting more nanny state. The review concluded that there were three areas where regulation WAS justified:
Media ownership (because diversity of news and commentary us fundamental to a healthy democracy)
Content standards, including news content standards (because people care about it, and breaches of standards do harm)
Quotas for Australian and local content (because without them we wouldn’t have enough).
On the other hand, a heap of things that are currently regulated don’t need to be, with the main one being broadcasting licensing. Spectrum becomes a commodity pretty much like any other, able to be rented, sold or whatever, separate from the content that it carries.
Lastly, the focus of the regulation, the Convergence Review concludes, should be the big boys and girls of media. Here is where some media coverage today misses the point. Yes, Google and Telstra are excluded, but this is on the basis of their present audience reach in Australia and the revenue earned in Australia. There is no in-principle reason they will not be caught in the future, and indeed it seems almost certain that they will be.
The review has rejected the lobbying by Google that YouTube, to choose the most potent example, is not a content provider but a piece of infrastructure. Says the report:
“Some firms do not even undertake routine review of material uploaded, claiming that the volumes involved make it impractical. We were not persuaded by this argument, and we recommend that proactive review of content should be standard practice for sites hosting user-generated content.”
In other words, Google has to worry in the medium term, if not immediately.
*Tomorrow: what the Convergence Review says about media ownership regulation