The Greens have leapt into the media fray with a bill for a public-interest test to regulate newspaper and broadcasting media transactions. The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Public Interest Test) Bill 2012 would establish a new part in the current media regulatory framework requiring ACMA to assess mergers of nationally significant media companies against a set of public interest criteria involving diversity, editorial independence, free expression and fair and accurate news reporting.
Even if passed, the bill won’t have any effect on the current high-profile media issues, Gina Rinehart’s stake in Fairfax and News Ltd’s bid for Consolidated Media Holdings, assuming the Greens intend subscription broadcasting to be roped into the test along with the current media subject to ownership laws — major newspapers, FTA TV and radio. Those are likely to be resolved before any change in the media laws could take effect, which on the most optimistic scenario won’t be until 2013.
The bill, of course, won’t pass; it’s in the interests of neither the government nor the opposition to offend the big media players, especially when there’s about 14 months until an election. In any event, the Convergence Review proposed a fundamental overhaul of media regulation of the kind that, even if a government were brave enough to adopt it, would require substantial work, including the establishment of a new regulator. And don’t forget we’re in the middle of switching off analogue TV, a process that will take until the end of next year, when the last of the capital cities fully move over to digital.
A public interest test, as explained at least 30 times before, is highly flawed, putting in place a nebulous and subjective test that provides no certainty either for media companies or for those concerned about media diversity. The one proposed by the Greens is a bad example of this. A test based on issues such as editorial independence and fair and accurate reporting would make the famous ACCC “substantial lessening of competition” test look like an ironclad mathematical tool.
The Greens’ version also differs from the Convergence Review recommendations in simply adding a public-interest test to the existing ownership regulatory framework; the review proposed moving to a fundamentally different regulatory model for ownership.
The problem with the sudden flurry of interest in diversity, from the Greens and from Labor backbenchers (John “if not, why not” Murphy as always stands ready to bring forth his decidedly 20th century view of how media should be) is that diversity is no longer the central problem of media regulation. It may simply be impossible to regulate for diversity if there is insufficient media revenue to fund it, or more accurately that revenue is flowing to digital natives such as Google that don’t fund their own journalism. The problem is how to fund quality journalism, given everyone seems to agree that we need that, when it is no longer commercially viable to do so.
We have always funded quality journalism in broadcasting via the ABC and, later, SBS. And they, of course, have always illustrated the dangers of allowing politicians to have any role in the media: how many people are confident a future government might not decide to dramatically cut ABC funding in the name of fiscal discipline, but really with the intention of undermining a well-respected critic? (Strangely, conservatives never use that example when complaining about the dangers of letting politicians control the media).
The Greens might be better off considering ways of locking in funding for the national broadcasters so that future parliaments will have greater difficulty slashing their budgets than at the whim of Expenditure Review Committee.