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Politicians should focus on post-diversity challenges in media

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.

6
  • 1
    susan winstanley
    Posted Monday, 25 June 2012 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Absolutely right Bernard.

    The one thing that can be done, and should be done, urgently, is to legislatively firewall the ABC from future attacks on its independence, from either side of politics.

    Then retire Mark Scott and boost funding for the ABC News Division - thanks for building the online presence Mark, but its mostly full of uneducated children running around with microphones, or opinionated fools reading out News Ltd headlines.

    We deserve better.

  • 2
    Trelevn
    Posted Monday, 25 June 2012 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    We need an ABC charter that establishes that in the game of political football, it’s the ABC who do the kicking.

  • 3
    michael crook
    Posted Monday, 25 June 2012 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    The ABC charter is being breached daily by the advertising of those most commercial of organisations the privately run “news” media. Why, they even quote from “The Australian” as if it was a legitimate even handed reporter of events of the day. How strange.

    Stop advertising these commercial ventures and the ABC might get back a bit of its credibility. It has none now.

  • 4
    Mark from Melbourne
    Posted Monday, 25 June 2012 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    The stupid thing about this debate is that we have never had independent media in this country. The horse has long bolted.

    Fairfax was only “independent” because that was their market differentiator and the problem is that it isn’t working for them any more. Mind you the level of advertorial, re-hash of PR etc has been on the increase for years.

    These are businesses meant to make a profit for its owners amongst other things.

    Even the ABC is politicised because of their rather stupid interpretation of what constitutes “balanced” reporting (which was introduced because the conservatives kept giving them a belting). I agree it needs to be protected and strengthened as an organisation.

    Is it important to have a good cross spectrum of public scrutiny and comment? Absolutely, but that is generally achieved by diversity. That’s the real problem with our media and that’s ultimately down to the fact that with 22m people we are a small market. We have the same problem with banks, food retailers etc - Australia is the home of the oligarchy.

  • 5
    Gocomsys
    Posted Tuesday, 26 June 2012 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Read the article. Liked the “troll free” comments. Next: Check out The Conversation, Independent Australia, Global Mail and others. Who needs Limited Murdoch or GinaFax! Let’s hope the ABC get their act together. The sooner the better before vested interests are causing any more damage. The general public desperately requires access to facts not fiction.

  • 6
    Steve777
    Posted Tuesday, 26 June 2012 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    There seems to be an iron law about doing business in Australia that every major market left to itself will eventually become a duopoly or a monopoly. The big four banks would have become two ages ago had they been allowed.

    For this reason among many others, it is absolutely crucial that we firewall the ABC against future attacks. Legislate a strong charter of independence. Take measures to prevent future stacking of the board - I’m not sure how we could do this, but the lesson of the Howard era is that we must. We should also legislate to guarantee its funding for the next 5 years because I am sure many in the Coalition are itching to downsize and / or sell off the ABC.

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