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Media, cultural policy: pieces of the puzzle not in place

Australia is entering a “convergent media policy moment”, according to academic Terry Flew. How will the various pieces of the cultural puzzle fit together on this difficult issue?

According to QUT professor Terry Flew, Australia is entering a “convergent media policy moment”.

Flew is talking about the significant policy development going on in the Gillard government around the Convergence Review, the Finkelstein Inquiry, the National Classification Scheme Review and the National Cultural Policy. Flew has been involved in much of it: apart from chairing the Classification Review, he has been giving speeches, including at the University of Western Sydney.

Flew’s key ideas on issues shaping convergent media and cultural policy include:

  • Increased access to high-speed broadband
  • Rapid digitisation of media products and services
  • The convergence of media platforms and services
  • The globalisation of media platforms, content  and services
  • The acceleration of innovation
  • The rise of user-created content
  • Greater media user empowerment
  • The blurring of public/private and age-based distinctions.

Flew argues that:

In terms of policy and regulation, the key issue arising from convergence is the manner in which it breaks the link between media content and delivery platforms. Convergence points towards a shift from vertically-integrated industry ‘silos’ (print, broadcast, telephony, etc), and the associated need for sector-specific regulation, to a series of horizontal layers of (1) infrastructure; (2) access devices; (3) applications/content services; and (4) content itself.”

This helps explain why Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and Arts Minister Simon Crean are treading so warily. Convergent media policy is beset by a particularly troublesome crew of vested interests, some of which, like the big media players, are notoriously self-aggrandising and self-serving.

For the difficulties plaguing the issue, look no further than today’s editorial in The Sydney Morning Herald, attacking Justice Leveson’s 2000-page report and rejecting the need for any regulation of the Australian press. “[To] propose that governments through legislation should enforce media ethics is dangerously undemocratic,” the Fairfax leader writers thunder.

Time is starting to run out. The silly season is nearly upon us, and when Parliament resumes politicians will have their sights set on the 2013 federal election.

As far as we know, the government hasn’t even made up its mind about what to do with the recommendations of the Convergence Review and the Finkelstein report. Nor can there be said to be bipartisan support for much of what is canvassed. As for the poor old National Cultural Policy, Crean has openly admitted it is languishing, unpublished, while he gathers the necessary cabinet support.

The main thing is that the Convergence Reviews and other reviews are set to be the first major reviews of the whole architecture of media policy for 20 years,” Flew told Crikey. He points out the Broadcasting Services Act is now 20 years old, “and it’s quite clear what it doesn’t cover”.

The big driver is how content is being uncoupled from platforms,” he said.

The Convergence Review worked from a principles-based model, and if we identify the core principles, the three that continue to have relevance are: questions of ownership, and media-specific public interest tests; the questions of local content — and local content having two elements: Australian quotas, and also localism; and the third being the question of standards and the community standards debate — but also the news standards issues as considered in the Finkelstein review.”

Flew points out that “even if there’s consensus on those three questions, the issue is how to revise legislation in a way to achieve those”.

Announcements are still being made. Just last week, Conroy offered another multi-million dollar gift to the free-to-air television networks as a permanent license fee rebate. He dressed the gift up as a “move to ensure quality Australian content stays on Australian television”, but the Screen Producers Association argued the announcement actually represented a dilution in local content quotas.

If you examine the new regulation closely, you will find that it will allow the commercial networks to show less Australian content than they are showing at the moment,” Screen Producer’s Association of Australia spokesman Owen Johnston told Crikey.

Flew agrees local content is one of the thorniest issues in the convergent environment. ”The screen production industry did have a lot of input into the Convergence Review, and the view of that sector that multi-channelling is allowing commercial broadcasters to avoid obligations in terms of committing to local production, I think there’s a lot of support for that view in the government,” Flew said.

At the same time, there are also sensitivities towards the financial situation of the broadcasters, both in the short term with Nine and Ten’s current difficulties, but also over the medium-term, with the very sharp erosion of the basis on which broadcast television has operated, and the point is we’re not going to see local content directives for IPTV.”

Flew mentioned a telecommunications conference he attended recently in Singapore, on how to mandate local content from global internet providers: “The most contentions presentation came from France, and the French said basically: ‘we will get Google and others into a room and we will nut out an agreement on this’. So France was certainly seeing the principle as something they were going to try and enforce even in the face of impossibilities.”

But, he adds, “it would be very uncharacteristic in Australian media policy for a government to go to war with a large media company in an election year”.

That election threatens to put a deadline on much of the incipient reform. Flew says if there is a change in government, “the Finkelstein recommendations are dead in the water”. On the other hand, “the issues raised by the Convergence Review remain whoever the government is, and the question of the relevance of the local production industry remains”.

Flew thinks we could see a souped-up package of screen incentives, perhaps bundled together with the National Cultural Policy, presented as an election promise later in 2013. “It’s certainly the sort of thing that the government would be quite keen to go to the polls with,” he said.

As for his own review into classifications? There’s no word on the government’s response yet. Flew isn’t holding his breath. “Compared to what’s happened the National Cultural Policy, I’m relatively relaxed,” he chuckled.

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