Where are the journalist activists of
yesteryear? Gone in to government jobs, relaxed and comfortable, retired or
perhaps just plain tired. In any case they are very quiet.

Yesterday was the closing date for
submissions on Senator Helen Coonan’s discussion paper on media reform. After all the inquiries and abortive attempts at reform over the last ten years,
nobody will have said anything they haven’t said many times before, but the
notable thing is the lack of submissions and general noise from journalists,
activists and the like.

Compare this to the late 1980s, which was
the last time there was significant change to media ownership
legislation. Then, journalists led the protests – albeit
unsuccessfully. It is not that there are no efforts underway, but they are comparatively low key.

The biggest and most dangerous failure is
that nobody is coming up with alternative proposals to Coonan’s. What should
good media regulation look like in the new age? Someone in addition to the government should be grappling with this
question. Of course media moguls are self serving when they say the digital age
makes current laws outdated. Nevertheless it is also true that technological
change means the present media regulations won’t do for very much longer.

Don’t look to Labor. Its policy is to
leave things as they are. Perhaps, as suggested here, and here,
the Shadow Minister, Stephen Conroy, has been too busy with other matters. There is also the fact that so much of Coonan’s
proposals remains uncertain, which makes responding to her a bit like wrestling the
marshmallow man.

She has yet to say when the cross-media
ownership laws will change. Most commentators assume the changes are imminent,
but Coonan’s discussion paper nominates two possible dates – next year, or when
the analogue television signal is switched off, which won’t be until between
2010 and 2012. It’s a crucial point. Different dates are likely to lead to
quite different outcomes.

Second, Coonan has not yet defined the
parameters of the new Datacasting services to start next year. The only thing
that divides Datacasting from fully fledged television is government
regulation, and Coonan is using these new services to tread a delicate
political line between allowing new services while not competing with the existing
free to air television moguls.

The new services might include
narrowcasting or broader based subscription services. Coonan clearly has some
things in mind, but isn’t giving away the detail.

In short there is opportunity in the new
world, as well as threat and missed chances. Her package is not only about lifting cross-media ownership
restrictions.

Back in the 1980s, the best informed and
most cogent campaigners on media reform were journalists and their supporters. My
guess is that most journalists are too besieged and bemused by the speed of
change to propose alternatives. But it’s time – in fact, past time – to get with
it again.

Peter Fray

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