The word on the grapevine is that Senator Helen Coonan is determined to get her package of media reforms through the Senate, even though many of her colleagues are starting to wonder what the point is.
Coonan’s latest display of grit was yesterday’s speech to the Millennium Forum. It has been variously interpreted as a “put up or shut up” to the National Party (David Crowe, in yesterday’s AFR) or an indication that she is prepared to compromise.
Meanwhile Opposition spokesman Stephen Conroy has accused her of suggesting that the rise of Internet content sharing site YouTube in some way justifies the dilution of cross media ownership laws, proving, he says, “that the Minister is dangerously out of touch with reality.”
Conroy’s interpretation is a bit disingenuous. Coonan clearly acknowledges the fringe nature of the Internet.
The problem here is that Conroy emphasises news and information, and Coonan is talking entertainment. It is an important distinction. There is no particular public interest in having a diversity of soap operas, but there is a public policy interest in having a high level of diversity in news and commentary.
Here we are back again at the central issue in media regulation – the division between journalism on the one hand, and media on the other.
They are not the same thing. Media is the business of delivering audiences to advertisers. Journalism has an older and different purpose. Journalism is enmeshed with media, but the two are not one and the same. Confusing them leads to bad policy.
Take Coonan’s “voices” test in the new legislation. What is a voice? It seems that a music radio station counts equally with a newspaper, yet only one delivers journalism.
Further, it is quite possible to have diversity of ownership but sameness of content. In fact, one might argue that is what we have now, particularly from the Canberra Press Gallery.
On the other hand it is quite possible to have one owner and diverse content – take the difference between Women’s Weekly and The Bulletin – both ACP.
To call these publications one “voice” is surely ridiculous. Yet what else can legislators do?
It’s not possible to legislate for diversity and independence in journalism, mired as it is in the vagaries of newsroom politics and culture and the relationships between proprietors and editors.
So instead legislators must concentrate on the only aspect of diversity that is definable and regulatable – ownership.
Other interesting points in Coonan’s speech were her acknowledgement that the Government was to blame in 2000 for restricting the definition of datacasting so much that the spectrum could not be sold.
As well, in what sounded like a desperation plea, she described her package as a transitional strategy: “It is designed to avoid the wholesale destruction of the current industry and provide an achievable plan to transition Australia to digital switchover.”
What wholesale destruction does she mean? There is no reason to believe that the free to airs would crash and burn, although their long term decline can probably not be avoided.
But the thing that struck me most about Coonan’s speech is the almost paradoxical statement of her ambition: “I want my legacy to be the new services that emerge for Australian consumers – whether it is new digital channels, digital multi-channels or mobile TV.”
What new services is she talking about? In the immediate future, only limited in- the-home datacasting and mobile television, which seems likely to fall into the hands of the existing free to air television providers.
This has nothing to do with diversity, and precious little to do with encouraging uptake of digital television technology in the home.
And so it is that Coonan’s package is full of Orwellian language, in which new services means restrictions on the use of technology, and diversity means protection for incumbents.
But there is no doubting her determination. Three times the Government has tried to reform media legislation, she says: “This time around the prospects are good and the arguments for change are compelling. This time we must do it.”
I agree. Digital broadcasting must come, and the sooner the better. But surely not like this.