“We’re working through the issues,” Senator Helen Coonan told Radio National’s Fran Kelly this morning. This can only be good, if tardy.

In the wake of all the fuss about the draft Bill to censor internet and mobile phone content, Coonan’s staff are this week talking to people, including book publishers, who clearly should have been consulted long before.

As reported in Crikey previously, late last year the Government released an “exposure draft” of legislation that would have introduced criminal penalties for providing “prohibited” and “potentially prohibited” content online and on mobile phones, using film classification guidelines as the standard.

The draft bill has now been taken off the table and there is a general acknowledgement that it was badly flawed. The notion of introducing criminal offences has been dropped in favour of giving ACMA powers to order material to be taken down.

This morning Coonan said her aim was to streamline the regulation of content so that guidelines were consistent no matter what the medium, and the focus was on the content itself rather than the means of delivery. All of which is sensible, but as the furor has demonstrated, not as simple as it sounds.

It is clear that Coonan never intended the draconian consequences of the Draft Bill, but it is extraordinary that things got as far as they did before commonsense – and broad consultation – stepped in.

In this morning’s interview Coonan didn’t yet seem to have a solution to one of the problems. The Government wants to make sure that content rated M15+ delivered over mobile phones cannot be accessed by people under 15.

Fair enough, but extending the M15+ category to all internet content would be unworkable. So how can it be achieved for mobile phones alone?

Also, if the film classification guidelines are to be applied to all media content, then how will e-books, many of which are likely to be rated as M15+ and which can already be delivered to mobile devices, be treated?

Coonan has assured the industry that nothing that is legal to sell in one form will become illegal online – but it isn’t clear how this will be achieved.

When Fran Kelly put the M15+ question about books to the Minister this morning, Coonan responded “we’re working through the issues”.

All this, of course, should have been done long ago. It is now clear that this legislation, originally scheduled for introduction in current session of Parliament, is unlikely to see the light of day before a comprehensive redraft.

Senator Coonan also gave a tickle to all those suffering from unresolved merger tension by saying she would make an “announcement” on proclaiming the new media ownership laws by mid year.

 Kelly asked Coonan the 15 billion dollar question on the proclamation date, and Coonan failed to give any firm commitment. Note the word she used was “announcement”, not “proclamation”.

Analysts have previously said that if the laws aren’t proclaimed by August, they are unlikely to come into force until after the federal election – which puts the pressure on Labor to say what it would do if it wins.

A media feeding frenzy, fuelled by anonymous foreign private equity cash, may be the last thing the Government needs in an election campaign when there are already sensitivities about iconic local companies falling into foreign hands.

On the other hand the Government can hardly afford to piss off the big media companies by squibbing it. Fifteen billion dollars of media deals hang in the balance.

This morning Coonan laid out three steps that had to be completed by the Australian Communications and Media Authority before the legislation could be proclaimed. First, the registers of who presently controls what in media have to be completed. This is done, or nearly done, she said. Second, work has to be done on the licence conditions and access requirements for the two new datacasting channels, due to be auctioned later this year. Lastly, the new body Digital Australia must be set up. This new organisation is meant to be the chief driver of the move towards digital broadcasting, so that the analogue signal can be switched off as planned by 2012, and we can enter the new era of spectrum plenty and new entrants.

Given that Coonan’s original stated aim was to ensure new entrants in media it is understandable why she wants to tick all the boxes that will aid this before proclamation – but it isn’t entirely clear that the last two of her steps are strictly necessary for the laws to be proclaimed.

If the Government wanted to ensure new entrants were in place before the merger feeding frenzy, then it should have delayed removing cross media ownership restrictions until the analog television signal could be switched off. This is the approach recommended by the Productivity Commission way back in 2000.

Is the Government deliberately hastening slowly? Labor, meanwhile, has said that it wouldn’t go ahead with Digital Australia and would reverse a decision to give ACMA more resources. Labor’s promised “pro-diversity” media policy is awaited with interest – and not a little scepticism – by the industry.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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