One reason I love the ABC’s Media Watch is that it raises important issues of principle. Sometimes, however, it gets itself hopelessly on the wrong side of them, and last night was one example.

In the program’s second story, “Radio without Rules“, Monica Attard was concerned about the phenomenon of “internet radio” — specifically, a “station” called netFM that puts out a variety of offensive material. As she said, it “doesn’t have a radio licence because it doesn’t need one and it’s not restrained by the usual codes of practice that apply to commercial, subscription or community networks.”

But there’s a good reason for that: it’s because “internet radio” isn’t really radio at all. It’s not being broadcast; it just travels down the wires to your computer in exactly the same way as any other internet content. If it can be regulated, so can anything else on the internet.

The question this raises is, “why do we regulate radio?” For anyone who thinks that the answer is something like “because it’s received in people’s homes as sound”, it would be mysterious why we don’t regulate “internet radio” as well. But then, it would also be mysterious why we don’t regulate telephone calls.

The real answer, of course, is because the broadcasting spectrum is a scarce resource. Not everyone can use it at once; frequencies have to be allocated somehow. Allocating them by a government licensing scheme is pretty unsatisfactory, but it’s better than no scheme at all.

The internet, however, isn’t like that; there are billions of pages on the web, and adding more doesn’t interfere with what’s already there. Unlike radio (or television), one provider isn’t taking up space that could be used by someone else. So no licensing, so no need for specific regulation.

We already have plenty of laws (too many, in fact) to catch objectionable content: fraud, sedition, defamation, blasphemy, racial vilification and more. If none of those apply, how bad can something be?

That’s not to defend netFM’s programming; the extracts Media Watch featured ranged from puerile to downright nasty. But it’s nothing compared with some of what you can find on the internet. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to read, or listen.

Peter Fray

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