New Communications shadow minister Nick Minchin has declared that there seems to be an awful lot of regulation in the broadcasting sector and he’d like to think about ways to reduce it.
They always start off like that, every time.
Minchin is not a complete newcomer to Communications. As Finance Minister he was heavily involved in issues like the sale of Telstra, and broadcasting-specific issues like digital funding to the ABC and SBS, and the establishment of Digital Australia, the body designed to accelerate Australia’s snail-like move to digital broadcasting.
Minchin’s department wasn’t enamoured of the idea of Digital Australia, or more particularly funding it. One of my favourite moments of bureaucratic madness remains the argument by a Finance officer that the uptake of digital television in Australia could be expedited if senior officials hired a car and drove from town to town in regional Australia, spruiking the benefits of set-top boxes.
To save Minchin – and everyone else – some time in his new role, let me lay out the pathway that he will inevitably take, the pathway that everyone takes in the Communications portfolio, and maybe he can just go straight to the end, saving himself a lot of trouble.
1. Come in with some preconceived notions of broadcasting policy, the things that you’ve always wanted to do. Unlike, say, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme or targeted industry assistance, media regulation is the sort of area where everyone has an opinion.
2. Discover that your opinions don’t quite fit with the facts once you actually analyse the subject matter. “Fixing” the ABC proves impossible because you don’t have any control other than to appoint board members. Stopping commercial TV from broadcasting offensive material like Big Brother proves impossible because the entire media regulatory framework is a joke. Making commercial radio in small towns run local content makes them unviable. Etc.
3. Discover that even in the areas where you have control, there’s a complex web of competing interests that have to be balanced if you take action because of decades of tinkering by governments of both stripes. Don’t like the anti-siphoning list? You’d have to somehow reward free-to-air TV. Want to loosen the cross-media rules? You have to give News Ltd something too because otherwise they don’t benefit. Want more local stuff on the ABC? Producers will whinge unless you make them outsource production. Etc.
4. Meet the industry lobbyists and moguls, who’ll explain in great detail, over and over, what a raw deal they get compared to their competition.
5. Meet the Prime Minister’s/Opposition Leader’s broadcasting adviser, who’ll explain in great detail, over and over, why you can’t do anything to upset News Ltd, Fairfax or, particularly, the commercial TV networks.
6. In the event you become Communications minister, spend an eternity crafting a complex plan that provides negligible reform with a raft of trade-offs for all the “disadvantaged” sectors that sufficiently minimises any pain so that the PMO and Cabinet ticks it off.
7. Have the bill buggered up in the Senate because some independent senator or the National Party jacks up and demands changes that ruin the whole thing.
8. Give up and settle for making the occasional speech about the wonders of the internet.
You might note that none of these steps involves considering the interests of the people who actually use the media, but they’re the last people who should be asked about what sort of media they want.
I strongly urge Senator Minchin to go straight to step #8. After all, Senator Conroy is already there.