Australian media regulation is in for cultural change, with the Australian Communications and Media Authority planning to use social media and networking tools to open its work up for dialogue and interaction.

Former Sydney Morning Herald executive editor Tom Burton has been appointed to the authority with a brief to use social media to transform the way ACMA engages with industry and the public.

Burton comes fresh from Barack Obama’s Washington, where as Communications Director for the Centre for American Progress, he has been helping to implement the key, and stunning, changes in how government uses blogs, facebooks and wikis to interact with its citizens. (For examples, start with www.thewhitehouse.gov.)

So what might his appointment mean for ACMA — an agency that is known for is ponderous and laborious reports?

This morning Burton would not be drawn on how an active ACMA-run Twitter and Facebook presence might alter the handling of matters such as the recent Kyle Sandilands controversy, or the achingly late and therefore ineffective caning recently given to all three commercial free to air television networks over their reporting of Sudanese crime (that was not Sudanese crime).

Burton said: “There will be a lot of learning in this. There will be mistakes made, and it will be much more fluid, but there is plenty of evidence in the US that this sort of engagement works for government agencies. It improves decision making, and it improves stakeholders’ insights into how the agencies work.”

Burton said he was first sounded out about the job by ACMA Chair Chris Chapman during the latter’s visit to the USA late last year. The task, said Burton, was not about technology as such but about a “cultural disposition” to be more open and to be transformed by interactions with stakeholders.

“I was very clear, and Chris was very clear, that this was not a bandaid thing or a gimmick, but something that will make an enormous difference to an agency and its work,” said Burton.

This appointment is significant on a number of levels. First, Burton himself is a considerable figure in Australian media, having been not only a senior journalist and editor, not only an innovator in journalistic uses of the internet, but also an adviser to the then Minister for Communications, Michael Duffy, during the mid 1980s. Add to that his recent experience in Washington.

Secondly, there is the significance of what this might do to media regulation in Australia. ACMA has a big footprint – responsible for everything from spectrum regulation to media ownership laws to the handling of complaints about content, and more.

ACMA’s powers are limited, and the dictates of administrative law are hobbling.

In this environment, naming and shaming are key “social” powers that can be used to make sure standards are kept even when the law falls short.

But ACMA has had a low profile, has been slow in issuing findings on complaints and legalistic in its language.

Between the receiving of a complaint or the breaking of a media controversy, there is usually a long silence from ACMA during which those of us who follow such things are left guessing about the progress of an investigation.

Then there are matters such as the extraordinary failure – by the companies concerned and by ACMA – to realise for almost two years that Fairfax Media was in breach of the law because Director David Evans was also a Director of Village Roadshow.

Hardly the sign of an intensely engaged regulator.

ACMA’s media release about Burton’s appointment suggests this may be about to change, and be replaced by a more dynamic and fluid interaction with both the industry and the broader public.

There is an even bigger picture.

“Government 2.0” — the use of the networking capacities of the internet — is a big part of the Rudd Government’s agenda. Witness the release recently of the Government 2.0 taskforce report which is specifically referenced in ACMA’s media release about Burton’s appointment.

Both state and federal governments are deeply engaged with this Government2.0 stuff. There is certainly room for cynicism whenever public servants and politicians talk about open government, but being optimistic for a moment we can see that it might lead to real innovations in how regulators, in particular, do their work.

With Burton’s appointment we are likely to see ACMA exploring new, risky, but exciting methods of regulating the notoriously touchy, self-interested and powerful media industry. All the drama, the whinges, the special pleading and the mistakes will be in the open. Or that seems to be natural consequences of ACMA’s aspirations.

It’s bound to be interesting.

Peter Fray

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