The Convergence Review panel has been on tour and passed through Melbourne on August 9.  It’s largely a listening tour and to the panel’s credit, they are doing a lot of listening, though the appeal of the 10th reiteration of commonly recognised and agreed problems seems now to be fading.

Based on reports of the panel’s hearing in other cities, the Melbourne meeting added little. However, chair of the panel, Glen Boreham, did remark on the number of lawyers in the room. Perhaps Sydneysider Boreham mistook the de rigueur black of Melbourne winter fashion for legal weeds.

The meeting was attended by just over 40 and notable among the organisations angling for a seat at the table, was Free TV Australia and the Eddy-everywhere of media lobbying, Julie Flynn.

An unexpected contribution came from Susan Donnelly, the executive director of the Australian Major Performing Arts Group. For those not up on Australia Council politics, AMPAG was set up by Australia’s 28 largest performing arts companies to ensure their slice of the national arts-funding cake remained very large, though they prefer the terms viable and innovative.

AMPAG’s sector is enjoying increased exposure with live or delayed telecasts of theatre, opera and ballet, to electronic cinemas, and has much to gain with access to remote audiences online or by narrowcast, as do remote audiences themselves.

The group supports the continuance of the Australian content quota, but is keen that user-generated content should be excluded from the quota quantum. “Professional standards” must apply, according to AMPAG, to Australian content counted in the quantum. Glen Boreham acknowledged a conflict for himself between the pro-Australian content stance of Screen Australia that he chairs, and the neutral stance he should maintain for now as chair of the review panel.  But then, he counseled, “be careful of dismissing user-generated content”.

Brigit Fair, for the Seven Network, drew the panel’s attention to what she saw as the unequal treatment of television news and current affairs programming when compared with drama.  She stopped short of calling for a separate news quota, but said there was little incentive for television management to pursue excellence in the news field under present arrangements.

Her comments won support from Annabel Herd, of Network Ten, both ignoring the ancient cornerstone of television programming that “the news leads the night”.

On the other hand, they may have inadvertently revealed the true explanation for A Current Affair and Today Tonight.

The panel signalled that the information needs of communities, especially local news, was an issue for the panel.

Copyright, royalties, and the impact of the NBN also got some airings.

The contributors present at sessions in Sydney and Melbourne give the firm impression that this review is about screen convergence, but that’s not true.  The panel’s terms of reference address the convergence of technologies and practices across all electronic media and blurring across the print media’s online boundary and their use of video clips.

However, there seems to have been little input, for example, from radio.  And yet, given the concern evident in the issues paper for localism, radio, and in particular community radio, has had little to say.  To be fair, Adrian Basso, the manager of 3PBS-FM and president of the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia, attended the Melbourne meeting and indicated the CBAA was making a submission.  But there’s still time for individual stations and the commercial radio networks to have more of a say.

Throughout the hearing the panel hedged their comments with cautions that nothing they said should be taken to indicate outcomes.  They did indicate, however, that the old distinction of broadcasting, telecommunications, and radio communication were unlikely to be useful for future regulation.  Instead, a layered hierarchy seems a useful approach, with infrastructure at the bottom, overlaid by networks; then content and application; and finally devices.  Presumably, users, who were not mentioned, form the top-most layer, the beneficiaries of regulation of the sub-layers.

The central role of the media in the information economy of a functioning democracy is familiar to most of us, but we should also consider the way media also shapes our expectation of cultural citizenship and its duties and responsibilities.  In this too, news and current affairs has a disproportionate role and Herd’s and Fair’s call for better treatment of television news is interesting, but perhaps not in the way they intended.

A company’s board is bound by law to manage the company in the interests of its shareholders.  Television and radio broadcasters, internet service providers, cinema distributors and exhibitors are no less bound by that obligation simply because they provide experiences to the public that shapes opinions, dramatises ideas and set agendas.

To an extent, commercial broadcasters have a public service function, such as the ABC and SBS.  Should that function be formally recognised and commercial news and current affairs made more accountable for bias and accuracy?

On another front, Arts Minister Simon Crean released a discussion paper for the National Cultural Policy last week.  It is the first attempt to define the government’s approach to the arts and cultural sector since Paul Keating’s Creative Nation policy in 1994.

Like the classification of program content that’s being left with Professor Terry Frew and the Australian Law Reform Commission, cultural policy is woven through media policy as the media is so culturally pervasive.

The Convergence Review must grapple with the cultural consequence of regulation, because the kind of community, society and form of government we will have in the 21st century will be shaped by media regulation today.

We live in an era that favours deregulation, partly as recognition of the rights, authority, and dignity of the individual, and partly as a response to society’s unwillingness to fund regulatory bureaucracy through taxes.

What seems apparent is the Convergence Review is aware of the key role it must play but is scratching for answers, with little more than six months to find some.

In wrapping up the meeting, Glen Boreham made two things clear.  First, the panel had been well served by submissions that identified the issues.  Second, future submissions that dealt with solutions would be most welcome.

Meanwhile, separate teams had been formed to address the large heads of investigation, and discussion papers would be published in each field.

Boreham himself would handle Australian content; Malcolm Long would handle layering, licensing and regulation, and spectrum allocation and regulation; while Louise McElvogue would handle market structure and media diversity, and community standards.

With tight deadlines and a complex problem, the worry is that the panel will focus in on industry issues alone.  If it does, the larger issues of the way media regulation shapes Australia of the 21st century, will be left to the efflux of the marketplace whose hidden hand has been known to pleasure itself rather than serve the nation.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey