As with so much this government does, there is still plenty of room for messing up on the planned, kind-of-but-not-quite-announced media inquiry. We still don’t know the terms of reference, what the inquiry is about, who will do the inquiry, how it will be done or anything else that might enable a sensible citizen to decide whether they are for or against it.

Nor has anyone yet explained properly whether and how this inquiry will be different from the Convergence Review already under way. Yet, the combination of pressure from the Greens and the government’s own media management makes it likely that terms of reference of some sort will be released very soon, perhaps today.

Meanwhile, News Limited publications are quick to pronounce it an attack on freedom of speech. And who can deny, no matter what Communications Minister Stephen Conroy tells caucus, that the prospect of keeping that company under scrutiny and pressure must be one of the things driving the government.

But simple attack? No.

The information I am getting, plus some reading between the lines of today’s news reports, suggests that the man of the moment is the chairman of the Australian Press Council, Julian Disney, who has had some long conversations with Conroy in recent weeks. As previously covered in Crikey, Disney has been leading a long overdue reform movement at the Press Council in recent times.

Now it may bear fruit, because what he proposes, and Conroy seems to be endorsing, is a beefed-up role. And the approach? See this draft submission from the Press Council to the Convergence Review.

It envisages, in the new converged environment, a single regulatory system covering all media. In this, a Press Council-like body would be responsible for setting standards, assessing compliance and advocating freedom of the media for all publishers, whatever the medium. It would be funded mainly by publishers, but also by government (and this would be new).

It would not be a statutory authority, but would have statutory powers to force the publication of adjudications of complaints and corrections, apologies and rights of reply.

It could not impose fines, but could refer matters to the next stage up of the proposed system — a government authority with broad statutory powers over media, including the ability to fine. A modified Australian Communications and Media Authority, which presently has powers over broadcast media only.

What is needed to make this work? One question is whether it would be compulsory for publishers to join, and hence help fund the proposed press council-style body. Remember we are talking all media here, online, broadcast and print.

One of the things the inquiry might look at is statutory incentives to membership. Otherwise, of course, the whole stack of cards falls over. A publisher on the end of a nasty adjudication from the council can simply walk away.

Interesting times. If the proposed media inquiry is going to be about this kind of regulation — of news media content — then it may well have a role that has not already been covered, or being covered, by convergence review or other inquiries that have already taken place into, for example, privacy.

As for forcing media companies, including News Limited, to divest? A silly idea. The present concentration of media ownership is due to previous government decisions, particularly those of the Hawke-Keating government. It is probably impossible and unfair to try and unravel  that through government decision, even if that was desirable.

New methods of preventing undue concentration of ownership are certainly needed, but the Convergence Review is already on the ball with that one, with more discussion papers due out very soon.

The other reason forced divestment is a bad idea is that, quite simply, nobody would buy the assets a News Limited might be forced to offload. Divestment in the present climate of collapsed business models  would simply mean fewer journalists, and less journalism.

There are, in my opinion, two areas in which an inquiry might be helpful. One is to explore how news content might be regulated, without undue limitation of freedom of speech. This is about the setting and scrutiny of standards.

The second area is about the broader future of journalism, and how we might move forward at a time when the companies that have done most journalism in the past are unlikely to survive in their present form.

In that area, a good government might well be useful. Incentives for new media start-ups, grants bounding off the potential of the National Broadband Network, tax-exempt status for not-for-profit journalism enterprises. It’s not hard to think up ideas.

So government could be useful — providing it keeps its sticky fingers out of the content.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey