Intriguingly, after knocking back an inquiry into the future of manufacturing and what the government can do to support it, Labor has agreed to a similar inquiry into the future of newspapers, another traditional sector struggling to adjust to structural change.

Manufacturing merely employs 9% of workers. Newspapers are much more important than that. Well, they are to politicians, and to journalists as well. That’s why there are acres of analysis and commentary today on a subject in which 98% of voters have absolutely no interest (as if, given the ensuing 1200 words, I’m in a position to criticise that).

The ever more diminished princes of print — or should that be doyens of downturn — John Hartigan and Greg Hywood, were quick to respond. Hartigan, complained about its political origins as a “witch-hunt” and that it should cover other media as well. It’s an odd complaint to make, because all media inquiries are political in nature. Traditionally they have been the pretext for governments to introduce politically motivated changes to the media regulatory framework.

But even though Hartigan’s comments are self-serving, it’s not entirely irrational for News Ltd to be concerned about media inquiries. For all the demonisation of Rupert Murdoch, the history of inquiries since the 1990s in Australia suggest News inevitably gets done over as a result of them, to the benefit of the FTA TV owners. While the TV networks have been given virtually anything they’ve asked for, News Ltd gets thrown sops such as “use it or lose it” that turn out to be illusory anyway. So Hartigan isn’t completely astray in complaining that newspapers have been singled out.

Hywood suggested that less regulation would help independent journalism, presumably a subtle comment on defamation laws.

Neither noted that governments — federal, state, local — already play a significant role in propping up newspapers courtesy of government advertising revenue, worth tens of millions a year, and the taxpayer, via political parties, routinely injects millions into them every couple of years via election campaign advertising. Classified advertising might be in terminal decline, but government and political advertising has never been stronger. Labor spent $14 million last year and the Coalition about $13 million on the 2010 election, of which newspapers would have received a substantial chunk, courtesy of taxpayers.

But let’s think in a little depth about the terms of reference that will guide Ray Finklestein and Matthew Ricketson. It might get a bit complex along the way for the casual reader, but bear with me.

Despite the “witch-hunt” claims and the whingeing from the Right about an attack on free speech, the logic of the terms of reference seems designed to reinforce the privileged position of major newspapers, not attack them. The terms of reference seem to accept the basic logic of the argument put forward by The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins that phone hacking was the fault of the internet, for undermining the traditional mainstream media business model and driving a race to the bottom (or in the case of Milly Dowler, through the bottom and beyond). Crucially, Jenkins argued that the internet was to blame in both its key areas of impact — via cheap content provision, which has wrecked newspaper business models, and via social media, which has somehow lowered the community standard on privacy and encouraged an obsession with gossip and prurience.

Let me grotesquely simplify a complex issue to explain: the internet has had two kinds of socio-economic impacts: we all initially thought the boundless ocean of content it provided to users was the revolutionary change wrought by new media. To use McLuhan’s phrase, the message (the content) was supposed to be the message (as in social impact), because there was so much more content than ever before. But in the past decade, and especially in the past five years and with the growth of mobile online access, interconnectedness, primarily via social media, has become the main socio-economic impact of the internet. How we use the internet is its biggest impact, bigger even than the content we get from it. As per McLuhan, it’s the medium (how we engage with it) that is the message of the internet, not the content.

Jenkins’s line, boiled right down, was that both of these, content and interconnectedness, have driven the pressures on the media that led to phone hacking.

He’s not alone in thinking that, even if he was alone in so blatantly dumping responsibility for the excesses of News International and News Corp executives on the rest of us (because that, after all, is what the internet is). Plenty of journalists, editors and media executives despise the internet not just for undermining their business model, but for undermining the authority and control of public debate they had in the analog era and turning passive consumers into interlocutors and disputants busy talking among themselves. It’s why News Ltd and particularly Fairfax love to attack social media.

That’s also the logic of the terms of reference, in focusing on the “impact of this technological change on the business model that has supported the investment by traditional media organisations in quality journalism and the production of news” and by suggesting an interest in bringing online publications under the remit of a beefed-up press regulatory regime. The latter is “regulatory parity” redux — the internet is already subtly threatened by the focus of the convergence review, into which the media inquiry will feed, where a core issue is whether new media should be regulated along the same lines as broadcasting, as per say the anti-siphoning laws or, as probably FreeTV Australia would prefer, broadcasters end up regulated like the internet, that is a lot less. The media inquiry suggests a similar approach regarding newspapers and the internet.

Suggesting a role for a press regulator — whether overhauled Press Council, or mega-ACMA covering newspapers — in relation to online publications is where the inquiry potentially comes closest to freedom of speech issues. But ultimately, like newspapers, any complaints process or other regulatory imposition on online sites has to be voluntary — there appear to be no constitutional grounds to enforce any regulatory framework on the mere act of free speech (which publishing a newspaper, or writing a blog, ultimately is). This is the core problem with any cross-media regulator.

There’s thinking in some unofficial quarters about whether regulatory reciprocity might form the basis of a stronger framework for newsprint and online — that is, if you want basic regulatory protections such as access to shield laws, you need to sign up for an effective complaints process. That’s fine for newspapers and maybe even a small outfit such as Crikey, but for bloggers is problematic, because complaints processes are a resource burden. And it would reverse the direction of the recent shield laws that extended protection to new media without restriction (courtesy of the Greens).

The better news for the print media is that the terms specifically open up a discussion about support for quality journalism, which may mean some form of financial support. For those convinced this would open the door to some sort of ABC-isation of the commercial media, bear in mind what I noted above, that the media already benefit from extensive but hidden taxpayer support. It might also provide a more valid basis for regulatory reciprocity — want to access a grant from the federal government’s new, you-beaut $30 million per annum Quality Journalism Fund? You have to be bound by a beefed-up Press Council, and so on.

Advocates of online media such as Eric Beecher will inevitably push the case that independent media (like, ahem, us) should also have access to whatever “support” for quality journalism a government might eventually decide on, if any. This could be a tough sell, not for any inherent flaws in the argument, but because the term “quality journalism”, despite having the status of motherhood, tends to be a loaded one, associated with one model of professional journalist and the companies that employ them, and the economic model that funds what is ultimately an output that costs far more than it can ever generate in revenue (see classified advertising, death of).

In any event, this will disguise only momentarily the basic problem that, even if Jenkins was wrong to blame phone-hacking on the internet, newspapers are under siege not just from internet content but from social media. And no amount of regulatory parity or support for quality journalism can lift that siege.

Peter Fray

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