The Australian instinct for regulation seems to have a particular form in the mainstream media, of an instinct to regulate the internet. Like many instincts, it can be kept disguised or suppressed, but eventually it will emerge, usually when one is distracted or focused on something else.

The Press Council’s Julian Disney appeared at the media inquiry yesterday. The Press Council, or at least the idea of a press regulator, is the key issue for the inquiry because it’s where the issue of regulation of an unlicensed industry hits reality. Disney made it quite clear he wasn’t enamoured of comment threads on websites, calling them a “cacophony”. And a “cacophony” according to Disney, isn’t freedom of speech. “You can’t have free speech if you can’t hear what’s being said.”

The logic of that of course is that, in order to have proper freedom of speech, you need to suppress some freedom of speech. Cue clichés about destroying the village to save it, etc.

This isn’t the first time Disney has said this. He told the ABC in September that a cacophony “wasn’t a conversation” and that “we’re at that-someone described it again to me recently as the Wild West, and I think that’s a little true of the current situation on the internet. That doesn’t mean that we need to silence voices, but I think we need to give more assistance and I think the Press Council has an important role to play here, especially if we’re encouraged to do it.”

So, yet again, we’re being told the internet is the wild west and it’s time to close the frontier and impose civilization.

The internet, of course, is merely not Julian Disney’s idea of free speech. He runs a mainstream media-funded self-regulatory body, and the mainstream media regards the internet as the source of all its woes — the reason its revenue model has collapsed, the reason journalistic standards have dropped, the reason readerships are no longer content to passively absorb what journalists and editors think they want to read.

It’s true that giving a mechanism to the people formerly known as the audience to express their views can produce chaos. And, shockingly, there’ll be plenty of people who abuse the mechanism to say offensive things, even to break the law or defame someone. But the persistent problem with the mainstream media complaining about the abuse of free speech online is that it suggests the mainstream media never abuse free speech themselves, or that the impact of that abuse isn’t vastly greater than comments made under a news article, or on even the most widely-read blogs.

And hearing only a cacophony suggests Disney’s ears are still tuned to analog media, where oligopolies controlled what an atomised, fragmented audience was told. The internet, as I’ve discussed too many times to bear repeating, is connecting up the ex-audience into communities while it fragments the media, in effect reversing generations of mass media impact. The “cacophony” Disney hears are communities engaged in conversation, uncontrolled by the media proprietors that are ultimately responsible for his funding.

That’s why everyone’s struggling with the problem of how to extend the remit of a press regulatory body online. While the Press Council may have enough problems being taken seriously in regulating just newspapers, there’s considerable thinking going on about how websites could be included in the remit of a press regulator, and on what criteria they should be included. That thinking seems stuck along analog lines: the relevant spectrum here is not one that runs from large, corporate media down to small websites via independent commercial outlets like Crikey, but from traditional journalism to community conversations.

If there’s a key to the spectrum, it’s the level of centralised control, not size or independence.

The now-standard approach to resolving the issue of imposing centralised control on a decentralised system is to use service providers. Stephen Mayne in his appearance before the inquiry suggested that Google be a member of any press regulatory body and commit to basic standards in the sites it takes advertising from and places in search results, with the requirement that it would not distribute content from sites that regularly violated basic standards.

It reflects the approach of allowing ISPs ‘safe harbour’ if they comply with certain content requirements. But it also shunts costs down the line to the service provider and — as we’re seeing with copyright — can be the vehicle for mission creep that turns service providers into net cops.

It’s a mess, and hardly the fundamental problem with the Australian media. The real problem is getting mainstream media self-regulation to work effectively. You can worry about regulating the rest later.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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