After 340 written submissions and some 28,000 comments from cross-country consultations, the Convergence Report is finally here. The 177-page final document landed as Crikey hit deadline, giving media proprietors and their conflicted employees who report on it plenty to chew over.
The report recommends abolishing cross-media laws in favour of a “public interest test” and replacing the Australian Communications and Media Authority with a new statutory regulator for digital media, while supporting an industry-led independent regulator for journalistic standards and ethics. Bernard Keane and others will provide analysis for Crikey tomorrow.
But even before they could be sure of precisely what it contained, many of those who claim to speak for the press in Australia were lining up to damn the report.
This pre-emptive strike was legitimised by Mark Day’s front-page “exclusive” in The Australian last Thursday, which outlined some of the major recommendations in the review’s final report. Day tried to cover his tracks behind such stock phrases as “it is understood” and “it is believed”, but there’s little doubt he had access to at least an executive summary, if not the entire report.
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We can speculate on the source and timing of the leak to Day, and the fact he’s an unreconstructed Murdoch loyalist who writes for a newspaper that has campaigned relentlessly against Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, the man who instituted the review. Suffice to say it’s customary for the individuals and institutions most affected by a government report to be extended the courtesy of seeing an embargoed version some days before its public release. If custom was followed in this instance, News Limited would certainly have been in that loop.
Notably reluctant to respond to the mega-leak was Australian Press Council chair Julian Disney who offered no comment. That may have been because he was waiting to read the full report; more likely is that Disney was in a state of shock.
What probably struck him dumb is a key recommendation that there should be a new regulatory body for the entire media sector with real teeth, including the legal authority to impose fines and sanctions. This would effectively sideline the APC and its whole feeble charade of “compliance” and “self-regulation” — exactly the outcome most feared by the press proprietors when they hurriedly doubled the council’s funding and strengthened its so-called powers.
The inevitable fate of the APC if the Convergence Review recommendations become law is that it will be reduced to little more than an industry lobby group. Newspaper owners would keep it going as a way to intercept or defuse complaints that might cause them real difficulties if they proceeded to a statutory hearing, but the dream of a truly substantial APC is over. Disneyland looks headed for profound insignificance.
More interesting are the subtle shades of difference now emerging between the major newspaper groups as they position themselves for their inevitable resistance campaign.
Fairfax is trying hard not to be tarred with the same brush that’s blackening News Limited. “Despite the British scandal,” said an editorial in The Sydney Morning Herald, any new regulatory body to oversee media standards would be “an overreaction”. It goes on:
“Murdoch exercises control over politicians because politicians have allowed him to assume control over too much of the media. The solution to the Murdoch problem, if that is what it is, is media diversity — not another bureaucracy.”
Fair point, but the SMH doesn’t enlighten us as to how this increased media diversity is to be achieved — or how Murdoch’s market dominance should be constrained.
It’s no surprise that the official News Limited response to the Convergence Review (as expressed in The Australian’s editorial on Friday) is to attack the man, not the ball. Conroy is apparently to blame for everything.
If there is to be “a new media watchdog”, argues the Oz, then its first two jobs should be to investigate the government’s $300 million rebates to TV licence holders, and the awarding of the Australia Network contract to the ABC. You’d think those self-interested sour grapes would have withered on the Holt Street vine months ago, but clearly not.
From there it was an easy leap for The Australian to paint itself as the victim:
“We find ourselves caught in an environment where the national government’s strategy for survival has involved impugning the integrity of sections of the media without evidence … we think it will be impossible to implement any effective changes while Senator Conroy is the responsible minister.”
The News Limited papers will rail long and loud against Conroy and the review but no amount of bluster can hide one central, embarrassing truth: Murdoch and his newspapers brought this on themselves.
It was the ethical outrages of their phone-hacking and backroom shenanigans over the BSkyB bid that provided the opening for politicians in the UK and Australia to demand that News Corporation finally be held to public account for its behaviour.
Emboldened by the sight of Murdoch and his minions on the back foot for once, they created the parliamentary inquiries and committees that have exposed the way Murdoch does business. The resulting moral pressure on governments to “do something” about press regulation is, in the end, what’s behind the Convergence Review recommendations.
It’s a classic “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” comeuppance, and there’s an appealing biblical magnificence about the way this justice is now being visited upon News Limited’s head.