News media self interest being what it is, most commentary on the Convergence Review’s recommendations on media content standards has focused on journalism, and the ditching of the Finkelstein report’s recommendation for a statutory regulator of news media. Crikey covered this aspect of the report earlier this week.
But what about all the rest? The films, the computer games, the YouTube videos, the DVDs, the iViews and the Netflix-type providers? How does the Convergence Review balance its deregulatory vibe with its assertion that content standards are still necessary, because the community expects them and because failing to restrict access to some content can do harm?
For this part of its work, the review team had help. Not only was there the Fink to do the heavy lifting on news media, there was also the Australian Law Reform Commission, which at the same time as the Convergence Review got to work, was considering what reforms were needed to the National Classification Scheme — the mechanism that delivers those handy ratings such as PG, M, M15+ and so forth on, used by so many citizens to decide what films and computer games our children should be exposed to.
While the Convergence Review disagreed with the Fink’s prescription for news media, it picked up and endorsed the ALRC’s work. But that isn’t the end of the matter, because the Classification Scheme doesn’t deal with all media content. For example, films in cinemas get caught in its net, but not, directly in any case, films broadcast on television.
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In fact, as the Convergence Review says, the whole business of content standards is a mess. Radio and television content is regulated, not through the National Classification scheme, but by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, which works with a mixture of codes developed by the broadcasters, and its own regulations — although those codes often refer to the National Classification Scheme ratings.
And the laws relating to how classified content such as DVDs are restricted vary from state to state.
ACMA, by its own admission, lacks an appropriate range of powers. In theory it can pull a licence off a broadcaster, but that is so draconian a reaction that in real life it is unlikely ever to be used. ACMA lacks what the lawyers call mid-range sanctions, such as fines and other penalties. It is also hobbled by the processes of administrative law, which means the process of acting on complaints is, as the Convergence Review report puts it, “cumbersome and elongated”.
Another problem is that a citizen can only complain to ACMA after first approaching the broadcaster concerned, and failing to get satisfaction. And the broadcasters, so adept at meeting tight deadlines in every other branch of their commercial lives, take every minute of the allowable time to respond to complaints and the regulator.
Meanwhile, the ABC and SBS run their own race under their charters and codes of practice, with some oversight by ACMA. And the internet is hardly regulated at all, except for the most noxious kinds of material, which ACMA can have pulled down.
None of this makes sense or is much use at a time when the TV in the corner of the living room — or in the child’s bedroom — might be used in the course of a single evening to screen conventional broadcast television or, at the flick of the button, the latest video downloaded from iTunes, or YouTube content, or ABC iView, or a DVD.
Now, ACMA has been active in lobbying over all this, authoring several reports over the past year or so drawing attention to the problems. It has also conducted research on community attitudes to content regulation, which the Convergence Review quotes liberally and relies on heavily.
Long story short, the research shows that people want content regulated according to similar standards no matter what platform it is delivered on. People want meaningful ability to complain, followed by corrections, apologies and restitution where appropriate. They also want help in making decisions on what to view, and how to keep their children safe from harmful content.
So, what does the Convergence Review recommend?
First, it says that content should be regulated in a consistent fashion, regardless of the platform it is delivered on. All those who make significant amounts of money distributing content to the Australian public should be subject to the same regulatory regime.
Second, feature films, TV programs and computer games should be classified by a new classifications authority, which will be part of the Convergence Review’s recommended new nimble regulatory body, although having statutory independence. That brings films, television and games all under the same system, rather than the different systems they are regulated under now.
Third, differing state regimes for restricting access to media content should be brought under uniform national legislation.
Lastly — and this is perhaps one of the newest things in the report — consideration should be given to a public education campaign about the parental lock controls that reside in modern televisions. The suggestion is that these might be issued, by law, with default settings, able to be varied by the user, that automatically protect children from certain kinds of content.When it comes to the internet, the review report says that the sheer volume of adult material online means that formal classification schemes are unlikely to work. Reliance will have to be on people making complaints. But as well, the front-line of regulation should be on restricting access to 18+ or X18+ type content. Content service providers should be forced to take “reasonable steps” to restrict access. And, again, there is a suggestion that using things such as parental locks and net nannies sold with default settings might become a compulsory part of the Australian scene.
That leaves the standards pertaining to children’s content. At the moment, times of day are set aside during which television broadcasters can screen only content suitable for children, and there are restrictions on the ads and news content that can be shown as well.
Commercial broadcasters hate this. It eats into potential revenue, and it is hardly surprising that they argued in submissions to the review that time zone restrictions are no longer sensible, desirable or necessary, given the numerous ways the family TV set is used.
The Convergence Review only buys that argument up to a point. It says that most viewing is still on free-to-air television, and the ACMA research shows that people still want time zoning to protect children.
So the recommended approach is for only small changes, at least in the short term, with reviews aimed at achieving a bit more flexibility around advertising in children’s television time, and broadcasters allowed to use their multichannels to meet their legal quotas for children’s content.
The review report recommends the time zoning issue should be reviewed again once Australia has entirely switched over to digital television. And, again, the report indicates that the future emphasis should be on the technological protections, such as parental locks and the like.
So, what will all this mean to the average viewer of content? No fundamental changes in principle, but a more uniform approach.
Perhaps of most practical importance for consumers, if these recommendations are adopted there will be a one-stop shop for complaints about media content and a more nimble regulator with a wider range of means to make content service providers do the right thing.
But as with the whole of the Convergence Review report, there are many unanswered questions — many things put off for further review, the development of codes and procedures and the discretion of the new flexible regulator.