The main question about the letter sent to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition by the heads of News Limited, Foxtel, Nine, Ten, Sky, AAP and APN — obtained by Crikey today — is whether they seriously believe some of the posturing contained in it or, behind closed doors, they too struggle to take it seriously.
It’s interesting, also, seeing the name of the new head of Seven West Media, Don Voelte, on the letter. Voelte, as everyone knows, is the former head of Woodside. He was, in that role, a serial critic of the government and one of the biggest (and most successful) rent-seekers in the carbon price debate. And under Voelte, Woodside abandoned its no-donations policy to contribute to the WA Liberal Party in 2008-09 as part of its campaign against the Rudd government’s CPRS. Now here’s Voelte at the head of another industry campaign against the government.
This is, let there be no mistake, media policy the old-fashioned way. The great tradition of Australian media policy, right from the time radio licences were first handed out, is for politicians to take their instructions from incumbents. The only thing unusual about this letter is the breadth of signatories, who include free-to-air television networks and subscription TV, although that might reflect the extent to which they are now often indirectly linked through webs of family ownership.
The letter, correctly, takes an almighty swipe at the public interest test proposed by the Convergence Review and said to be under consideration by the government. Some of the detail in the criticism is wrong — the ACCC does not have “extensive powers to preserve media diversity in its administration of pro-competition laws”; in fact it has no powers of any kind to preserve media diversity; its powers relate to competition in identified markets, which don’t include nebulous “marketplaces of ideas” but rather specific product markets like advertising and content. But its overall tenor is correct. A public interest test is bad policy that won’t even give diehard critics of the media what they want, let alone serve the, erm, public interest.
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Beyond that, however, delusion begins to set in. The letter rails against anything other than self-regulation of the media, on the basis that anything involving government funding, or government regulation, or an ability for the government to request investigation by an independent regulator, or oversight of industry codes of practice, are a direct threat to freedom of speech. This is despite the fact that four of the seven signatories are broadcasters who operate under a government-established and funded co-regulatory model that no one seriously suggests is a threat to free speech — indeed is commonly regarded as inappropriately light-handed.
The continual insistence that free speech is under threat without a demonstration of how it is under threat, especially when broadcasting is currently regulated by government without apparent restriction, is one of the most galling features of the debate over press regulation, particularly for those of us who take free speech seriously for everyone, not merely ourselves.
There’s no doubt these moguls and mini-moguls see themselves as heroes. “Since the time of Magna Carta there has been a progressive empowerment of the citizenry in making those in power accountable, accessible and addressable [sic]. Central to that process over the last three centuries has been the operation of the media.” But that vaunted centrality lends a curious aspect to the section of the letter that insists that the media isn’t comparable to the medical profession and shouldn’t be tightly regulated. “Doctors deal with health and well-being of our citizens (i.e. life and death). We deal in reporting, news, opinion and entertainment.”
Hmmm, so much for the Magna Carta.
The really silly bit, though, flows from a complaint about “how little the [Convergence] Review reflected what is going on with consumers and technology. It also put startlingly little faith in the abundant good sense of Australians to make up their own minds. The Convergence Review’s instinct appears, in too many instances, to be to recommend heavy-handed regulation rather than ‘regulatory forbearance’. It is we suggest a patronising approach to consumers and out of touch with the temperament of the time.”
To read media proprietors, and in particular the heads of the Seven and Nine networks, complaining about “patronising consumers” is rich indeed. The commercial television industry, which has tightly controlled media regulation in Australia for decades, built its entire business model on patronising consumers and preventing them from making up their own minds — preventing or strangling competition that might have offered consumers wider choice, treating them with contempt in the provision of valued content (particularly sport), regularly adjusting its own code of practice to allow itself to make more money from advertising — not to mention taking hundreds of millions of dollars in handouts from taxpayers over the past decade.
Voelte ought to be careful. When it comes to rent-seeking and whingeing, even he looks like an amateur compared to his new colleagues.