With only two weeks of the federal parliamentary sitting year to go, the government is down to the wire on one of the biggest issues it has attempted to tackle — a system of media regulation fit for the times.
The Convergence Review, which reported in May this year, was big and overdue. Previous communication ministers had variously fiddled and wimped out, ever since the Howard government failed to implement the Productivity Commission’s landmark report at the beginning of this century. A root and branch review was well overdue.
So Stephen Conroy got deserved pats on the back for appointing the Convergence Review, and giving it a broad brief. Since we live in an increasingly media enabled world, its recommendations — covering everything from Australian content to media ownership to how the broadcasting spectrum is divvied up and doled out — had the potential to impact on just about every aspect of our lives over the decades to come.
And that is even before one considers the rushed add-on of the Finkelstein inquiry, charged with considering news media regulation, with its controversial recommendation (rejected by the Convergence Review) of a statutory News Media Council. (Read Crikey‘s previous summary of the Convergence Review recommendations in this area.)
It’s all very big, very difficult and very important. But will the government actually manage to do anything?
For the last six months, those concerned with this issue have been on tenterhooks, led to expect announcements were just days away. Lives have been out on hold, holidays cancelled. But the decisions have been supposedly days away for weeks and weeks. Now the government is down to the wire. A decision will be made on whether or not to push ahead in the next 48 hours. None of it is easy. The Convergence Review was perhaps necessarily broad brush. There are very few areas in which it gave the government a clear legislative path to follow.
We know Conroy’s attitude on some things — for example, he favours a public interest test for changes in media ownership. On news media regulation, my understanding is the government is more inclined to the Convergence Review’s approach of giving the industry another chance to get serious about self regulation — with a beefed-up all-media Australian Press Council as the foundation — rather than leaping straight to the Finkelstein statutory authority approach.
But even here there are problems and unanswered questions. The Convergence Review left lots of things unanswered. For example, how will publishers be forced to join a self-regulatory body without some statutory backing? Matthew Ricketson, who assisted Finkelstein, has drawn attention to other paradoxes and problems with the Convergence Review’s approach.
Since the Convergence Review reported, the publisher members of the Australian Press Council have in any case made changes, signing up to increases in funding and long-term funding contracts. If these changes had been made before the Finkelstein exercise it’s likely the recommendations of that inquiry would have been different.
Yet even so, the attempts of the industry to reform and strengthen the Press Council were undermined by the departure of Seven West Media. It lent force to the argument that a self-regulation body that can be abandoned at will is always going to be weak and dependent on the goodwill of those it is meant to police. Seven strengthened the arguments for a statutory approach.
The view around the traps is the government favours the carrot and stick approach. The idea is to make various privileges and protections available to news media and journalists contingent on membership of an acceptable self-regulation scheme like the Press Council. This would require changes to several laws: the exemption from the Privacy Act, the exemption from the misleading and deceptive conduct provisions of the Competition and Consumer Act, shield laws, whistleblower legislation, the list goes on.
Can this be done in the dying days of the current parliament? Will the government regard it as strategic to push it through?
Another approach being discussed is to effectively shelve the issue for now, but to put the news media on notice that it should get its own house in order within a set time period or face statutory intervention — a hollow threat, perhaps, given the likely longevity of this government.
All that is before you even consider the big-money decisions relating to content regulation and the like. Those questions are also urgent. Our stressed commercial free-to-air broadcasters are regulated one way, the new internet-based “broadcasting” services are regulated quite differently. Sensible platform-neutral reform is badly needed. The present legal arrangements simply won’t do much longer. In fact, they are already anachronistic.
Then there is media ownership, an urgent issue if ever there was one, including the thorny question of a public interest test.
If the government doesn’t announce its approach by early next week then nothing will happen this year. Next year is an election year; not an ideal time to be taking on the big boys of media. Suddenly, recasting media regulation for the modern age may again prove too big a job.
Whatever your views on the best approach, that would be a sad outcome.
*Declarations: I made a submission and appeared before the Finkelstein inquiry. The Centre for Advanced Journalism at the University of Melbourne, of which I am the director, has organised a number of public events at which speakers have discussed news media regulation, including speeches by News Limited CEO Kim Williams, Australian Press Council chair Julian Disney, Matthew Ricketson and shadow minister Malcolm Turnbull. The centre has invited Stephen Conroy to appear at a future event but has not had a reply.