Within hours of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s announcement of a minimalist approach to the Finkelstein and Convergence reviews, sections of the news media were sadly proving themselves incapable of fair coverage — with The Daily Telegraph at the pinnacle. We should not be surprised.
We have seen this kind of bollocks at every stage of the long-running debate about media regulation. The irony is both rich and well worn. Large sections of the media are incapable of fairly reporting matters touching their self-interest.
So it is best to start with what Conroy actually said. First, journalism standards. Amid all the claims of restrictions on freedom of speech, the fact is Conroy has done about as little as he could do, without being accused of doing nothing at all. His program amounts to a bit of extra pressure for industry self-regulation schemes to do what they claim to do, or to quote Lord Justice Leveson: to do what they say they do on the packet.
The saddest thing about the package Conroy announced is the opportunity to make news media regulation or self-regulation uniform across platforms has been lost, for the moment at least. Both Finkelstein and the Convergence Review, and almost every industry body consulted, recommended the approach be platform neutral. This would have represented a liberalisation of regulation for broadcast media.
Currently, under the Australian Communications and Media Authority, it is in theory possible for a statutory body to withdraw a broadcaster’s licence for breach of standards. This tends to be forgotten amongst those who portray any change from status quo as incursion of freedom of speech.
Of course, taking away a licence would never be done, and the hammer-to-crack-a-nut approach, plus the cumbersome nature of administrative law makes ACMA an ineffective regulator. Although there have been improvements in recent years.
But under Conroy’s approach outlined yesterday, print and online media will be regulated under a self-regulatory system, and broadcast will remain with ACMA. Why on earth? This makes no sense at all in a converged media world.
Possibly it is because the Australian Press Council, the body most likely to succeed as the model of the future, is still recovering from its many decades as a sorry piece of window dressing. It has neither the resources, nor the systems, in place to be ready to take on the greatly increased workload of broadcast media. Its reforming chairman, Julian Disney, has always preferred a few years to get the house in order before looking for more work.
The other reason why Conroy’s approach is minimalist, and no threat to freedom of speech, is that the membership of beefed up self-regulation schemes remains entirely voluntary. To encourage membership, the government has chosen only one carrot: making the existing news media exemption from the Federal Privacy Act contingent on membership of a self-regulation body that meets certain standards.
If you are a news media corporation and you don’t want to join such a body, that’s fine — but you will have to comply with the Privacy Act. The reality is that will involve you in such a bureaucratic burden that you would be mad not to join up for self-regulation instead.
As for the standards the industry self-regulation body will have to meet, we await the detail. Preliminary indications are the Press Council, after its recent reforms, is almost up to the mark. Conroy’s package would spur it over the final barriers.
“… this is about as minimalist a response as it is possible to get, though perhaps more than one would expect in an election year.”
But the independent operation set up by Seven West Media after its dummy spit over Disney’s reforms to the APC is unlikely to meet the standards in its present form. So Seven West will either have to brave the Privacy Act, reform its self-regulation body or rejoin the Press Council.
That’s if Conroy’s package is passed, which you would have to say is unlikely.
The other thing Conroy ruled out is government funding for industry self-regulation. So all this lifting of standards and improvement of processes has to be financed by the industry. Good luck with that.
The self-regulation bodies will be masters of their own destiny within the standards set. There will be no court of appeal, no legal sanction, no risk of editors and journalists going to jail (as was possible under Finkelstein’s approach). The role of the Public Interest Advocate in the area of journalism standards is merely to designate which self-regulation bodies meet the standards and which don’t.
As for the public interest test on mergers and takeovers, we need the detail to judge. Conroy’s words suggest it is not going to be a “fit and proper person test”, which is probably what the Greens would like to see, but which history has shown to be both nasty and legalistic in operation.
Lots of people seem to have missed the very limited reach of the public interest test. It will cover only PAID services, with more than about 60,000 customers. That means major newspapers and subscription television, and perhaps in the future paid web-based news services with a substantial subscriber base.
Crikey, with around 15,000 subscribers, would not be caught, despite its more substantial traffic on the free website. So Crikey could be merged or taken over by News Limited (what a thought) without a public interest test being applied.
Probably, the recent sale of Business Spectator to News Limited would not be caught under this regime, because its subscriber numbers were below the necessary level. The Conversation, the Andrew Jaspan-founded not-for-profit, could be bought or merged without falling afoul of public interest tests because it is a free service.
So the test will apply only to changes of ownership among the big boys, and not cover all of their interests.
All in all, after all the work and controversy, this is about as minimalist a response as it is possible to get, though perhaps more than one would expect in an election year. Most people expected Conroy to do nothing, given the forthcoming election. He has clearly had to work hard to get even this much up, with the big money hard questions — like the 75% reach rule — put off for another day.
The time limit imposed by Conroy for passage of the bills means that whatever happens, it will not preoccupy during the election. The time limit will also concentrate the minds of the Greens and independents by making it clear this is the most they will achieve for the foreseeable future.
The most one can say is that if this is passed — and that is unlikely — it is a small pebble in the foundations for any future action, with platform neutral regulation of media standards surely the most obvious thing to remain undone.