Media Reform And A Missed Opportunity

Has Stephen Conroy forgotten why he began this media debate?

It wasn’t because of the phone hacking scandal in the United Kingdom. Nor was it Bob Brown describing News Limited papers as the “hate media”.

And it certainly wasn’t any discernible community unhappiness about the Australian Press Council. (Media Watch might be obsessed with newspaper codes of ethics but please try to remember that Media Watch is not a representative sample of the population.)

No, none of that. In 2010, Conroy launched an inquiry that the communications and media sector had long been desperate for – the Convergence Review.

This review was meant to take a holistic look at the way the technological change was undermining the regulations that govern media, telecommunications, and broadcasting. It was quite an undertaking. We’ve more than a century of built-up regulatory frameworks which limit what media we can enjoy and the circumstances in which we can enjoy it. It is universally agreed these frameworks are out of date and counter-productive. I covered some of the issues in the Drum in 2011.

Indeed, the Convergence Review was everything the Howard government’s 2006 media reform changes should have been. It was forward-thinking and technologically aware – rare qualities for government inquiries. Politicians like to talk about future-proofing but they’re always focused on the politics of the day.

(There was a smaller, now-forgotten review into converging media back in the days of Richard Alston. Nothing came of it. The government was mired in the grubby politics of the switch to digital television broadcasting.)

Sixty-nine separate organisations, from Skype to Blind Citizens Australia, gave submissions on the Convergence Review’s draft terms of reference alone.

The review released five comprehensive discussion papers and one interim report. There were hundreds of submissions along the way. There were public hearings in eight cities. The final report, published in March 2012, was 200 pages long.

I don’t want to be too complimentary. That final report had many problems. It had been given an impossible task. The Convergence Review had to a) radically overhaul the current regulatory framework to meet future challenges, and b) please all beneficiaries of the existing system. These two demands conflict. And then it tried to shoehorn itself into the debate about newspaper standards, exceeding its mandate and undermining its broader purpose.

Nevertheless, from a purely public policy perspective, dealing with the winds of change brought about by technological innovation was the main game. It still is.

We have to be much less generous about the Independent Inquiry into Media and Media Regulation, known as the Finkelstein Review. The end result – a 400-page report that traversed history, sociology, political science, psychology and media studies at a barely-undergraduate level – was in equal parts patronising and authoritarian. It recommended extraordinary government regulation of the free press.

Still, very little of all that effort comes out in the final media reform proposals. Last Tuesday Stephen Conroy supposedly announced his response to the Convergence Review and the Finkelstein review.

The Government wants a new Public Interest Media Advocate to regulate newspaper standards bodies (like the Australian Press Council) and to impose a public interest test on media mergers. He also wants to legislate a permanent cut in broadcasting licences, marginally increase Australian content requirements, and to tinker with the ABC’s charter.

Conroy says we’ve spent the last few years debating media regulation but these proposals are entirely new.

There’s no “Public Interest Media Advocate” in either the Convergence or Finkelstein review.

Admittedly, the idea of a “public interest test” did appear in the Convergence Review. But it was a tiny sliver of a much broader proposal to rationalise media regulation across all platforms. To rip three words out of the Convergence Review is to miss the point entirely. The purpose of the public interest test, as conceived in Convergence Review, is to completely remove “the old platform-specific media ownership rules”. Conroy doesn’t plan to do anything of the sort.

The Government has offered nothing – absolutely nothing – to deal with the issues raised by technological change.

For its part, the Finkelstein report inadvertently showed how far the media policy debate had moved from media reality.

The final Finkelstein report was released in March 2012. It had two jobs. The first was to investigate standards and media codes of practice. This received all the attention. But its second job was to look at technological change and how that affects media business models. Here’s an exact quote from the final report:

major newspaper publishers confidently presented a positive assessment of their future prospects.

Of course, just over three months later Fairfax media announced one of the single biggest restructurings in Australian media history, shedding nearly 2,000 staff. News Limited cut staff as well. Finkelstein was released in March. By June it was an anachronism.

And now we’re here. Conroy’s proposed Public Interest Media Advocate has serious freedom of the press problems. Those have been well-canvassed over the last week.

But of greater long-term importance is how a much-needed investigation into regulation and technological change turned into little more than a platform for politicians to express their feelings about Rupert Murdoch.

And what on earth is the use of that? All this sound and fury could achieve is just an extended exercise in political gamesmanship.

Another wildly missed opportunity. Another government distracted from necessary reform in the pursuit of its political agenda.