The final report of the government's Convergence Review is an attempt to future-proof the rules for a digital age in which standalone notions of print vs broadcasting have been rendered obsolete by technology that allows media to deliver text, audio, and video over wired and wireless connections.
As such, the review starts from the eminently sensible assumption of removing unnecessary regulation and proposing a more platform agnostic system of oversight that focuses more on the size and scope of media companies than on how they deliver their content.
Having said that, the review identifies three areas where it believes government intervention is still justified in the public interest - media ownership, media content standards across all platforms and the production and distribution of Australian and local content.
As any communications minister would know, the first two of those categories are the ones where all the political landmines are buried. Media ownership, in particular, has become a byword for Curbing the Power of the Murdochracy. And, of course, there are legions of mouthpieces loaded to blow away any action on media standards as an attack on freedoms.
Still, unlike the separate Finkelstein media inquiry set up after the Convergence Review, this latest report does not endorse a statutory body to regulate and enforce journalistic standards. Instead, it favours the industry itself setting up a news standard body (with the financial support of the government).
"The news standards body would administer a self-regulatory media code aimed at promoting standards, adjudicating complaints, and providing timely remedies," the review authors say. "Having the news standard body operate across all media platforms is consistent with the Convergence Review’s fundamental principle of platform neutrality."Once established, the proposed news standards body would cover all platforms and would undertake the functions currently performed by the Australian Press Council - which looks after print media - and the Australian Communications and Media Authority, which policies broadcasting.
My reading on this is that it puts the onus back on the industry to tidy up its act in enforcing journalistic standards after years of "anything goes in the name of ratings and readership". We know that newspaper owners recently agreed to beef up the Press Council, although the recalcitrant Seven West Media of Kerry Stokes, in characteristic WA fashion, decided to secede from the rest.
Alongside this independent news regulator, an overall statutory body would be introduced to oversee compliance of all other issues. This new communications regulator would replace the expensive, cumbersome and hugely ineffective ACMA. So this means an end to the anachronistic broadcast licence regime, which was based on the now redundant idea of limited spectrum.
In terms of ownership rules, the review recommends a public interest test on mergers and takeovers, as well as scrapping the complex and impenetrable requirements applying to cross media ownership - the ‘75 per cent audience reach’ rule, the ‘2 out of 3’ rule etc; Instead of being defined as television or newspapers or radio stations, media companies would be regulated as "content service enterprises" and subject to a minimum number of owners rule (currently 4 to 5).
News Corp and Telstra had argued to the inquiry that all ownership laws be removed. Fortunately, the review authors decided otherwise:
"The introduction of new services into a market does not necessarily improve diversity of news and commentary on its own," the authors say. "While there may be multiple publications or outlets through traditional and online media, if they are owned and controlled by the same people this results in the same number of separatelyOverall, the inquiry's recommendation of a principles-based, rather than black letter law-based, approach to media regulation is a sound one. As usual though (and as we have seen before in other sound recommendations by public inquiries such as Gonski into education and the Productivity Commission into gambling), sound policy-making comes second to polarised politicising.
controlled media operators in a market."
And against the background of hysteria in the press at the moment about issues that have little impact on people day to day, it would be a brave blogger that forecast any of this will ever be implemented.
Meanwhile, it's back to the ongoing forensic examination of Peter Slipper's cab dockets and bogus claims about attacks on press freedom.
Review Calls for Two New Media Regulators - ABC Lateline