If a visitor to Australia came out of this week’s Melbourne public consultation for the Convergence Review, they would be no wiser about the bigger public debates underway in this country about the media.
In recent months, this country’s largest publisher of newspapers, News Limited, has been referred to repeatedly by Bob Brown as the "hate media". We’ve seen a former MP write a book blaming, in part, the media for the dumbing down of our political debate. There’s been a phone-hacking scandal in the United Kingdom that is far from over, and an investigation into allegedly similar behaviour is underway in the United States. Individuals and groups such as Newsstand have been vocal in calling for a media inquiry.
Before all this blew up, though, the Department of Communications, Broadband and the Digital Economy was undertaking a review of their own. The Convergence Review was announced by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy in December 2010. Its brief is "to examine the policy and regulatory frameworks that apply to the converged media and communications landscape in Australia". It is to review not only the regulation, but also the structure of the broadcasting, media and communications industry, the role of the Australian Communications and Media Authority — all with regard to the views and expectations of the Australian public.
A board was appointed in May this year and the review is now travelling the country in a series of public consultations. They’re just over halfway through. Melbourne’s public consultation was attended by about 50 people, most of them media industry professionals.
The terms of the inquiry are to review the effectiveness of the current media policy framework in an age of convergence where new technologies allow people to decide what to watch, and how and when to watch it. These aren’t exactly the questions that many people want answered in the wake of the phone hacking scandal, but they are vital to the future of media policy in this country.
The internet poses many challenges to old regulation of the media. What is to be made of media ownership laws that are geographically based when people can consume media from anywhere? And how will traditional media organisations remain viable in an age where they are competing with non-traditional and overseas media sources that may face less cumbersome regulatory burdens?
The issue of regulatory parity, or how to ensure those offering like services face similar levels of regulation, was raised by several media stakeholders at the consultation. With declining profits and a rapidly changing media landscape, it’s no wonder many outlets are wary of rushing to regulate online content.
Sitting in a room full of sombre industry expects, one would never have guessed that a lack of public trust in journalists was an issue. The crisis, according to these insiders, doesn’t concern a biased and complacent media, but rather increased competition and rapid change. Bridget Fair, of Channel Seven, asked whether the review planned to look into incentivising news gathering. "There’s often confusion between access to information and opinion," she said, adding that while the opportunities offered by the internet served opinion well, unless news gathering, which is expensive, faced improved incentives, media organisations would find it increasingly difficult to provide. Fair, like others in the industry, is looking firstly to the commercial realities of the sector.
This sheds some light on the difference in tone between the industry types at the consultation, and the frenzy of discussion about the media beyond. Where those outside the media see a powerful industry wielding great power sometimes irresponsibly, the industry itself is more concerned with the competitive pressures with which it is increasingly contending.
In Melbourne at least, the broader public discourse about the Australian media didn’t warrant a mention.
Similarly, the consultation process for the Convergence Review has gone on quietly, unreferenced by most public commentary on media matters.
Perhaps the sheer breadth of the review has meant few are able to easily engage with it on a soundbite level. It is to cover a wide range of topics: licensing and regulation, Australian and local content, spectrum allocation and management, market structures and media diversity, and community standards. Indeed, most aspects of the regulatory framework of the Australian media. The terms of reference of the Convergence Review don’t cover all the
issues that critics of Murdoch have raised but there is a significant
amount of overlap.
It is therefore striking that calls for a media inquiry in the aftermath of the phone hacking scandal have failed to mention the mammoth inquiry currently underway.
It’s time to align for this important review more closely with the broader debate, and for the broader debate to be informed by the technical and financial discussions taking place in the Convergence Review consultations. It’s tackling the big issues. The more people are engaging with the process, the better the outcome will be.
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