First A Media Inquiry, Then Regulatory Reform?


Australia is finally getting a media inquiry.

Or, depending on how you view the matter, another media inquiry. After all, the Convergence Review is already examining many of the matters detailed in the terms of reference of this inquiry, called, appropriately enough, the Independent Media Inquiry.

Just to make it all the more confusing, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has stated that the media inquiry will actually feed into the Convergence Review process, which makes sense from a policy formulation perspective, but will also keep the merry-go-round of committees and discussion papers twirling well into 2012.

Wendy Bacon wrote this week here in New Matilda that "the [inquiry’s] terms of reference fall short of what the Greens wanted by not directly addressing the high levels of media concentration and how that skews political debate and the provision of a broad range of news and current affairs, especially in regions where there is a single owner and very little local journalism."

That’s true. But there’s also plenty of wriggle-room in those terms that should allow it go in some very interesting directions, should the inquiry’s leaders — former Federal Court justice Ray Finkelstein and Canberra University journalism professor Matthew Ricketson — decide to stray from the beaten path.

The consensus about Finkelstein seems to be that he has a fine legal mind and can be expected to examine the issues at stake in a thorough and forensic manner. Ricketson is a more ambiguous choice, because as an academic and a journalist he has both a sound understanding of the news media environment, and a grasp of the thorny philosophical issues that the practice of journalism can create. Despite the relatively anodyne terms of reference, Ricketson’s insider knowledge about news gathering (such as FOI requests) could be an asset should the Inquriy head off into uncharted territory.

Media bias, concentration of ownership, diversity of voices, invasions of privacy: as I read the terms of reference, all of these could be up for grabs. Or they might not. We don’t really know.

Editors and publishers will be most uncomfortable about the potential for more regulation. In his various media conferences this week, Conroy flagged the creation of a so-called "super regulator" that would combine the current oversight responsibilities of ACMA and the Press Council, perhaps with a new ambit to look over internet-based media as well (we certainly know that Conroy has no compunction when it comes to filtering internet service providers). This would be a significant reform, particularly from the current environment, which is in any case fragmenting under the onslaught of digitalisation: ACMA itself openly admits means that the current system of media regulation is "broken". 

No-one in the media likes the idea of being subject to more government regulations. Complying with them is expensive and dull. The decisions of regulators can often be heavy-handed and arbitrary; in any case, the point of free speech is that it should extend to unpopular and controversial speech, exactly the sort of thing which would most likely attract the attention of a regulator.

Mind you, how much regulation really goes on right now? It can be argued that our current media regulators don’t do much regulating anyway. The Press Council, which supposedly oversees the newspapers, has become such a joke that its current Chairman, Julian Disney, is pressing the government for greater powers. ACMA, which covers the broadcast media, has plenty of power, but refuses to use it, as exemplified by its apathy in the face of complaints against the Seven Network for its deplorable story on former New South Wales Labor Minister David Campbell’s visits to a gay sex club. ACMA argued that the story was "in the public interest", using the astoundingly circular logic that, because Campbell resigned after the story went to air, the story was "in the public interest … as it explained the Minister’s resignation."

The absurdities of the regulatory landscape were not the only confusions on display this week. Equally muddled were the government’s attempts to explain why the inquiry would be leaving media bias out of the terms of reference, as a number of keen observers, such as Laura Tingle and Michelle Grattan, pointed out. Conroy has been telling both the ALP party room and the media in general that he doesn’t need an inquiry to tell him that media ownership is concentrated and some sections of the media are biased.

"I don’t need an inquiry to establish that the Murdoch press owns 70 per cent of newspapers in this country," he told reporters on Wednesday. "We’ve all known that for 20 years. I don’t need an inquiry to establish that some organs of the Murdoch Press are clearly running a campaign against this government."

In that case, why not act?

Leaving aside the regulatory niceties, the power politics is perhaps even more interesting. The issue of just what the government is going to do about its implacable enemies in the Murdoch newspapers tells us much about the interplay between power and media in this country.

It’s taken Labor three miserable years in government to start publicly acknowledging how unbalanced its treatment at the hands of the News Limited newspapers as been. But simply admitting there is a problem and throwing a few innocent barbs at John Hartigan and Chris Mitchell is unlikely to solve Labor’s problem. What the Government really wants is some friendly treatment at the hands of the Daily Telegraph and Herald Sun, or, failing that, at the very least a few months of clean air in which to operate. But why would News Limited be so kind? In fact, cold hard power politics tells us that there is no reason for News Limited to change course on its editorial direction right now, and every reason to keep beating the anti-ALP drums. News can even point to a series of polls which suggest that its campaigns against issues like the carbon tax are simply in line with popular sentiment, which remains hostile to the government and many of its policies.

The obvious conclusion is that if the Government wants to do something about the brutal treatment it’s receiving from the Murdoch newspapers, which helps to shape the generally anti-Labor sentiment of much of the commercial media, it’s going to have to actually exert some power against News as a corporation. And in Stephen Conroy, the government has just the man to do it. In the telecommunications sector, Conroy has already shown that he can be a clever operator with the tenacity to out-manoeuvre powerful corporations. In any case, goes this reasoning, the Government is already at war with News, so why not finally bring a gun to the gunfight?

There are any number of ways to do this, some more dangerous than others. The straightforward and brutal option would be simply to introduce legislation to Parliament to change the media ownership laws, in particular to break up News Limited.

Personally, I favour News Limited being forcibly broken up and sold. Those who worry about what might happen to The Australian and the various tabloid newspapers without Rupert Murdoch to sustain them obviously haven’t been looking too closely at the actions of Fairfax’s management and board recently. The entire newspaper industry is in trouble, and if a plutocratic media baron wants to continue to plough money into loss-making newspapers because of the value that gains him in power and influence, this is all the more reason to restrain that power in the interests of democracy.

Breaking up News and strengthening media ownership laws should be done anyway, for sound public policy reasons. The current nexus of vested interests and related corporate parties that co-own Australia’s large media corporations are incredibly regressive and undemocratic. How can it be a good thing for Australian democracy that the eldest son of Rupert Murdoch, Lachlan, can sit on the board of News Corporation in New York, while also controlling and running — as acting CEO — the Ten Network?

But taking on News Limited directly is dangerous. It’s especially dangerous right now for a government already weakened by its own numerous follies. Much of the rest of the media would likely fall in behind News Limited were it so attacked, seeing government action against the corporation as a form of payback. Taking on News Limited directly really would signal a new stage in the war between the government and Australia’s largest media organisation.

A more cunning way to crimp News Limited’s influence might be to build up its competitors, notably online. This is the model that Eric Beecher has been proposing, and given the tiny sums of money involved in keeping publications like Crikey and New Matilda going, there is no doubt that even a few million spent here or there on supporting online newsrooms and journalists could make a huge difference to the ability of the independent sector to compete.

The problem with this idea is how to do it at arm’s length, without seeming to give succour to voices overtly of the left (that’s if you assume that Labor is on the left anymore). One way might be to set up a new arms-length funding body, along the lines of the Australia Council or the Australian Research Council, that could independently administer peer-reviewed grant funding. Reading between the lines, that rather looks like what the clause in the inquiry’s terms of reference that talks about how "quality journalism … can be supported, and diversity enhanced, in the changed media environment" might suggest.

The problem for the government is that giving money to small online publishers, Fairfax and the ABC won’t have an appreciable impact on the broader political slant of the Australian media. For a start, by the time they get around to doing it, Tony Abbott will most likely be happily ensconced in the Lodge. Secondly, the resources available to the online publishers remain small and fragmented. As for the big guys, precisely because the ABC and Fairfax remain fairly balanced (albeit with the occasional faint tinge of a left-leaning slant), they can’t act as a genuine counter-balance to the rabid views of the right-wing radio jocks and the tawdry tabloids. There is in fact no easy solution to this conundrum, and most likely the Inquiry won’t try to provide one.

For all of this, I welcome the media inquiry. Even if it only begins to scratch the surface of the problems of supporting news gathering and "quality journalism" in the 21st century — and it has already opened up an energetic discussion about the nature of News Limited’s bias — that will be a important development in Australia’s public sphere.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.