This week, the Gillard Government released two major policies governing the dissemination of symbols and ideas. One was greeted with general acclamation. The other sparked vicious reprisals from the powerful special interests it sought to regulate.
One is Creative Australia, Arts Minister Simon Crean’s long-awaited national cultural policy released yesterday in a speech at the National Press Club.
The other is Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s proposed new media regulations, delivered in response to the government’s two big media inquiries, the Convergence Review and the Independent Media Inquiry, chaired by Ray Finkelstein.
There’s no prizes for guessing which of the two policies drew applause, and which provoked outrage. Loaded with extra funding for a perennially impoverished sector, the national cultural policy was greeted warmly by the arts community, which had begun to despair that it would ever be released.
By contrast, Conroy’s media reforms provoked an almost hysterical reaction, particularly from dominant media corporation News Limited. One of its tabloid newspapers, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, even portrayed Conroy as Stalin. But it wasn’t just News Limited. Fairfax, Seven West Media and many of the other big media companies also lined up against the reforms — not to mention Opposition communications spokesman, Malcolm Turnbull.
What were these onerous regulations that the big media corporations are so concerned about? Will there be a new government super-regulator, as foreshadowed by the Convergence Review? Will there be a News Media Council established to ensure media standards and backed by federal law, as recommended by the Finkelstein Inquiry? Will there be commissars in every newsroom, or Stasi patrolling editing suites?
No, actually. The proposals advanced by Conroy in response to the two reviews are comparatively modest, and much milder than the solutions put forward by either the Convergence Review or Finkelstein Inquiry. They are:
- A press standards model which ensures strong self-regulation of the print and online news media.
- The introduction of a Public Interest Test to ensure diversity considerations are taken into account for nationally significant media mergers and acquisitions.
- Modernising the ABC and SBS charters to reflect their online and digital activities.
- Supporting community television services following digital switchover by providing them a permanent allocation of a portion of Channel A.
- Making permanent the 50 per cent reduction in the licence fees paid by commercial television broadcasters, conditional on the broadcast of an additional 1460 hours of Australian content by 2015.
The most contentious point — the issue that has drawn the despotic comparison — is of course the first. Here, Conroy proposes nothing more than light-touch self-regulation. All the Government wants to do is to establish a new statutory office, called the Public Interest Media Advocate, which will authorise industry bodies like the Press Council.
Publishers that don’t sign up to an authorised body will no longer enjoy certain exemptions to federal laws like the Privacy Act. All in all, it’s hardly an all-powerful government regulator with the power to shut down newspapers. The Australian Communication and Media Authority, which governs broadcasters, has much stronger powers, and yet few people think of ACMA as a heavy-handed regulator (except perhaps Kyle Sandilands).
As Griffith University Professor Susan Forde told AFP’s Amy Coopes, "Conroy has, for the most part, bowed to early criticism and concern from media owners, CEOs, editors-in-chief and conservative commentators and opted for some tame options which sound purposeful but will deliver little."
But you wouldn’t know it from the backlash by the News Limited newspapers, which have inadvertently made the government’s case about media diversity for it. As New Matilda’s Wendy Bacon pointed out yesterday, one of the legacies of the Finkelstein Inquiry was to confirm that Australia’s media ownership is amazingly concentrated. "Other countries seem to have used public policy to prevent their mainstream media falling into the hands of a small number of players," Bacon observed. "The reason they do this is to protect media freedom and diversity — not restrain it." The unanimous opposition of News Limited newspapers — joined, we might add, by many in the Fairfax stable — tends to confirm the point that Australia’s diversity of media leaves much to be desired.
The more sophisticated opponents of media regulation, like Malcolm Turnbull, point out that the internet provides a vast diversity of voices and opinions not previously available. And in a narrow sense, he is right. However, as the Convergence Review established, access is not audience. Even in the pre-internet age, there was a lively underground publishing scene composed of zines, small papers and underground pamphlets. That didn’t stop a small number of corporations from dominating the Australian mediascape.
Just because millions of Australians have the internet doesn’t mean that they are all sourcing their daily news from obscure blogs, or their friends on social media. In fact, most of the online news audience in this country consume journalism from a small number of big players who control the newspapers, radio stations and television networks.
In the end, it’s not clear that Conroy’s modest media reforms will even pass the parliament. He’s given his party and the cross-benchers precious little time to examine the actual legislation, which as of this morning had still not been tabled. The fury of the News Limited juggernaut this week shows that powerful media interests are restrained only with difficulty, and not without vicious combat. As Margaret Simons wrote yesterday over at Crikey, "large sections of the media are incapable of fairly reporting matters touching their self-interest".
In comparison, the launch of the national cultural policy was almost a love-in. Friendly arts administrators packed the National Press Club to hear Arts Minister Simon Crean confidently propound an optimistic vision of the role of the arts and culture in Australian life. And therein lies the real tragedy of this week’s contrasting policy reactions.
Rather than regulate, Crean funded, announcing new money to support the mainly small cultural organisations that compete for funding through the Australia Council, as well as extra money for the screen sector through Screen Australia. The new cultural policy uses taxpayers’ money to fund cultural diversity, in the form of grants to artists and cultural organisations to produce works of art, of literature — even dare it be said, of media.
There are of course important regulations that afflict the cultural sector, like noise laws and liquor licensing restrictions. But the new policy pledges micro-economic reforms: arts accords that will attempt to link up Commonwealth, state and local government policies into a coherent whole. The end result is hoped to be much-needed micro-economic reform in areas like live music, the tax treatment of artists, and public liability insurance.
The national cultural policy is the product of years of consultation and hundreds of submissions. Importantly, unlike in the media industries, there are no 2000 pound gorillas like News Limited to stand over proceedings and cruel the process from the beginning in the perverted pursuit of their special interests. That has allowed independent voices to play a much more significant role in the formulation of Creative Australia than was possible in the media debate.
Back in media land, things are not looking so flash.
In a perfect world, it should be possible to create a limited set of government regulations and funding structures that would protect private citizens and the democratic process from the devastating symbolic power of multi-national media corporations. Such regulations would, at the very least, recognise that the right to free speech comes freighted with responsibilities, especially when that speech is magnified by the entrenched power of a media organisation that produces much of the information that Australian voters rely upon to make informed choices about the democracy.
It is possible to create an arms-length, platform-neutral media regulator that would enforce minimal standards of accuracy, privacy and diversity — for instance, by establishing a cheap and effective way for citizens who have been wronged by inaccurate news reports to obtain a quick correction and apology.
Australia is very far from that perfect world, unfortunately. One of the ways Stephen Conroy could encourage media diversity is to boost funding to the community media sector; instead, he is underfunding community broadcasters at the same time that he has granted the free-to-air television networks a permanent license fee exemption worth hundreds of millions. Similarly, it is easy enough to think of a way to prevent small independent websites or indeed regional newspapers newsrooms from being bought up and shut down by big competitors. Conroy’s new rules won’t do that. A huge opportunity has been missed.
The upside? The new national cultural policy delivers a modest increase in funding for the arts and culture, reforms the Australia Council in positive directions, and moves Indigenous culture to the top of the formal cultural policy agenda of the Commonwealth.
Perhaps the smartest move for Conroy would have been to fold his regulatory proposals into Creative Australia, give a joint speech with Crean, and present a unified vision of Australian media and culture that stresses diversity, opportunity and creativity. You can bet the News Limited tabloids would have hated that.
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