The Convergence Review final report released today by the Federal Government is an intriguing document with a raft of new proposals aimed at solving a problem in our media legislation: communications law differing by type. The fact print and internet journalism is the remit of a different independent inquiry shows politicians still like to make these distinctions.
Australia’s content services policy and regulatory framework is focussed on what was around in 1992: broadcasting and telecommunications. But in real life the networks of the way we communicate are extremely complex and interchangeable. Convergence of computers, televisions and telephones and the plethora of services afforded by digital technology have the left the law looking like an un-updated ass.
Issues over ownership, regulation, promotion and standards cannot be resolved using existing media laws, most of which were bastard political compromises in the first place designed to suit Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch. Overregulation was rife and there were absurd contradictions about what was legal and what wasn’t depending on the technology used.
The drafters of the Convergence Review (chaired by my former IBM Australia boss Glen Boreham) had a noble remit: "Citizens and organisations should be able to communicate freely,” they said “and, where regulation is required, it should be the minimum necessary to achieve a clear public purpose.”
Their libertarian conclusion: the licensing of broadcasters should stop and with it would go the cost of administering those licences. Instead broadcasting spectrum pricing would be brought in line with other types of radio-communications spectrum. The so-called “sixth channel” would be allocated to a range of providers to maximise diversity.
The Review was less laissez faire about media ownership, content standards and local content protection. On ownership, the Review was well aware markets like Australia can (and have) become distorted. Some regulation is necessary, it said to maintain a diversity of views. They proposed abolishing a raft of rules such as the ‘75 per cent audience reach’ rule, the ‘2 out of 3’ rule, the ‘two-to-a-market’ rule and the ‘one-to-a-market’ rule by a ‘minimum number of owners’ rule and a “public interest test.”
Diversity was also used as the reason to intervene in the area of local content “If left to the market alone, some culturally significant forms of Australian content, such as drama, documentary and children’s programs, would be under-produced,” it said. Though it is questionable whether government should be picking winners this way, most taxpayers don’t seem to resent money going into organisations like the ABC.
Citizen standards were cited for the third area of government intervention in the media market. Media and Communication services, said the document, “should reflect community standards and the expectations of the Australian public. As an example, children should be protected from inappropriate content”. Again, this is something that most people see as an acceptable use of taxpayers’ money.
Geography rules have been a major problem of media legislation over the years and I am not sure the Review is fixing that with its solution to lack of media ownership. It suggests a ‘minimum number of owners’ rule to ensure that no media operator has a dominant influence in a local market for “news and commentary”. But the "local market" definition is to be abolished and the Reviewers have not stated what should replace other than leaving it to the regulator to define
It is also in danger of over-regulating in response to local content rules. The same rules for content across platforms is a good idea and a “new communications regulator” (replacing the Press Council and ACMA) who would conduct “a public interest test” seems laudable but the public interest is such a contested concept, I wonder how it will operate.
Similarly the “‘uniform content scheme” to police local content production is beset with difficulties. The scheme will force “qualifying content service enterprises, with significant revenues from television-like content” to put dollars into Australian drama, documentary and children’s programs. I suspect the idea of “television-like content” will seem very dated in ten years and again, who is to say what is like television?
The qualification for this scheme will make many content providers nervous and anxious to fall just under the qualification mark for revenue. The “service” provisions may force borderline profitable operators in drama, documentary or children’s programs to get out of those markets entirely. If as the Review says, Australians prefer local content, then why not have faith in the market to provide a good product at profit? Everything else is just tariff walls. Nevertheless the document is a good addition to the debate on media regulation and will no doubt be chopped to pieces by politicians before any of its recommendations are adopted.
Certainly Stephen Conroy spoke in polished non-committal language announcing the Final Review today. “The release of the report provides an opportunity for stakeholders to engage with the Committee’s recommendations. I expect the recommendations will generate robust public debate,” Senator Conroy said. “The government will respond to the report in due course.”