Conroy proposes media reforms: the experts respond

Minister for Communications Stephen Conroy released the Federal Government’s response to Convergence Review and Finkelstein Inquiry today. AAP/Lukas Coch

Australian print and online news organisations will be self-regulated through voluntary membership of a press standards body, under media reforms proposed by the Federal Government today.

The reforms comprise the government’s official response to the Convergence Review and Finkelstein Inquiry into the media in Australia.

Among the proposals is the creation of Public Interest Media Advocate, who would oversee mergers and acquisitions of news organisations, and a new Public Interest Test to ensure that diversity of voices is considered when mergers take place.

Minister for Broadband, Communications, and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy, said news organisations that join up to a press standards body will be rewarded with a special exemption from certain sections of the Privacy Act.

A press release issued by Senator Conroy’s office said the reforms include:

  • 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% reduction in the licence fees paid by commercial television broadcasters, conditional on the broadcast of an additional 1490 hours of Australian content by 2015.

The government will also convene a new parliamentary committee to consider abolition of the 75% reach rule, which puts limits on the proportion of the population one network can reach.

“If the committee is able to come up with a quick resolution on the 75% rule, the Government would include this amendment in the general package,” the press release said.

Senator Conroy said the government would bring new bills to parliament to enact the reforms but would not be prepared to barter with the Opposition or the Independents on them.

Here are some expert reactions to the announcements:

Andrea Carson, Lecturer Media, Politics and Society at the University of Melbourne

Lord Justice Leveson, in his inquiry into the media in the UK, recommended the introduction of a carrot and stick approach and I can see Senator Conroy is doing a similar thing.

Making the exemption to privacy legislation for the media conditional on them being members of the Australian Press Council is similar to what Leveson recommended.

If a significant media player does not belong, they will not get that exemption.

It will be interesting to see how The West Australian responds, given it is currently not a member of the Press Council.

It will be interesting to see how the Coalition and the Independents respond, given that Senator Conroy said there was no room for bartering on this bill.

They only have a few more weeks left in parliament and this is their last attempt to get it through.

Overall, it’s not a huge departure from the model that’s currently in place.

Now there will be another watchdog over the press council in the form of the Public Interest Media Advocate but the public will not be able to access the advocate for individual cases.

We don’t know the powers or limitations on power this individual advocate will have yet or the prerequisites this individual will need to fill this role.

It will be interesting to see if they must come from a legal background or not.

Leveson made the point that the British media has been allowed to mark their own homework for too long. [Today’s announcement] seems not to go as far as Leveson and still has the Australian press marking their own homework.

It’s a departure from what Finkelstein was recommending. He wanted an independent, publicly funded body overseeing the media. That’s been brushed aside in this model. I couldn’t see too many of Finkelstein’s recommendations in what was announced today.

Brian McNair, Professor of Journalism, Media and Communication at the Queensland University of Technology

The government is stressing its clear preference for continuing, but stronger, self-regulation by the industry rather than statutory control.

Press standards will be policed by the industry itself.

It’s important that the state not be seen to exercise overt control of the media, but at the same time to address the concerns around ethics and standards that led to the Finkelstein review.

Based on the limited detail we have as yet, I would say they have got that balance right.

The press council can apply to be the industry’s self-regulating body under the new standards model, if it can accept those standards and command industry support.

He has emphasised strong support for the public service media, the ABC and SBS, which he defended as crucial to Australian society because they produce content that the commercial media will not provide on its own.

The government is saying it will bring forward a new standards model to cover print and online media.

News organisations that sign up to those standards and become members of the new body, which could be a revamped version of the Australian Press Council, will then be exempt from certain privacy legislation on public interest grounds.

The Public Interest Media Advocate is a significant announcement. He or she would be appointed in consultation with the Opposition, and be asked to judge if mergers and acquisitions in the media sector are consistent with the governments requirements on diversity.

Given that the proposals also include an inquiry into the abolition of the 75% reach rule [which aims to stop networks from reaching more than 75% of the public], this could give the Public Interest Media Advocate an important role.

In the willingness to consider abolition of the 75% reach rule, there’s a recognition that media ownership rules which may have been relevant 15 years ago may be difficult to enforce today, when you have organisations that operate on a global scale.

Australian media organisations have to be big enough to compete in that environment, while diversity has to be preserved.

Martin Hirst, Associate Professor Journalism and Media at Deakin University

It’s appalling and ridiculously weak.

Calling for stronger self-regulation is an oxymoron, it doesn’t make sense. Either you have self-regulation or you don’t. How is this different from what the Australian Press Council is already doing?

On the exemption from the privacy legislation - these news organisation already get that. Bona fide news gathering is already exempt from some provisions of the Privacy Act, so it’s not like this is hugely new.

One thing that could happen would be if there is tighter regulation, bloggers and freelancers and citizen journalists would not able to prove they are legitimate news gatherers. If you weren’t employed by News Ltd or Fairfax, you wouldn’t be covered by that exemption from the Privacy Act.

On the SBS and ABC charters, let’s see what they come up with. I thought they already have internal policies to deal with social media.

The allocation of a permanent channel for community television is fantastic. It’s 20 years overdue. We already have some community stations but they are not permanent. They have been temporary licenses since they started in the 70s.

There is very little of Finkelstein in here and that was always going to be the case. Anything Finkelstein has in his initial recommendations got watered down by the Convergence Review anyway.

He was calling for a super press council that was publicly funded.

The abolition of the 75% rule has been on the cards for a long time anyway.