It should be easy for the Gillard Government to accept the recommendations of the Convergence Review.
On the surface it seems all very sensible: a converged Press Council and Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to keep news organisations honest, easy to understand rules regarding media ownership, extra television channels, more Australian audio visual content, more local content, and a technology-neutral and flexible approach to media content standards.
(Listen to Glen Boreham from the Convergence Review team on Radio National this morning here.)
Some of the recommendations will be warmly welcomed – who wouldn’t support more locally made kids programs, dramas and documentaries? Who wouldn’t support more Australian music? (Even if it won’t be on the digital airways).
The key recommendation for journalists, to beef up the current Press Council (and rename it to a news standards body), appears sensible.
Tinkering around the edges?
Many in the Australian media have long argued the need for a one-stop shop for news standards which adjudicates on complaints and provides timely remedies.
Putting the Australian Press Council and ACMA together recognises the reality of today’s media. As the report states, “In a converged world it is no longer viable to argue that news and commentary in print media should be treated differently from news and commentary in television, radio and online. The new industry-led body should cover all platforms—print and online, television and radio.”
For the punters, it has always been difficult to figure out exactly where to complain or seek redress when legal action has been financially out of reach.
There are some strong recommendations which deserve to be applauded, but the bottom line is, the recommendations of the Convergence Review will likely do little to solve the problems that prompted public concern in the United Kingdom and in Australia about news organisations their culture, ethics and practices.
Culture and ethics: can they change?
Unless forced, I doubt the new standards body will be able to agree to enforce a common media code aimed at promoting fairness, accuracy and transparency. Aggrieved parties have had difficulty getting action from the current Press Council, and with the addition of other content providers such as the ABC and free-to-air TV, getting agreement on action will likely be that much harder.
Similarly, it is unlikely that the members will agree on credible sanctions and the enforced prominent publication of its findings. While the ABC might be happy to run a full program correcting the record, I can’t imagine ever seeing a front page correction from the major broadsheets or at a fully replaced program on the tabloid current affairs programs.
It’s all about culture and ethics, and every news organisation has a different one, just ask those who work at NewsCorp, Fairfax, Crikey, the ABC, the Global Mail and Mammamia.com.
Further, the Review had not included social media and user generated content. While being defamed on a butterfly collectors blog may seem a small deal to those outside the group, it is potentially devastating, even if only 400 people have read it.
The PR industry is like an arms dealer supplying the fighters in a third world guerrilla war, while the journos are child soldiers unwillingly conscripted to the other side. One of the most startling pieces of evidence at the Leeveson inquiry was Rupert Murdoch finally admitting that all the salacious “news” in the Sun came from PR.
The Convergence Review notes that it is in the public interest for the body to be appropriately resourced, and to this end suggests government contributions limited to specific purposes. However, this keeps the government (or as I’d like to say the public) out of the main debate.
This kind of tokenistic funding can’t help provide a much needed cultural change and will instead be like water in milk, immediately diluted.
Who pays the piper
The review says the majority of funding for the journalism body should come from its members. This would continue to give the existing news organisations the same power they currently have with the Press Council – the power to do little.
Not only that, the owners of our established but struggling news organisations are already finding it difficult to maintain or grow revenue. Current members are unlikely to want to sign up to more funding, and new members may have financial difficulties contributing.
Even yesterday the major television stations pleaded poverty over the proposed requirements to increase Australian content.
I applaud the idea that the news standards body will refer to the new communications regulator instances where there have been persistent or serious breaches of the media code, although I’m not sure how satisfactory this can be.
That leads to my most serious concern - the recommendation to give the regulator the legislated power to “write-its-own-rules”. While I do not fear government funding, I certainly fear any regulator being able to make up its own rules on the run, even with a dynamic media environment.
Certainly the policy framework should take a technology-neutral approach that can adapt to new services, platforms and technologies, but this should not be the expense of allowing a regulator that “can apply, amend or remove regulatory measures as circumstances require” without any referral to the government (read again the Australian people).
There are a couple of other recommendations which are significant for anyone working in Australian journalism which I won’t dwell on. However, media ownership is a big issue Australia’s capital cities, but it is an even bigger issue in regional Australia.
Although the proposed “minimum number of owners” rule and a public interest test isn’t perfect, it’s a good step towards helping ensure a diversity of voices (and importantly jobs in the media for young Australians).
Also, it is important to keep the charters of both the ABC and the SBS up to date to expressly reflect the range of existing services, including online activities. No government funded organisation should work outside its charter.