As Australia drifts between national elections it is time, once again, to ask some hard questions about media policy. Those questions should be asked and answered by all Australians rather than just by Malcolm Turnbull, Rupert Murdoch, Bill Shorten, Kerry Stokes, Bruce Gyngell and Tony Abbott.
A guide is provided by the Finkelstein Report, a victim of political opportunism and ALP infighting.
Another guide is provided by a poll in the UK, which suggests that non-specialists are interested in media policy, in particular the development of policy that reinforces integrity through accountability.
Responsiveness by politicians to that interest will go some way to overcoming the disengagement that is recurrently lamented by the major parties and that fosters micro-parties that rely on personality rather than policy.
What do the people think?
The UK poll is specifically concerned with media regulation. It is an expression of attitudes by ordinary people. We don’t have a local counterpart - an independent study is needed - but we can draw some conclusions.
One conclusion is that we need to rewind the policy machine, with another viewing of the Finkelstein Report.
The group reports that 74% believe that ownership of a UK television channel, radio station or newspaper should be dependent on the company being based in the UK. No more dutch sandwiches – companies should pay full UK tax.
The poll found 61% of respondents favour compulsory governance mechanisms, such as truly independent editorial boards, to reduce editorial interference. And 41% want strengthening of media ownership rules to restrict the market dominance of any one organisation.
It is likely that Australian voters, so disillusioned by the theatrics in Canberra that you’d have to drag them away from Game of Thrones, have much the same attitude. They haven’t been soured by Hackergate but are disquieted by media bias, perceived inequity in corporate taxation, inconsistencies in competition law and ongoing attacks on the ABC.
Why we should rethink the rules
The Finkelstein Report highlighted questions about media concentration and self-regulation. These are questions that we need to consider because ownership, governance and editorial decisions affect informed policy-making and community disengagement in an era where traditional demarcations between print and broadcast are no longer relevant.
We need to think about media concentration in general, something elided in the recent Harper Review of Australia’s competition framework. Does it matter who owns the dominant channels, as long as the content is diverse and fair? Why do we have a nationality requirement, or a character requirement regarding broadcast ownership?
Should we be regulating Google and Facebook alongside Channel Nine, given that many people now rely on “new media” for current affairs information rather than just entertainment? Why are the broadcasters dealt with by ACMA, a government agency, when regulation of newspapers and magazines is done by print magnates for print magnates in the form of the Australian Press Council? Should we disregard the ineffectiveness of the Press Council, in the expectation that newspapers will either wither or go online?
Does the national government have the ability to restrict media corporations from structuring the operation to avoid the sort of tax obligations faced by most people? Do the ALP and LP/NP have the will to restrict that restructuring? Should we regard Google and Apple as media groups, rather than focusing on the Herald Sun and SevenWest?
The unhappiness evident in the UK poll is romantic, because there is no sign that any of the UK parties will take meaningful action. We don’t, however, need to despair. We need instead an informed national discussion about the shape of the Australian media and the nature of any regulation. We should expect politicians to lead that discussion, articulate issues and offer proposals.
A basis for that discussion would be to do a rerun of Finkelstein, in the same way that a classic television series is well worth another viewing. Ask some hard questions. Find out what people want. Give them a sense of why particular solutions might be ineffective.
Trust the people, rather than reinforcing disengagement by failing to inform them and restricting policy-making to Canberra insiders. That is, after all, what we want from a liberal democratic state.