Conroy's battle for media supremacy

Stephen Conroy holds enormous clout in his quest to realise a new vision for Australian media. The big question is whether his rules can be made to work.

The Power Index

Stephen Conroy is the most powerful Media Maestro in Australia, beating the Sun King, Rupert Murdoch, into second place. And here's why.

In the past couple of years, Conroy has pushed through a new $35 billion national broadband network, forced Telstra to hand over its cables and customers for everyone's use, set up two major media inquiries, and taken a shot at Murdoch's The Australian and Daily Telegraph for running a "campaign of regime change" against the Gillard government. He's also handed back millions of dollars in licence fees to commercial TV stations, boosted ABC funding, changed the way ABC board members are chosen, and tried to censor the internet (so far unsuccessfully).

Most recently, he has overruled his own public servants to snatch the Australia Network from Sky TV – part-owned by Murdoch's BSkyB – and deliver it to the ABC in perpetuity. And this week he took delivery of an interim report from the government's Convergence Review, which recommends the scrapping of Australia's cross-media laws (Conroy shifts the media goal posts, December 15). He's a busy man. 

Not so long ago, Conroy was also a powerful political fixer on the Labor Right in Victoria, where his ShortCon faction (the other half is Bill Shorten) has held sway for the best part of a decade. Nowadays, he does not kick heads in the factions, because he's too busy being a minister, but he still likes to get his way, whatever he's doing.

The Power Index suggests he's really a bovver boy, and he laughs. "I call it as I see it," he says; "I'm prepared to say what I think".

The 48-year old Chelsea fan's no-nonsense approach is one reason why Conroy is so powerful. Another is that he knows his stuff after seven years in the portfolio. And that's why we recently made him No. 1 in our digital media list too. 

But any minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy would have enormous clout, even if he weren't so keen to give News Ltd a kicking. The minister not only referees the media scrum in this country, he also makes the rules by which the game is played. Which is what Conroy is busy doing right now.

And thanks to the NBN, that game is changing at breakneck speed. It's "very big," Conroy enthuses. "Our media laws, which are suited to the 1950s, have been completely overtaken by technology."

Next March, Conroy is due to receive the final report from the Convergence Review, from the chaired by IBM's ex-Australian managing director, Glen Boreham, and will have to figure out how to police this new media landscape. The interim report is already urging him to scrap the cross-media laws, introduce a new public-interest test for media takeovers and set up a new watchdog to police the whole media industry. 

But the big question is whether any rules can be made to work.

"With new TVs you can now sit in your lounge room and watch everything on one screen," he says. "Free-to-air channels, pay-TV, the internet, Facebook, YouTube, plus movies or programs from 2000 channels you can download from around the world. We're looking at how you can regulate that."

He cites the example of kids TV, which requires programs shown between 6am and 8.30am and 4pm to 7pm to be G rated. "But kids get back from school and watch YouTube, and that has no classification at all. Can you make it have one? Probably not." Let's hope he doesn't try.

Australian TV also has rules laying down a minimum percentage of Australian content. "Can you extend that to YouTube or to programs downloaded off the internet?" Conroy asks. "Again, probably not. But Boreham wants him to try.

"So how do we ensure Australia can tell its own stories?" Conroy asks, before replying, "No one has the answers. "We're the first in the world to really look at this. Others are waiting to see what we're going to do. But the NBN means it's all happening here much faster. It's like a big steam train bearing down on us."

Big technological changes are also happening in newspapers, where Conroy will have to respond to any recommendations from the Finkelstein inquiry, also due in March.

He now reads his papers on an iPad, and wonders how soon everyone will be doing the same. Regional publisher APN has just stopped printing one of its newspapers, The Coffs Coast Advocate and offers it mainly online, says Conroy. "It's the first in Australia, but it's going to happen more and more. Will there be any in 10 years time? I don't know. But when we talk about the Press Council, or an alternative body, regulating newspapers, the industry says, 'Not us, we're different'. Well, the difference may be their business model is struggling to survive."

The internet is changing every business, says Conroy, even supermarkets. "The subway in Seoul, South Korea, has a wall with pictures of groceries projected onto it. You go up with your mobile, swipe the barcode of what you want and you've bought it and paid for it. It's delivered to your home. So maybe you don't need even big supermarkets any more."

"No one is safe," he says, "And the NBN is speeding up this change."

Even Conroy's own power might be swept away by the digital age if regulation can no longer be made to work. But for now, he's still got muscle, as News Ltd's John Hartigan has discovered. We wonder if Murdoch's man would have lost his job had Conroy not gone on the attack.

"The Australian and the Daily Telegraph have shown no balance. They've denigrated the government every single day; they've breached their own code of conduct repeatedly, he tells The Power Index. "I'm not asking for favourable treatment, just balance."

"The shock jocks are even worse. You can hear Alan Jones turning the pages of the Australian and reading them out as fact. 2GB is an absolute shock jocks' paradise for attacking the government. Jones blows the whistle every morning and says, 'Right, this is what we're going for today'."

So is Conroy happy that the Australian Communications and Media Authority has recently taken Jones to task? Yes, he is. "That's what the laws say. He's in breach of the industry's own codes, so it's fine, and the laws are fine too. The media is like any other industry: they're all held accountable, so why shouldn't the media be too? The question is can people have redress. Are they subject to accountability and scrutiny? The answer should be yes."

Conroy's issue with ACMA is that it needs more mid-tier powers. "There's nothing at the moment between a slap on the wrist with a wet tram ticket and closing people down. ACMA has been lobbying for more powers and we've been looking at granting them, but we'll wait until we see the results of the Convergence Review."

Conroy is also obviously impressed by Julian Disney's desire to beef up the Press Council with more staff, fines and penalties. "Media Watch exists because the Press Council is such a failure," he says. "It has four staff, two of whom are admin staff; and it has no power to investigate, it has to act on complaints."

He also thinks it makes sense to have just one regulator. "At the moment, you can read it in the paper, see the same thing online and finally watch it on TV. But you have to complain to three different places if you don't like it. From the consumer's point of view that's crazy."

Conroy also likes Disney's suggestion that journalistic privileges (to protect sources, for example) are only available to those who join Press Council.

And just to be clear about what he won't be supporting, he says, "There will be no licences for newspapers. Finkelstein made that clear from day one."

So, will Conroy stick around to put this stuff into practice? We believe so. For someone who's spent seven years in charge of Labor's media policy, he is still remarkably passionate and engaged. "I'm having a ball," he told The Power Index.

This article first appeared on The Power Index on December 16. Republished with permission.