Media regulation round the twist

The government's media convergence review pays lip service to deregulation, while proposing continuing ownership regulation and an extension of content regulation well beyond the current play.

Very early on the Convergence Review asks itself a central question: "Why regulate?" It goes on to say that it believes its default position should be deregulatory. In substance, however, its recommendations are anything but deregulatory.

While there are some gestures to deregulation – getting rid of broadcasting licences and the existing media ownership laws – what the review is actually proposing is an extension of content regulation well beyond its current scope and a continuation of regulation of ownership but in a different form.

It was never likely to be the case – and it became obvious after the review released its interim report that it wasn’t going to be the case – that it would advocate real deregulation.

Instead of regarding convergence around digital platforms as an opportunity to free the media and communications sectors from distorting regulation, it became evident the committee was more interested in extending the core of the existing regulation of entities with broadcasting licences to services that aren’t currently regulated.

That has been borne out in the final report. Regulation of media ownership and content – including local content requirements – will be extended to a newly-defined group of "content service enterprises" defined by the content they deliver rather than the platform they use to deliver it.

There would be two new regulators, one a statutory body to replace the Australian Communications and Media Authority and the Classifications Board and to make local content rules and another, self-regulatory and industry-funded body to displace the Australian Press Council and cover all media content standards.

If there is any saving grace in the report it is that, unlike the Finkelstein report – which recommended establishing a new statutory regulator of content standards for the media with absurdly low audience thresholds – at least the review is advocating a self-regulatory body and limiting the new content regime to entities with Australian-sourced services revenues of $50 million a year and audiences of around 500,000 a month.

It says there are only about 15 of these enterprises – the existing major print, television and radio groups, with Telstra and Google just outside the regulatory net and Apple quite a long way away from it. As entities grew their revenues and audiences above the thresholds they would, however, be captured within that net.

The review panel’s arguments in favour of extending the regulatory coverage are that Australians place a high value on diversity of ownership of news, information and commentary sources, on content standards that reflect community expectations and on Australian and local content.

It could be argued that if Australians place such a high value on local content it will be produced without quotas and that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission could regulate concentration of ownership without the proposed "minimum number of owners" rule.

The premise of the review, that platform-specific regulation has become anachronistic in a world of digital and multi-platform distribution, is undoubtedly correct. The deregulatory response, however, would have been to remove the existing requirements on broadcasters rather than to extend them to print and the new online media.