Moving beyond a media Frankenstein

The entire review of Australia's media has been over-complicated, starting with Finkelstein's 474-page report, but the reality is self-regulation doesn't work and an independent regulatory body is needed to address media failures across all mediums.

The harrumphing chorus that followed the release of the Finkelstein Report on media regulation was predictable and uninteresting; some of it was hilariously excessive, decrying, as it did, the forthcoming death of freedom of speech.

I wrote at the time (Why Finkelstein is not Judge Dredd, March 5), and still think, that a government-funded statutory media complaints handling body would be no big deal – an improvement on the present impotent industry-funded one. And the idea of having to persuade a judge before forcing an editor to apologise or correct a mistake seems reasonable enough.

There were a couple of clangers in the report: roping in websites with more than 15,000 hits per annum (at least three noughts should be added to that number) and thinking that complaints could be sorted within a day or two day by one bureaucrat and then finalised a few days later.

But Ray Finkelstein has confessed to the government that he got those things wrong, and there’s no chance of them getting into law. A new regulator, however, will be created before the next election, although not the one he recommended.

First, here’s why the near unanimous opposition to Finkelstein’s recommendations will be ignored and a new regulator appointed: because the government knows it’s probably going to lose the next election anyway and is therefore impervious to threats from the media. On this issue and probably many others, it has been liberated by the near-certainty of defeat and plans to get as much done as possible over the next 18 months.

Second, the Finkelstein Report was the first of a two-part series, the second being Glen Boreham’s Convergence Review, due to report to the minister, Stephen Conroy, this week.

There will be one new regulator resulting from these two reviews – it will take over what part of the Australian Communications and Media Authority currently does, plus some or all of what Finkelstein’s Monster would do.

The problem to be fixed is simply stated: broadcasting is regulated but print media is not, which used to be OK but isn’t any more.

Television and radio broadcasting require licences to use spectrum, and some regulation of behaviour goes with any licensing regime. Publishing a newspaper does not require a licence so it can’t be removed – thus, self-regulation only.

The term "convergence” refers to the fact that text, audio and video are now published on the same medium – the internet – as well as on paper and via radio spectrum. But should words, sounds and pictures continue to be regulated separately when they appear side by side on the same screens? Should the regulation of the converged media be raised to the level of broadcasting rules, or lowered to the (non-existent) print rules?

Which brings us to the other problem: both sets of existing regulations, covering broadcasting and print are hopeless, for different reasons.

The print regulator – the Australian Press Council – is funded and staffed by the regulated, and compliance is optional.

The broadcasting regulator only has the power to cancel someone’s licence. It would be like having a court whose only sanction was execution; all minor crimes would all go unpunished, which is what happens in broadcasting.

A new regulator is required that covers text, audio and video, however published, and whose powers are somewhere between a slap on the wrist and the gallows.

There now, that took 226 words to get across. Finkelstein’s final report was 474 pages of largely superfluous and often silly blather. The Convergence Review has already put out a 21-page Framing Paper, a 32-page Background Paper, and a 42-page Emerging Issues Paper, and there’s a fair chance that when the final report lands on Senator Conroy’s desk this week it will weigh more than Finkelstein’s 474 pages.

In other words the whole thing has been over-complicated.

Mistakes and atrocities – which will always happen in publishing and broadcasting because everyone is operating quickly and under pressure – need to be consistently corrected and apologised for if the media as a whole is to get a better reputation.

Self-regulation can’t work because it will never be consistent: some will do it all the time (the ABC), some will do it some of the time and some will never do it. We are all damaged when a journalist or editor burns someone, either deliberately or carelessly, and then fails to redress it.

The only way to achieve consistency of correction and apology is through an independent, separately funded body that fields the complaints and then demands, and gets, redress when they’re justified.

Follow @AlanKohler on Twitter


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