16/11/2011 - 10:22

Changing media challenges regulators

16/11/2011 - 10:22

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Any inquiry into the media in Australia should focus on the future, not what has gone before.

Any inquiry into the media in Australia should focus on the future, not what has gone before.

THE media inquiry currently under way in Melbourne and headed by former Federal Court judge Ray Finkelstein offers plenty of food for thought, but I am disturbed at the heavy regulatory theme that has quickly evolved. 

It seems almost all of this smacks of policy development by looking in the rear view mirror. What we have heard about is reactive solutions to a problem that might never have occurred if the governments of their day and the various competition watchdogs of the past had been doing their jobs diligently.

This is not just a media issue – it is fundamental issue of competition. It seems that Australians constantly allow monopolies and duopolies to occur and then beat up on them when they do. Whose fault is that?

Of course, the media is different because restricting ideas is more dangerous than restricting the supply of cardboard boxes, but that doesn’t mean more regulation and bureaucracy will help the democratic process.

Therefore, this should be a debate about competition laws for the media of the future, not the political decisions about the media of the past.

Such a debate ought not overlook the fact that competition itself naturally finds solutions that might be better than the artificial ones many suggest. News Corp, the perceived target of the inquiry, is dominant because it bought newspapers from owners who could not operate them viably. While I understand that some proprietors may use competitively dominant media positions to wield power in other areas, the fact is that News Corp’s window of dominance is relatively small in historical terms.

Newspapers, especially mainstream dailies, are dying and losing their position of dominance as the media world changes. It is highly likely that even News Corp’s greatest detractors might look back in five years and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Bearing this in mind, I would debate that we have truly been let down in respect of media competition. I find robust criticism of the federal government refreshing and vital to the public interest. I understand how people of different political persuasions might think otherwise but they have significant alternatives such as the ABC and Fairfax, which both appear to put up a formidable opposition to News Corp’s so-called right-leaning views. 

And what if all this was reversed? What if we had an incompetent right wing government beholden to corporate Australia (rather than unions) but bedevilled by a media group the size of News Corp with a political line akin to the UK’s Guardian? Would we need a media inquiry then? 

Some might say that almost everyone who is criticising News Corp today was, five years ago, defending the ABC, which was then under attack from the Howard government. There is some truth in that. But the ABC is not the commercial media; it is not subject to the laws of competition. It is supposed to offer the moderating objective view, not pick sides like it seems to, in my view.

My view that this media inquiry ought to be about the future, not the past, is not formed as an apologist to News Corp (I have never worked there and its publications are in competition with this newspaper) but as someone focused on where media is heading. 

The future of the media is online, not newspapers.

Blogging and the plethora of new web publishers are nearly impossible to control; which is all the more reason that licensing and regulating old, soon-to-be-irrelevant media would be like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. In fact, regulating the ailing print media might accelerate its demise and reduce competition. 

Of course mainstream media, including newspapers, are migrating to the web where they are learning that they have brands to protect and are obvious targets for legal action in the form of defamation claims. That is why they are increasingly moderating the comments and other commentary that they have often allowed to be published without control.

But that is just being sensible and should be up to the publisher, constrained only by law and commercial constraints. 

A media inquiry ought to concentrate on ensuring such laws are effective beyond publishers who have assets and reputations worth pursuing in the courts. 

Where is the discussion around Facebook, for instance, which seems to be creating far more pain for the average person in terms of invasion of privacy than News Corp ever has; it is just that Facebook’s victims aren’t politicians who have plenty of opportunity to have their views heard. 

Therefore, again, the media inquiry’s rear-view focus is wrong. It ought to be focused on privacy laws and ensuring they adequately protect the weak but don’t overly protect the political classes. 

The web not only offers much more diversity for the audience to shop for opinion and news, it also allows anyone the ability to publish cheaply. 

At WA Business News, we are competing with major media outlets as well as with anyone with a website or who can print a pamphlet. It is not just individual bloggers and small publishers that we compete with. 

In fact we are up against any organisation that wants to offer news about itself, its industry or the world in general, depending on the resources they want to throw at it. That could be Alcoa, the AMA, Google or Greenpeace. How do we regulate them beyond the practical laws of the land?

The question a real media inquiry ought to be asking is not how News Corp’s newspapers ought to be controlled just because they are upsetting a few unpopular politicians.

That is almost yesterday’s story. Tomorrow’s question is, how do we ensure the online landscape remains competitive, healthy and diverse? 

It is much better to establish simple, effective and transparent principles now – ones that work across any media platform – than be trying to unwind another set of problems (perceived or otherwise) in the future.

• mark.pownall@wabn.com.au

 

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