Those much talked about media reforms – the ones we have been concerned about since the Convergence Review and Finkelstein inquiry have finally surfaced from cabinet. Well you cannot really say they have surfaced, but rather we have some detail and a bunch of cryptic clues, some fill-in-the-blanks as to what the exact policy of the Gillard Government, and Communications Minister Stephen Conroy might actually look like. We even have a very ambitious and quite frankly ridiculous timeline for the passage of the required legislation. What we can ascertain is that the proposals look pretty ugly. It’s really a mess, the whole thing.
The reforms announced by Stephen Conroy include previously outlined local content requirement changes and the related permanent reduction in licensing fees for commercial television stations. Among the more controversial proposals is the inception of a so-called “Public Interest Media Advocate”, which would oversee the operation of the Press Council and have a say in mergers involving media corporations.
The whole thing is a complete and utter joke. After years of struggling in the polls, someone has to be blamed for the woes of the Labor Party and God forbid it be them taking a good hard look at themselves. No, instead Senator Conroy thinks that messing with the media is the one true answer to all the government’s problems.
For a start, beefing up local content rules, despite how nice most broadcasters are being about them, is a stupid idea. Essentially it is outsourcing a chunk of the production decisions of each television broadcaster to the government. There is good local content out there, but if we continue to up the minimum amount of airtime given to local content, then viewer numbers will automatically drop away. Not all production companies are capable of a major success such as MasterChef or Underbelly and even the former was not an Australian concept in the first place. Decreasing program competition, any competition, never leads to a sound outcome.
TV stations will, for the most part, wear the new local content rules. Why wouldn’t they? They are, after all, set to receive a 50% discount on their licensing fees and permanently too. Of course companies would want to reduce costs as much as possible and that inevitably goes for those bringing us news and entertainment on the tube.
By far the most troubling concept is that of the Public Interest Media Advocate. The name alone should be warning enough that there is, at the very least, a subtle attempt to control media coverage on the way. People have been asking: what exactly is the public interest? Nobody can actually say. Even the minister with ‘communication’ in his title cannot actually explain that one, let alone why such a body is necessary.
And what about this idea about the advocate policing mergers? Hasn’t the Labor Government discovered we already have a regulator? They’ve blocked contentious merger attempts before. Why a new bureaucracy to achieve the same purpose? Only Labor would contemplate that.
The thing with companies though, is that they either respond to or think they can create markets. Media businesses are no different. They are doing one or the other, so the media landscape will only ever be as diverse as the public wants it to be. And if people are concerned, then they, like all proprietors in all fields – can take an entrepreneurial risk.
Stephen Conroy is kidding himself on the deadline for passage of the legislation too. It simply beggars belief that a package with so little detail will be given so little consideration. Then again, maybe this is an attempt to look tough on the media, leaving it up to the minority parliament to possibly vote down the legislation. But if this is true, the minister now has enough egg on his face in simply announcing intentions to pursue media reform.
A child could not have made so much of a mess if they tried their hardest to do so. Governments simply need to learn that their interference in our lives is often not welcome. Most people are rational and can make up their own minds about, well everything.