I've been reading through the Federal Government's cure for insomnia and the media — the Convergence Review — for a little while now, and although it's great to see that the powers that be recognise the need for a media watchdog with a little more bite, I'm not holding my breath for any changes to be made anytime soon.
What is the Convergence Review?
The laws governing the ownership and operation of media companies dates back to the era of having a dial-up modem as the only way that most of us could access the then-embryonic internet. And, like many other facets of law, it's had a hard time keeping up with the changes that have taken place since that period of time — the internet being key amongst them.
The Convergence Review was commissioned by the current federal Labor government to look into and recommend changes to media law, as well as regulatory oversight in Australia, now that the internet stands alongside traditional media, such as newspapers, magazines, radio and television.
Who regulates our media right now?
The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) was founded in 2005 to oversee television and radio licensees. It also casts an eye over the internet — remember the 2009 debate over internet censorship and revelations regarding the authority's blacklist of sites to be blocked via the Federal Government's proposed internet filter?
Interestingly, its purview doesn't extend to the last quadrant of the media environment, the printed press. The only thing keeping newspapers and magazines in check are the laws of this land, particularly those pertaining to libel and defamation. Unlike radio and television, there's no official oversight to ensure that certain standards of decency and fairness are applied — unless, of course, you count the Press Council, which is funded by the publishers themselves.
Mind you, the ACMA's scorecard of keeping the major players in radio and television behaving all decent and proper isn't particularly flattering to the authority. To pick out an example, the ACMA found Channel Seven's Today Tonight guilty of misrepresenting migrant taxi drivers as crooked, but declined to take any action, as "[the authority] is more generally currently engaged in discussions with the free-to-air commercial television industry about current-affairs programs and code compliance, with particular emphasis on factual accuracy and the fair representation of viewpoints".
What does the Convergence Review propose?
The review proposes that a new regulator be set up. This new body would have the authority to regulate standards across all media platforms; namely, print, radio, television and the internet.
It also suggests that the new regulator should be given greater powers to ensure compliance — everything from naming and shaming through to the use of civil action and injunctions — although it stops short revoking licences, where applicable.
Many will decry the use of the extra regulatory power over the internet as the end of free speech, but it's important to remember that despite our relative freedom, we are bound by rules, both formal and societal, without the existence of which we'd descend into a form of anarchy. And despite the internet's virtual nature, it still has a material impact on what happens in reality.
The review attempts to dispel these fears by leaving comment threads and all of the smaller and niche players untouched. For instance, user-generated content falls out of the hypothetical authority's scope. In fact, for an internet-based content provider to fall under its jurisdiction, it must be of significant "scale and scope", and be of "national significance".
Outside of the websites belonging to the major TV networks and newspapers, it's hard to see which other sites would fall into this category at the moment. A series of periodic reviews is suggested, so that as the internet presumably rises, the situation can be reassessed.
Will any of these changes be made?
The publication of a report does not guarantee that all or any of its recommendations will be put into practice. Politics is a peculiar art that mixes the greater interest in with a multitude of vested interests.
And the key vested interests here are the media groups involved. While they would likely cheer any changes that would enable to spin the takeover roulette wheel, they would be equally against any moves to replace the ACMA with a regulatory body with greater powers to police and punish.
And given the hard time that this current Labor administration has had with legislating and selling any of its policies, it's entirely likely that picking a fight with media barons both young and old might be the last thing on its mind as it faces the David versus an armada of Goliaths situation of remaining in power.