I WONDER if Justice Ray Finkelstein wants his summer back. Having rushed like blazes late last year to conduct a review of media policy for the Gillard government - conforming with a ridiculous reporting deadline of only five months - his recommendations have languished in a drawer gathering dust and urban mythology for the best part of 12 months.
Will Labor overhaul Australia's media regulations in any meaningful way or not? Senior players and their advisers seem in multiple minds.
The ''just do it'' rationale is this: standards in the industry have gone to hell in a hand basket, and media ownership cannot be allowed to get any more concentrated than it already is.
The ''are you freaking mad?'' camp says: go to war with the biggest bullies in the country in an election year with nary a vote in it … how daft is that?
The practical effect of this divide is that you read news stories sourced from multiple, conflicting quarters. What the industry thinks the government will do, dressed up as ''government sources''. What pragmatists inside the government are angling to do. What reformers inside the government believe they need to do.
To date, nothing substantial has happened. Perhaps it will soon. This package has been on the runway to cabinet several times this year, and one day the plane will actually take off.
Let's set aside the ''when'' for the ''how''.
If the government plans on acting, then it needs to get cracking. With the Coalition sounding disinclined to play ball, the government must rely for anything requiring parliamentary approval on the lower house crossbenchers and the Greens in the Senate.
The lower house crossbenchers, I suspect, will worry about overkill. The Greens in the Senate will worry that the government isn't going hard enough. The point is it will take some negotiation and finessing - and those blokes in the lower house don't like to be rushed.
The Senate sits this week. Then there's just one sitting week left for both houses for 2012. Then the summer. Then, the opening of the 2013 parliamentary calendar has the usual light sittings until the May budget. I'm not buying the early-election speculation, but given politics will hand over to the voters at some point in 2013, anything post-budget will be about clearing the decks for the election. Not the time to muscle up against the media proprietors, even for the craziest of the crazy brave.
So common sense tells you decision-time is soon - or this proposal is neutered, or dead. And not just Finkelstein, but the whole media reform package. In its totality, it is about privacy reform - a serious hot-button issue with proprietors of the mainstream media - and the recommendations of the convergence review, which include a new test for media mergers.
So, let's consider a couple of fundamental questions: will the government act - and should it act?
I have some significant issues with the Finkelstein report - the principal one being that it failed to really grasp the industry's current existential challenge. It noticed it, and doffed a cap to it, but the review just didn't get it - Finkelstein's instinct was to play down the magnitude of that challenge.
It's all very well for a review of an industry to stand apart and eschew being captured by vested interests, but I worry that, if you don't get it, your blueprint for reform might lag behind the existential preoccupations of the here and now.
Many readers think standards in the media these days are woeful. We in the media have to listen to that, in my view. I think it's arrogant in the extreme for the mainstream media to essentially declare that we have a right to get it wrong - that we have no case to answer. In a world of clutter and competition and deep-seated cynicism about the performance of the ''gatekeepers'', that position is akin to writing a public suicide note.
I think Finkelstein's proposal for a news media council was over the top given that Australia possesses only qualified protections for press freedom, and that there are already significant curbs on tough, unflinching reporting. But I have no beef with strengthening the existing Press Council.
There is not enough media diversity in this country. The degree of concentration of ownership is appalling.
I'm not convinced a so-called public interest test solves the problem given that it can only look forward not backwards. But depending on how the test is framed and how it's administered - if it can avoid being a tool of the government of the day (and that's a big if given this is media policy we are talking about) - it might help. A bit.
Given there's a massive structural adjustment playing out in the media at present, a better approach might be to offer a carrot not a stick - that is, public or private subsidies to help new entrants intent on executing quality journalism gain a foothold in the Australian market. But Finkelstein gave no road map there, and if the government is intent on a budget surplus, then there's no public money available for such subsidies.
Anyway, I suggest you stay tuned. We'll divine the government's synthesised mind - one way or the other - sooner, rather than later.
Katharine Murphy is national affairs correspondent of The Age.