Beware the state that reins in free media
TODAY the federal government releases the second of two reviews that pave the way for a shake-up of media regulation. The failure of a moribund legal and regulatory framework to catch up with multimedia reality has been obvious for years. The Age noted six years ago that print-only products were long gone. Three years ago, we called for an all-media council but warned that state oversight was a threat to democratic freedom of expression. Today, the key recommendations include a statutory super regulator and a beefed-up Press Council.
The strongest democracies are those nations where the state has the least say in the media. Australia's history of free media might create false complacency about the strength of the political desire to control the public flow of information and opinions. Australians' freedom of speech is not enshrined in the constitution or a bill of rights as it is in most other democracies. We already have fewer protections for journalists and their sources and they are constrained by tough defamation and privacy laws. The reporting of the Watergate scandal that brought down US president Richard Nixon may not have been possible here.
It is true that the Press Council and especially the statutory regulator of broadcasters, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, have often been toothless in acting on complaints. The regulatory reviews have taken place against the background of the scandal surrounding News International's activities in Britain. It was telling that Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Communications Minister Stephen Conroy took potshots at News boss Rupert Murdoch's Australian newspapers when announcing the Finkelstein review of press regulation. Its findings inform today's broader Convergence Review report.
A core recommendation is that a ''super regulator'', headed by a retired judge, be given the power to impose fines and sanctions on news media. The retention of a separate self-regulator of print and online media is in line with proposals by the Press Council chairman to bolster its funding and powers. ACMA is also lobbying to become the super regulator.
This cobbled-together ''solution'' invites multiple criticisms. It would maintain archaic distinctions between media that almost all operate on multiple platforms. Second, it creates a powerful statutory regulator, incorporating the roles of the privacy commissioner and intellectual property rights. A state-appointed and funded regulator throws the door open to political influences.
Then there is the vexed issue of ownership, the importance of which is now all too obvious in Britain and Italy, where Silvio Berlusconi's media empire enabled his abuses of political power. Today's report recommends an end to cross-media ownership restrictions. Its ''safeguard'' is that mergers and acquisitions be subject to a public interest test. This is the very test whose consequences have left Britain questioning the nature of relations between its politicians and media.
In a democracy, the answer to keeping both politicians and media in check comes back to the role of citizens. A government or media outlet that fails the public faces democratic consequences - namely, the loss of power or market share that comes from citizens exercising their right to change their vote or their information sources. In the coming consultation period, Australians should consider the implications of more regulation and make their views known. What is at stake is their right to a media free of state control, the basis of informed democracy.
The media have many flaws, which includes too often treating Australians as passive consumers of content. Yet if the public accepts this role and allows a politically motivated process to extend control over their media, we may all have cause to lament a diminished democracy in years to come. For all the limitations of light-touch regulation, it is the democratic way. The public is the most trustworthy arbiter of media conduct and content.