Right now Ray Finkelstein and Matthew Ricketson, the two members of the federal government’s Independent Media Inquiry, are trying to finish off their report to the government. It’s due by 28 February.
Writing these reports is frequently difficult, but Finkelstein and Ricketson have a particularly intriguing task. It’s more difficult because they clearly want to rein in a few of traditional media’s worst excesses – and they want to do it just at a time when that traditional media is shrinking in importance in the face of an Internet-driven explosion of information availability:
- Finkelstein and Ricketson have to examine what the terms of reference call “the effectiveness of the current media codes of practice in Australia”. That’s tough enough on its own, because it’s hard to think of a more effective system which isn’t also more restrictive of freedom of speech. The head of Curtin University’s journalism department, Dr Joseph Fernandez, has made this point well – see the transcript of his evidence here. Fernandez perhaps understands these issues clearly because he spent 14 years editing newspapers in Malaysia, a country where editors face real experience of freedom-of-expression issues.
- They must examine the codes of practice “in light of technological change that is leading to the migration of print media to digital and online platforms”. Their problem here is that technological change is leading to an explosion of content that undermines the case for even existing restrictions on publishers. This is a point that Ian Rogers and I have tried to make at length in WorkDay Media’s submission to the inquiry. Traditional media had a level of oligopoly power over information distribution. These days anyone can publish. There is no longer any such thing as “the media” – rather, there is a huge and messy range of information forms, sources and channels with different levels of reach, frequency, engagement, audience trust and motivation. This is great for citizens: the “marketplace of ideas” has never been closer to being fully realised. But it’s bad for traditional publishers – and for aspiring regulators.
- They must assess “the impact of this technological change on the business model that has supported the investment by traditional media organisations in quality journalism and the production of news”. For anyone who pulls the economics of media apart, the answer is pretty obvious: printed newspapers mostly won’t survive. They are losing advertisers and readers to a fundamentally more attractive and efficient Internet. The media analyst Roger Colman calculates that “all metropolitan newspapers in print editions will be unprofitable, definitely, by 2020”. But a surprising number of people don’t want to say this. And if Finkelstein and Ricketson do say it, they will instantly raise the question: “so why are we bothering about extra regulation of print media now?”.
- They must figure out how investment in quality journalism “can be supported, and diversity enhanced, in the changed media environment”. This is an interesting question. But as Ian Rogers and I have argued, the answer is less obvious than many people think. The media and those who analyse it are constantly in danger of over-estimating traditional print media journalism’s contribution to the world, and underestimating the benefits of the information availability explosion which the Internet is bringing us.
- They must look at “ways of substantially strengthening the independence and effectiveness of the Australian Press Council, including in relation to online publications”. The ABC’s Jonathan Holmes has predicted that the inquiry will push from a stronger Press Council with more powers and a much broader remit. And that will bring us back to the inquiry’s fundamental problem: it seems to want a more activist government media body just at the time when technology is making traditional media of all sorts less dominant and undermining the case for media regulation.
- They will feel pressure to come up with a solution that fits in with the interim report of the Convergence Review, which has decided the inconsistency of Australia media regulations should be addressed by a system of regulating equally all members of a vaguely-defined group called “content services enterprises”. These firms’ content would be subjected to a public-interest test. The firms covered would include television, radio, newspapers and online outlets – which means print and online journalism would face new restrictions. Finkelstein and Ricketson are at least awake to the freedom-of-expression minefield that such a law would sow. As Jonathan Holmes again points out, the convergence review’s authors seem largely, weirdly, oblivious to the whole issue.
The Independent Media Inquiry could sensibly suggest that a voluntary body provide reputation indicators for online and offline media. That’s the solution recommended by Monash University’s Dr Johan Lidberg. (The Council could also make it easier for small online media organisations to join.)
But if the inquiry recommends the Press Council or a new media super-regulator starts regulating a much wider group of reporters and commenters, and government follows that recommendation, three things will happen. The council will be quickly overwhelmed, it will be forced to make impossible judgments, and it will eventually become a joke.
[Update: An hour after first posting, I gave in to the impulse to properly honour Lewis Carroll by adding a sixth point, on the Convergence Review.]