Proposed media regulation is flawed

The same can be said of the punitive methods outlined in the Finkelstein Inquiry to ensure greater accountability across the sector by journalists and publishers.

The reason for these failures is the groups that undertook both government commissions did not embrace the dynamics that are driving digital transition within the industry.

The Convergence Report reshuffles the deck on cross-ownership laws, but its central plank is the introduction of a public interest test on media ownership and mergers.

The executive summary of the final Convergence Report states: “The focus of the test would be on maintaining diversity at a national level and would complement, not duplicate, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s existing mergers and acquisitions powers”.

However, a public interest test is a lever to control ownership, not diversity, and fits the agenda of those who seek to limit the ability of companies – such as those controlled by Rupert Murdoch – to invest in new or different platforms under the new order.

To underline the point, diversity is diminishing in mainstream publications at a gathering pace, without a single bleat from those critics blinkered by the question of ownership.

This is not a criticism of major publishers, which have had to grapple with a cascade of digital change as traditional revenue sources were under siege – something the Convergence Report conveniently did not take into account.

Still, the reality is that diversity of published views is being eroded as a result, and it won’t be stopped by a public interest test.

At Fairfax, instead of separate business sections with news and opinion tailored for the individual market of The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, both papers essentially carry a common section.

The literary sections of the soon-to-be morning tabloids are headed down the same path, with book reviews of The Age and The SMH replacing the literary assessments of staff at The Canberra Times.

With the Fairfax philosophy of “topic editors” across all platforms, readers will be presented with a monotone as opposed to a range of different voices.

‘Traditional media is responsible for the publication of consumer-led content it publishes. So should social media’

At News Limited, similar economies are occurring, with up to 18 national rounds being allocated across its state-based dailies – in addition to national liftout sections.

In his speech to the 2012 PANPA Future Forum in September, News Limited chief executive Kim Williams made the point that genuine diversity is being promoted in new media through advances in technology – without the assistance of a public interest test.

“Australians don’t need dangerous new laws to give them greater media diversity, they just need a mobile device, or a television or a laptop,” he said. “The iPad for instance is now one the greatest generators of information diversity in human history. It condenses the world’s media into the confines of a 250 millimetre screen. You literally have the diversity of the world in the palm of your hand.”

The Finkelstein recommendations are a complete travesty. Leaving aside the free speech implications of a government-funded News Media Council, the inquiry provisions seek to make journalists and publishers of traditional media more accountable, with legally-binding punishments for perceived poor reporting or failure to acknowledge mistakes.

Yet it excluded aggregators and social media from its recommendations. “This report deals with news media. It does not purport to deal with other forms of media,” it says.

The Convergence Review believes different rules – or no rules at all – should apply to the dominant new media players.

Both Google and Facebook did not come under the definition of content service enterprises in its recommendations. Nor does Telstra’s BigPond.

Yet it is this area of media which is challenging ethical boundaries and legal conventions – as well as the profits of traditional media companies.

The brutal murder of Irish national Jill Meagher in Melbourne highlighted the issue, when her widower appealed to Victorians saddened by her death not to post comments on Facebook or Twitter that could threaten the fair trial of the accused.

A number of pages appeared on Facebook after the suspect was arrested and charged, but it took the best part of a week before the social media behemoth responded to requests by Victoria Police to take down the offending content.

This led to Victorian Attorney-General Robert Clark to call at a meeting of state attorneys-general in October for new national laws that will reduce the risk of social media placing criminal trials in jeopardy.

Image the outcry – or the penalties that could be occurred under Finkelstein – if this offence had been committed by the traditional media.

In his report retired judge Ray Finkelstein declared “a free press should be publicly accountable for its performance”.

Traditional media is responsible for the publication of consumer-led content it publishes. So should social media.

Ian Moore is the founding editor of the Sunday Herald Sun and a former editor of The Sunday Telegraph

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