Two bald men and combs: Stephen Conroy’s fight with Kim Williams

Our media hurtled further towards irrelevance this week with an exaggerated response to modest proposals to strengthen an under-regulated industry. It followed Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s response last week to the Convergence Review and Finkelstein Inquiry. The Convergence Review was about policy and regulatory frameworks in a converged media and communications landscape while Finkelstein examined media codes of practice in the Internet era.

Conroy proposed five reforms to deal with issues raised in both inquiries. They were: a beefed-up press standards model for print and online news media, the introduction of a Public Interest Test for mergers and acquisitions policed for diversity by a Public Interest Media Advocate (PIMA), upgrading the ABC and SBS charters for online and digital activities, allocating the sixth free-to-air channel to community television and offering rebates for more Australian content.

Conroy proposed three other reforms be sent to parliamentary committee: The abolition of the 75% local reach rule, on-air reporting of ACMA regulation breaches and whether ACMA should consider news program supply agreements when determining control of a commercial television broadcasting service.

University professor and media policy commentator Terry Flew calls the reforms low key and a “very cautious, and in many ways piecemeal” response to the two inquiries. “It has probably not modernised media laws sufficiently to ‘tackle the challenges of the future’, although it does make some overdue changes to existing law,” Flew said.

But the Australian media saw the five proposals as an assault on freedom of speech. The Sydney Telegraph put Conroy in a rogues gallery of dictators likening him to Stalin, Mao, Castro, Kim, Mugabe and Ahmadinejad. News Ltd group editorial director Campbell Reid defended the Telegraph’s chutzpah as a “provocative tabloid presentation of an incredibly provocative act by a Government.” The Telegraph later issued an “apology” for printing a picture of Conroy dressed as Stalin. The apology was to Stalin who although “a despicable and evil tyrant who was responsible for the death of many millions,” he at least was “upfront” in his efforts to control the media.

This notion of control was picked up by many of the Tele’s News stablemates. Without a scrap of evidence, the Herald Sun turned Conroy’s package into “a deplorable assault on freedom of speech.” This glossed over assaults on freedom of speech by the company that owns half the Australian media landscape.

James Paterson expressed his bosses’ view at The Australian about the real purpose: to punish and rein in the federal government’s critics in the media. News Ltd boss Kim Williams said the proposals were “government sanctioned journalism” and “dangerous policy” while the PIMA would be an “unnecessary novel creation”. Fairfax boss Greg Hyland was more measured but saw the PIMA as a bridge too far.

Conroy described Williams’ reaction as “hysterical”. He quoted at length from both inquiries from submissions which went to the heart of News Ltd’s huge penetration in the Australian market – something News was unwilling to admit was an issue. Conroy admitted the public interest test was contentious but News and Fairfax had 86% of the market, “one of the most concentrated media sectors in the world.”

In many respects the battle is irrelevant. Conroy has joined the bald Williams in fighting over a comb. Only a few media commentators like Alan Kohler understood the pointlessness of the struggle. He says regulating for diversity and complaint handling is irrelevant and unnecessary in a world moving past the monoliths of print and broadcasting.

“Rebuilding trust with customers and keeping it is the greatest of all the challenges facing the media in the digital age, and dealing properly with complaints is an important part of doing that,” Kohler said. “The pity of it is that the PIMA and the complaints handling body will probably just be another set of slow, clanking bureaucracies that serve only to highlight the contempt that much of the media have for their customers.”

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