As Senator Conroy was announcing his media reforms yesterday, I happened to be meeting with a series of social media entrepreneurs and marketers, people whose job it is to try to keep up with Facebook, Twitter and all the new ones that seem to pop up every day.
Meanwhile, over in Rome, the Cardinals were heading into the 111th Papal Conclave.
It occurred to me that the Conroy Bull headed Government response to Convergence Review and Finkelstein Inquiry was about as relevant to the modern world as the medieval election in the Vatican City.
Later I reread the executive summaries of the Convergence Review and the Finkelstein report on my phone, and it quickly became evident that the 'response' was nothing of the sort; or rather the response was to reject most of them.
Fair enough. Reading these reports again they were even duller and less relevant than they were on first reading last year. Expert panels often seem to think their job is to come up with a solution to something, when in fact most of the time they are just a parking lot for a problem.
The reforms that have emerged a year later from the mind of Senator Conroy, as opposed to the work of the experts, are set out in a brief press release, with legislation promised later. The approach is 'take it or leave it': no negotiation and you’ve got a fortnight to pass it.
Is it an attack on freedom of speech, as the critics contend? Yes, of course. The reforms are designed to limit the freedom of media outlets to do and say what they like and it is the first time print and online content will be regulated. How much of a limitation this is on freedom of speech depends on what the bureaucrat to be known as the Public Interest Media Advocate gets up to, and that’s entirely unclear. But it clearly represents greater regulation.
The PIMA – an individual appointed by the minister – will decree whether a media complaints handling body, mainly the Press Council, is “authorised”. Only media organisations that are members of an authorised body get to retain their exemptions to privacy laws.
Typically, this is a backdoor way of controlling the media rather than the upfront Federal Court appeal proposed by Finkelstein.
The PIMA will also determine the acceptability of media mergers on national interest grounds. Competition as supervised by the ACCC is not enough: “diversity” is something else, and must be served separately.
That’s about it really. Oh, and in a nod to the Convergence Review, media laws now cover online publications like Business Spectator, which is, needless to say, an absolute outrage and an infringement of our civil liberties.
Meanwhile, out in the real world, those whom Senator Conroy is passing laws to protect are reading tweets, looking up Facebook, watching YouTube, checking out Pinterest and Instagram and Google+, perhaps having a quick look at a blog or two, reading The New York Times, or perhaps The Guardian, or the People's Daily from China, reading emails and text messages, and generally getting on with life in the digital world.
Media organisations are frantically trying to deal with fast-moving advertising marketplaces driving down their yields, the explosion of video streaming and social media and the advent of big data. There is more diversity these days than you can poke an iPad at. Regulating for it is laughable.
And as for regulating to enforce better complaints handling – that should also be irrelevant and unnecessary.
In my view, 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. In this the media should be so far ahead of anything a “public interest advocate” might require that any legislation is merely an unnecessary, distant backdrop.
But they’re not – let’s face it. The pity of it is that the PIMA and the “authorised” 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.
The reason everyone’s using Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest etc is that people trust other people they know and would rather read what they are saying and follow their suggestions than anonymous editors and media owners. The main challenge of the media in the 21st century is to win and keep their attention by being worthy of trust.