Wednesday, August 31, 2011

News Limited and a Media Inquiry

Suggestions for a "media inquiry" have arisen from the combined perception of the control of all print media in two camps, and the perception coming from overseas that the largest of these has institutionalised illegal practices and has been beyond scrutiny because of its own political power.

The most recent event in Australia has centred around The Australian and publication of a very meandering column and its retraction.

The PM has come out fighting, which News found disappointing. News seems to think it is okay just to apologise and move on.

This contrasts with the position of Andrew Bolt who has been unleashed and writes a snivelling little piece that suggests that the rehashing of the relationship between a young Ms Gillard and a union official is okay because "questions are raised about Gillard's judgment in having had this relationship".

So as far as the News bosses are concerned you make an error, apologise and move on. As far as Bolt is concerned your entire history must be blemish free.

The Bolt defence ignores the real problem with the stories - which is as I wrote before to act like Mark Antony's soliloquy and have the reader believe the things about which the article says "no accusation is being made."

Cabinet is considering what to do about News Ltd. It has to in any case since Bob Brown has already moved for one.

The challenge for the Government is what could productively come from a "media" inquiry. There is very little room to move on directly regulating content, both through a lack of Federal powers on print media and due to the implied free speech protections the High Court would find on any regulation that could be interpreted as limiting political commentary.

At the last print media inquiry News Ltd produced impressive arguments for why cities would in the future support only one print title. Thus far the market has reflected their forecast.

The two avenues that could be useful would be to formalise the alternative dispute resolution methodology that is the Press Council. Bolt's complaint that not everyone could ring John Hartigan to complain is reasonable. The response is to make it easier for everyone to complain, not make it reasonable to not respond to the PM.

The second would be to contemplate the extent to which the market power of the various news organisations extends vertically and horizontally. If I wanted to publish a new newspaper in, say, Adelaide, it would be far more viable if I could use News Ltd's printing and distribution facilities.

Cross media ownership restrictions will be reviewed by the Convergence Review. But these restrictions don't affect the growth of power through attrition.

So an inquiry could productively consider the possibility and benefits of an "access regime" and divestiture powers to ensure media diversity.

There is significant latitude as Bob Brown has only given notice that he will move "That the Senate establish an inquiry into media in Australia."

An inquiry focussed on complaint mechanism and market structure tools could indeed be productive.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

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