It’s now or never for government on media reforms

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It’s now or never for government on media reforms

Date March 12, 2013 – 3:58PM Category Opinion 70 reading now

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Katharine Murphy

National Affairs Correspondent, The Age

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Given how late the Gillard government has left its run on media reform, Senator Conroy has little option now other than to crash or crash through. Photo: Andrew Meares

From stuck in a black hole to moving forward at breakneck speed.

Two landmark media reviews have been languishing in a drawer for months and months, with the reform package missing, presumed dead.

The reforms – whatever the current howls from the media proprietors – are not intrinsically radical.

Now Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has sprung from his concealed position, brandishing the outcome he wants, or more pertinently, the outcome he has had to accept given the powerful commercial interests ranged against substantial policy reform, not to mention the diffidence of some of his colleagues.

Parliament has been placed on notice. Senator Conroy says the government won’t be held hostage; he won’t be bartering on the fine print.

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Let’s get this done next week, or not at all, was essentially the ultimatum from the Communications Minister once cabinet and the Labor caucus green-lighted the two major components: a new public interest test to govern media mergers and systemic changes designed to make the media enforce its own professional standards.

Given how late the Gillard government has left its run, Conroy has little option now other than to crash or crash through. Trying to look elegant isn’t a luxury the Communications Minister has any more. There are only a few parliamentary sitting weeks left. It really is now or never.

But given the long hiatus between the production of the convergence and Finkelstein reviews, and the announcement of the formal government response today, the crossbenchers are well within their rights to say what they have: hang on a minute. Why does this package keep changing before our eyes? How about the detail?

The reforms – whatever the current howls from the media proprietors – are not intrinsically radical.

There are two points of principle: make sure Australia’s already absurdly concentrated media market doesn’t become even more concentrated. (Front of mind for some in the government is a dead simple proposition: stop Lachlan Murdoch buying the Ten Network.)

The second principle is using carrots and sticks to nudge the media to live up to the professional standards it sets through its own self-regulatory codes.

Not radical. Diversity becoming no worse that it is right now, and journalism living up to decent standards, are principles with strong public support. In fact, many voters would want to see more ambition than that.

But the detail matters – and the fine print of this package is messy and contingent, reflecting the fact that it is coming together at breakneck speed – and in fact, may not coalesce at all.

A multi-party parliamentary committee (a new one? an existing one? – it’s not entirely clear) will try to sort out in under a fortnight what to do about the 75 per cent reach rule (which is red hot in the industry right now because of a $4 billion proposed merger between Nine and Southern Cross).

A proposed tort of privacy which was part of this reform package from its inception has obviously been considered too hot to handle – so it has been punted to the Australian Law Reform Commission for further analysis.

Central too will be the performance of the Public Interest Media Advocate – a new and powerful government-initiated body to preside over media mergers and over the designated regulatory bodies who police the media companies.

Word is the government will appoint an expert to that position in consultation with the opposition in an effort to achieve a workable consensus around a post that will be intensely and brutally political from the get-go.

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Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/its-now-or-never-for-government-on-media-reforms-20130312-2fy37.html#ixzz2NIxywoQF

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