After months of speculation, on 14 September, the Gillard Government finally agreed to conduct an independent inquiry into the Australian media.
'The Media Inquiry I am announcing today will focus on print media regulation, including online publications, and the operation of the Press Council,' said Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy.
He added: 'The Government believes a separate and distinct examination of the pressures facing newspapers and their newsrooms, including online publications, will enhance our consideration of the policy and regulatory settings Australia needs to ensure that the news media continues to serve the public interest in the digital age.'
We all know the Inquiry can be attributed to the fallout from the UK phone hacking scandal. But the specific terms of reference should be read in light of the backroom horse-trading that took place over the past weeks between the Greens and the Government, as each sought to assert their party's media regulation agendas.
The Government has appointed former Justice of the Federal Court Ray Finkelstein QC to conduct the Inquiry, assisted by University of Canberra journalism Professor Matthew Ricketson. Conroy emphasised that their findings, due on 28 February 2012, would then be made available to the Government's Convergence Review Inquiry, which is scheduled to report by the end of March 2012.
This in itself is an interesting feature, and tends to set up a parent-sibling reporting arrangement between the two inquiries. Some commentators have suggested a parliamentary inquiry would have stood a better chance of achieving long-term reform.
The terms of reference of the Media Inquiry direct it to inquire and report on the effectiveness of media codes of practice, the impact of technological change in the shift to digital news publication, and, critically, ways of 'substantially strengthening the independence and effectiveness of the Australian Press Council, including in relation to online publication'.
(Currently the Council's Principles, Standards and Guidelines apply to newspapers, magazines and their associated online sites. Other online sites may become members at their own instigation.)
The Government, in arriving at its negotiated position with the Greens, has shied away from any explicit examination of media concentration, arguably the main reason behind the widespread calls to examine the structure of the media in Australia in the first place.
Yet many believe the inclusion of a brief reference to 'enhancing diversity' will allow sufficient scope for the Inquiry to investigate the wider regulatory implications of Australia's unusually high concentration of media ownership.
The Australian Press Council welcomed the Inquiry, with its Chairman, Professor Julian Disney, stating, 'The Press Council commenced last year a sustained program of reform to strengthen its effectiveness. It will advise the inquiry about the progress made so far and the further improvements which are under way ...
'It will identify other steps which are needed to achieve the level of performance which the Council believes is necessary and the community is entitled to expect. These will require supportive action by governments and other bodies.'
So why this new focus on the role of the Press Council? The Council has had its share of critics. So, too, has the UK's Press Complaints Commission (PCC): it was initially established to fend off sterner statutory regulation, and a similar 'press freedom' model was subsequently applied in Australia.
Last week the editor of the UK's Financial Times, Lionel Barber, giving the annual Fulbright Lecture, called the PCC 'dead' in the wake of its failure to act in the phone hacking scandal, and recommended it be replaced with a Media Standards Commission dominated by independent people who were not associated with either media proprietors or editors.
Apart from the funding problems and general 'insider' elements of the current model, Barber's view is that a more convergent model is required as newspapers evolve with mobile and digital products. This is called for, he argued, because traditional formats are now being blended with new social media redistribution, and as blogging and tweeting become a part of mainstream media practice.
'The newspaper will likely become an amalgam of the best (and sometimes timeless) content, whether news, analysis or commentary ... Editors will have to distinguish between 'high worth news and analysis' — content that must live on the web — and material that can be enriched and refined for a more cut-and-keep, lasting form for print ... the web will likely adopt more of a broadcast mentality, compared to its more considered cousin, the newspaper.'
It's to its credit that Australia's Press Council has been forward thinking in its approach. But, signalling his view of the future operation of the Council, Disney said improvements would depend on 'substantial increases in the Council's financial and staff resources and in the long-term security of those resources. This includes support from non-media sources, including governments.'
Whether or not this reorganisation needs a statutory basis for regulation of the press and online news media will be a key question for the Inquiry.
Dr Tim Dwyer is Senior Lecturer in Media and Communications at the University of Sydney.