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Media Inquiry won't go far enough

  • 21 September 2011

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.