Opinion

Digital naivety dooms the Finkelstein Inquiry

When I met Matthew Ricketson, he did not strike me as someone who was on top of the latest digital developments.

In March 2010 he moderated a PR Institute of Australia panel I was a speaker on. When we were introduced, it was clear he had never heard of Mumbrella. Which is fair enough, unless you’re a professor of journalism in which case there are few enough outlets that write about media that I’d argue you probably should know about them all.

So when Ricketson was named as the journalistic voice to sit alongside Ray Finkelstein on the Independent Media Inquiry, I was not massively optimistic that online media would be well understood. Having now read all 500 or so pages of the newly published inquiry report, I was right to be pessimistic.

First though, the positives.

This is one of the best explorations of the history of Australian media, changing consumer habits and the issues around regulation I’ve  read. It’s well researched and thorough, as you would hope, based on the costs of the inquiry. It’s a great backgrounder for an media studies student.

But I’m left with the impression that so much resource has been put into identifying the problems, that a lot less time went into exploring the praciticalities of the proposed solutions.

I agree, by the way, about the key problems that the inquiry identifies – the Australian Press Council is indeed an underfunded, virtually toothless tiger. It is ridiculous that broadcast complaints are dealt with – painfully slowly – by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, while the print press do it through the APC. It is indeed iniquitous that online media has a freer run than traditional media.

But the answers to these problems feel like they’ve been plucked form the air.

Most importantly, the principle of replacing the APC with a government-funded body is a threat to a free press. Even with suggestions on how to make the appointments arms-length, the possibility of a government being able to influence the makeup of such a body is bad news all round.

There are other non-solution solutions. The idea of taking adjudications on broadcast news and current affairs off ACMA does sound deeply tempting. The creakingly long process of dealing with a complaint is ridiculous. I expect it will be months yet before they finally express a view on the Kyle Sandilands attack on Alison Stephenson for instance. But most ACMA inquiries look at other types of breaches of the code of practice outside of news and current affairs. Having identified a problem with ACMA, and suggested the News Media Council take on the news issues, there is no solution offered around the wider ACMA problem of its complaint process not being fit for purpose.

But as I wrote on Friday afternoon, the biggest indicator of digital naivety remains to me this paragraph:

“There are many newsletter publishers and bloggers, although no longer part of the ‘lonely pamphleteer’ tradition, who offer up-to-date reflections on current affairs. Quite a number have a very small audience. There are practical reasons for excluding from the definition of ‘news media’ publishers who do not have a sufficiently large audience. If a publisher distributes more than 3000 copies of print per issue or a news internet site has a minimum of 15 000 hits per annum it should be subject to the
jurisdiction of the News Media Council, but not otherwise. These numbers are arbitrary, but a line must be drawn somewhere.”

There are a number of problems. First, as I said, I suspect they don’t mean “hits”. A page consists of more than one file, with each call to the server a separate hit. Hits are the language of either charlatans trying to make their audience sound larger, or people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

But let’s assume they mean page views. 15000 page views a year equates to 41 a day. That’s nothing. A hell of a lot of sites, and blogs, will get that sort of traffic.

And let’s assume they manage to find a legally watertight definition of which sites are “news media” and which are not. (My Banana Watch example shows why I think they’ll struggle with that. And I can think of plenty of bloggers who publish lists and other types of research that are exactly the sort of thing that newspapers do.)

Are we talking about 15000 page views in total? Or only from Australian IP addresses? How about page views generated by search engines and the like? Our Google Analytics numbers are generally higher than our audited numbers partly for that very reason.

And how will the News Media Council tell if somebody has 15000 hits or not? Will there be legislation requiring everybody to have their sites audited? Or declare it when they hit that milestone?

Because there are plenty of biggish sites that do not currently audit. In my space, even the likes of B&T, Marketing and AdNews don’t submit to audit. While I think their advertisers are complete fucking idiots for not demanding it, it’s probably a step too far to compel them to do so.

The question of course will now be one of what next for the inquiry’s recommendations?

A key question now will be how much does media minister Stephen Conroy wants to shaft his enemies in the press. If he’s up for it, there’s probably just time to get some legislation rolling on replacing the APC with a statutory body before Labor loses office in the election.

If not, then I suspect we’ll be right back where we began. Conroy’s shadow Malcolm Turnbull has sent a strong signal that he wants none of Finkelstein’s plan, writing “His recommendation to set up a new government funded super regulator, a News Media Council, with statutory powers to take over the role of the Press Council, the media regulation role of ACMA and have jurisdiction over the online world is not one which would appeal to the Coalition, believing as we do in a free press – free in particular to hold governments to account.”

Right now it feels like we all agree on the problem. But noone’s got a solution.

Tim Burrowes

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