Of Comrade Conroy and the loon pond

I suppose I’ll have to say something about Stephen Conroy’s proposed media legislation (and I apologise in advance, though the media does play a role the quality or otherwise of economic management). The regulation itself looks remarkably simple. Media standards governed by a media Tsar who also wields the power to prevent mergers that do not pass a public interest test.

Generally speaking I’m obviously not in favour of media regulation. I would rather the media operate as a highly competitive soup of frenzied investigation, analysis and truth-seeking that won over readers based upon some explicit measure of the successful provision of accountability. That is. after all, the product that media is supposed to sell.

But, if you can find any resemblance to today’s media in that description then I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

The fact is our media is hopeless. Criminally useless might be a better phrase. I’ve worked around enough of the big firms to know that the cultures that drive them are utterly hostile to intellect, horribly addicted to partisan political support or the suasion of interests, strangled by a battler versus bludger point of view, insouciant about investigation, incapable of advancing talent owing to the bloated egos of senior writers, hyper-sensitive to criticism as well as prone to paralysing levels of group think, and driven by a level of self-importance that makes reflection upon any of the above completely impossible.

In short, the Australian media is chock-o-block with human and market failure. I suggest you take the outrage at the proposed legislation very much bearing this in mind. Most of it is completely phony. 

I could pick on anyone but Alan Kohler did probably the best job of capturing the arguments against Conroy, such as they are:

1. That regulating for diversity now is pointless because there is already so much diversity;

2. That the proposed reform clearly represents an increase in regulation and therefore some kind of limitation on freedom of speech;

3. That the media’s biggest challenge is improving trust (from readers) and that handling complaints properly is an important part of doing that. Given its current difficulties, the media should be so good at dealing with complaints in order to regain that trust that anything required by the new legislation was also pointless and unnecessary. But as things stand that’s not the case.

On point 1, no, uniformly corrupt garbage does not represent diversity, even if it encapsulates opposing views.

On point 2, if increased regulation prevents media monopoly then it is clearly expanding freedom of speech.

On point 3, if it isn’t happening then why not make it?

And that’s the rub isn’t it? The police don’t want to be policed is what this brouhaha boils down to, in neither a commercial nor editorial sense do they want their sullied interests compromised.

Therefore, I have no issue with the creation of some agency of that holds up media standards. In fact, were it a fair dinkum effort, it would quickly become as large as the media itself, buried under the avalanche of thundering violations from our daily miracles.

Should it be beholden to government? Absolutely not. And if it is then it must be stopped. But do we need it? Oh yeh.

Houses and Holes
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  1. I think you Distilled the points rather well…perhaps there’s a role for you, DLS, in a life parallel to MB ?

  2. Given that the MSM posed a credible threat to the economy during the GFC by screeching out the most extrordinary beat-up of the stimulus, until the average Aussie was convinced that the entire housing stock of the country was on the verge of becoming a scene of smouldering apocalyptic devastation with barbequed bodies as far as the eye could see, and having done that moved on to covincing Joe Public that the school building programme was an unmitigated disaster (I haven’t seen a bad building yet), I feel that there should be consequences for deliberately inciting mass-hysteria.

  3. Great article.. You make for a very good devil’s advocate :).. Bad photoshop, but it should be enough to placate the Wingnuts from catallaxative files, who’ll be on here shortly.

  4. The central assumption behind these regulations is that there is a ‘fair and balanced’ point of view. However, almost everyone considers their view to be the reasonable point of view. It’s exceptionally rare for someone to say that they have a fringe view, or that their view is unreasonable.

    Linked to that is the rather strange notion that government is impartial and able to discern that which is fair and balanced. However, that idea is clearly ridiculous on its face. Even within single party states, there are many views and endless competitions for power. On a more mundane level, we are subjected to government advertisements pushing one opinion or another, most recently concerned public health advice. Quite how anyone could look to government, which is inherently not neutral, to force a non-existent universal ‘balanced’ approach to reporting is a mystery.

    You then refer to “uniformly corrupt garbage does not represent diversity”. Once again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What one person decides to be work of the highest quality might be considered to be a pretentious wank by another, or low brow piffle by yet another. Think about the contrasting styles of Judith Butler and George Orwell, for some extremes. The snobbishness and social signalling in derisory remarks about the quality of content and its style is obvious.

    However, the worst aspect of these laws is the rule by ambiguous indirection that has the potential to trigger the worst kind of censorship: self-censorship. In many ways, blacked out text was preferable to this postmodern subversion of freedom because at least it was clear to all that something was being hidden. Now that which is hidden will be that which is known but which must never be mentioned, and that is the ruin of societies.

    • Er, can you say exactly how there is ‘ambigous indirection’ in the proposed legislation?

      Can you say exactly how prevention of media monopoly is bad for the market in information?

      Can you say exactly how requiring media to adhere to their own code of conduct is in any way pernicious?

      I am flabbergasted that anyone would suggest that holding media to their own stated codes of conduct is somehow a restriction of freedom of speech.

      The fact that New Limited is objecting to being held to a code of conduct is telling.

      I mean, what is News Limited? A news medium or a pulp fiction mill? If it is the former, it should do its job, if the latter, it should not mislead its readers as to its fundamental nature.

  5. I’m not so sure if it’s so loony to be worried about this. Conroy’s the same clown who wanted to have a government filtered internet (to protect the children, natch). AKA straight out censorship.

    The thoughts of someone like that wanting to appoint a “Public Interest Media Advocate” (who WILL be inevitably beholden to the government) scares the hell out of me.

      • +1 million.

        People are or should be adult enough to choose what they want to read, hear, see. Minister(“wear red underpants on your head”) Conroy seeks to gain more control to his Govt for what we see and hear. Dangerous stuff.

        Good to see Turnbull come out against it with a very reasoned argument.

        We must always be alert to how much power we allow our Govt.

        • “People are or should be adult enough to choose what they want to read, hear, see.” For sure but most people aren’t overly bright and assume the media, especially certain publications, is actually telling them a balanced story. I can understand the desire to protect people from their own stupidity. That said, there’s a system in place at the moment, why not strengthen it and make it genuinely independent from Government?

      • Should this ludicrous idea of Conroy’s actually develop legs the next challenge is the appointment of the “overseer”. No former politicians, no career journalism academics, no career public servants, no academics per se – yep doomed. No suitable persons for the role 😉

  6. On a tangential point: Before setting up a new “independent” regulatory agency, we should review how the existing ones are functioning (or NOT).

    ASIC – Caught out sleeping at the wheel.. so many times, it is embarrassing.

    RBA – Deliberately goes looking for platypus in a world full of black swans. Has the highest proportion of residential property infestors in its ranks.

    ACCC – Doing Ok, if you forgive the BankWest/St George shotgun wedding to the majors and that famous “how to use a hot water bottle” guide.

    APRA – Completely MIA. They are awfully quit.

    ATO – lost court cases keep piling up.

  7. When Conroy made the announcement it seemed akin to the internet filter.

    This starts as a good intention but like Robespierre, who also had good aims, it will find fault in everything other than its own view of how things ought to be. It will then trample on expression; it is in the nature of such things.

  8. We already have govt appointed bodies regulating media standards (ACMA) and media ownership (ACCC)and we have all seen how scary and draconian they are…not. This is a side show and of no great consequence.

    The proposed legislation meekly extends this existing electronic regulation to newspapers and half-heartedly attempts to put a scary mask the press council…but it is a phony war (on both sides), the real war is the election and ultimately the whether the NBN co. will be allowed to continue build a high quality, open and level wholesale digital playing field or whether Abbott/Turnbull will tear it up and allow Murdoch to pick through what remains to rent-seek and extort.
    Murdoch is desperately trying to protect his dying business model. Abbott has made a deal with the devil and the devil will collect.

  9. We already have a Public interest media advocate. His name is Rupert Murdoch, and he is beholden only to bond holders. Government is beholden to him, but let other would be information barons play in the sandpit to keep him in check. The system works, why spoil it?

  10. Bob Katter came out with a sensible suggestion, panel of three, not one, independant of government and including at least one journalist and then he would support it.

  11. Rumplestatskin

    I’ve never understood this “That the proposed reform clearly represents an increase in regulation and therefore some kind of limitation on freedom of speech”
    Free speech is a product of regulation. Journalists are given privileges through nasty regulations, such as the protection of sources.

    So I absolutely reject the approach that al regulation is somehow constraining, when most is equally enabling.

  12. Anyone thinking the Australian media world is a vibrant intellect stimulating source of comment and factual analysis about Australian policy, Australian society, Australia in its relationship to the rest of the world, has rocks in their head.

    Anyone thinking this legislation will change anything also has rocks in their head.

    Trying to legislate for change in media is a bit weird. I think just letting market forces do their job (Fairfax is half submerged, News is being hived off into a vehicle to ensure that Uncle Rupert can cash out while the vehicle is worth the mostest) is the way to go. Legislating to have a media tsar with a bureaucracy to support in terms of preventing mergers against the public interest (when these have essentially happened a generation ago) is an expensive way of not getting much result.

    That said all the bleating about regulation is essentially just for protecting the turf of one of numerous vested interest groups who feel the ‘meedja’ is their vehicle and don’t want any notions (intellectual curiosity, veracity, and rationale, first and foremost amongst them) changing a product they have come to know and like.

    But the print press is being creamed, the TV networks are hardly thriving. The essential reason is that people can almost always get better information and content, discussion, generally free off the web. One of the things I have noticed since coming back to Australia is just how disenchanted many people are with the media – there was always a touch of this, but now it seems mainstream. Absolutely nobody seem to ‘trust’ it – my view is that most people now see it as the corporates that control it see it – it is a vehicle for advertising with almost all content controlled through revenues to shape corporate interest to advantage. But as a society it would seem we are disenchanted with everything apart from real estate; punters don’t want to think any more and don’t seem to want to believe in anything either.

    Absolutely nowhere is this more apparent than in the field of business and economic reporting. The Fairfax Press and its reporting/spruiking of real estate interests (Chris Vedalago excepted) is embarrassing, but look at the same old dinosaurs trotted out (Gittins Pascoe etc) belting out the issues and viewpoints of a generation ago, and not having much obvious contact with (particularly) younger generations and the issues which shape them.

    It’s actually for this reason I think the advent of the Guardian here is potentially a good thing. With luck it will bring a frame of reference (ie the rest of the world) which the local players seem to have completely lost somewhere. Guardian also has a good tradition of pioneering new approaches to bringing punters news and touching base with them on it. That said it wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility for them too to step into the cesspit of the Australian media world and become just like the other inhabitants.

    • Rumplestatskin

      +1 Excellent comment.

      While I detest fear mongering about any regulation, quite clearly a watchdog for the watchdog is going to nothing to encourage diversity and quality of media reporting.

      You are certainly right that we are in the middle of a revolution in media, and new players will make inroads in the online space.

      And the Guardian will really shake things up.

      I guess you can think about the problem like supermarkets. There was a lot of distrust about the cosy duopoly, but it really was the new players ALDI and CostCo to some degree that improved the sector.

      In the media space government has the ABC, which it can hold to any standard it likes.

      • No mate Gunnamatta is the beach near where I grew up (Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne). I do have an Indian step mother though. Cheers..

    • “not having much obvious contact with (particularly) younger generations and the issues which shape them.”

      This is the key issue for media companies. Those that fail to grab the eyeballs of the young will fall by the wayside. Their customer base will gradually die off.

      The first big company to successfully connect with the young will have a huge advantage.

      Need to remember, though, that the young are just as heterogenous as any other generation.

      • Basically the questions younger people will ask are not that diverse at all. Despite the fiscal strangulation of public education in this country it is still true to say that the vast bulk of younger people will still ask the following questions in one form or another

        who are we?
        what are we?
        what are we doing here?
        why are we doing it?

        The vast bulk of people stop asking those questions – usually when other life issues (having kids of their own, paying off mortgages, trying to get or retain employment, etc) start to price out their ambient thinking time – and start to replace them with

        How do I get more?
        Who are those who may prevent me getting more?
        How do they do that?
        Who is going to help me?
        What things can I do when I have it?

        and questions of that end of the spectrum.

        Look at the media as we know it now……

        Plenty of discussion about how to get more, how to decorate a backyard, or what colour to paint the walls. Tonnes of reference to where to buy and why to buy. Tonnes of ominous warnings about ‘threats’ (all essentially nonexistent at a day to day level and fairly nebulous as far as any given individual experiences them – from Al Quaida, to refugees, to single mothers, welfare cheats, stupid greedy politicians, etc etc etc)

        Those raising question of the type favoured by younger people are invariably

        raising straw men
        suggesting unfairness
        probing the moral basis of those having assets having them and retaining them.

        Which would largely explain why we have a media running the cheer squad approach for larger and earlier indebtedness for younger Australians – and not addressing the types of issues they will invariably raise….

        ….but more overtly focused on the interests of those older and with assets, and riding shotgun on any potential questions to their right to do so.

  13. The two week deadline set by Conroy reveals the true nature of this whole farce: it is just another distraction to divert attention from the government’s failings.

    • I think rather that he wants it out of the way one way or another, and not proceeding up to the next election with great heat and excitement.

      Personally, in contrast, I think Conroy and the Government would be well advised to keep this on the boil as long as possible. Steeply falling circulation figures tell a story of public disenchantment with, and disengagement from news media. Efforts by government to take on those media may well actually attract votes from those who think the media presently stink. So, if it were a distraction to divert attention, one would have thought that the longer it went on, the better it would be for the government under your assumption.

      As for the government’s ‘failings’, well that is a matter of opinion, I guess, depending on one’s politics. You surely don’t think the news media are going to discuss the Government’s successes do you?

  14. The United States had tens of thousands of independent news and media outlets up until de-regulation and removal of cross media ownership laws – they now have less than 10 mega conglomerates which own and control everything. Astonishing.

    At one point some of the largest companies such as GE were owners of major weapons manufacturers, including nuclear plants and the subsequent waste material used for depleted uranium munitions – while simultaneously owning some of the largest syndicated news on free to air and cable networks. These news stations were almost 100% driving for war.

    The idea that weapons manufacturers were using their virtual monopoly control of the news media to push for a war in order to increase sales is beyond disturbing.

    One only needs look to the United States and the United Kingdom (where 50% of all broadcast media is entirely government controlled) to refute the idea that regulation is bad.

  15. The United States had tens of thousands of independent news media outlets across every city in every state up until the late 1980’s, this has now reduced to around ten conglomerates.

    One of which, which has now been sold was owned by GE, which was also a major owner of weapons manufacturers and nuclear power stations from which depleted Uranium was sold as weapons.

    At the same time they owned the largest syndicated news services on FTA and cable – capturing the news media and advocating for war while simultaneously selling vast quantities of weapons.

    Why we need regulation is well and truly summed up by the media catastrophe that is the United States – those advocating for no media regulation are merely salivating at the prospect of an entire society captured by monopoly propaganda.

  16. There is no need for the legislation. Conventional media caters to a broad range of the societal appetites – and that is OK, even if the content is not to your personal taste. The media landscape in the digital realm is changing rapidly and will prove difficult to regulate effectively without a Big Brother army watching over, filtering for suspect words or phrases.

    That a government in the modern age should champion such further reveals the troubling propensity of this government’s desire to limit dissemination of information and exercise control over public thought. This proposed legislation follows Roxon’s draconian workplace anti-discrimination controls.

    Few should be surprised at the haste with which Conroy wants this legislation passed, limits opportunity for interest groups and Parliament to thoroughly debate the upholding a free media into the 21st century.

    ‘A free press is an essential feature of a healthy liberal democracy. Media outlets should always feel free to criticise politicians and others in power without any fear of retribution. And that freedom does not just belong to the media. Its right to report freely is also essential for our right to hear freely. When the government limits the free speech of the media, it is also an attack on individuals’ access to the free flow of information and the right to be an informed citizen.’

    Just what is in ‘public interest’?

    • “Just what is in ‘public interest’?”

      The Public inteerest is best served by protection of freedoms. ALWAYS. In this modern world, the media is the most powerful force keeping tabs on our Govts. It should therefore come as no surprise that someone like Conroy in this Govt should employ strategies to impose limits on what we see/hear.

  17. Robert Guiscard

    “The fact is our media is hopeless. Criminally useless might be a better phrase. I’ve worked around enough of the big firms to know that the cultures that drive them are utterly hostile to intellect, horribly addicted to partisan political support or the suasion of interests, strangled by a battler versus bludger point of view, insouciant about investigation, incapable of advancing talent owing to the bloated egos of senior writers, hyper-sensitive to criticism as well as prone to paralysing levels of group think, and driven by a level of self-importance that makes reflection upon any of the above completely impossible.”

    +1 this needs to be carved in granite somewhere

    Unfortunately this description could be applied to so any other entities