This week's focus on media reform has left many dilemmas and unsolved problems on the Canberra policy agenda. One of these that is set to grow in the years ahead is how to fit social media into a viable approach to media regulation. The recent reviews commissioned by the Federal Government, and the evidence given by media heavyweights this week, suggest that no-one has a real clue on how to deal with this problem.
The problem in brief. Much of our regulatory framework (legislation, licensing, regulatory bodies etc) suits geographically-limited markets dominated by a small number of players. We know that technology is rendering that world obsolete, but we also know that the big media players still dominate. So if we are to argue for a retention of the old model we must ignore the very real impact of social media today. On the other hand, if we argue for a ditching, or substantial watering down of the old model, we run the risk of a further concentration of the media outlets that still provide most people, most of their daily diet of news and information. Social media is growing rapidly but it is still small by comparison.
The following excerpts from senior media executives earlier this week shows flashes of the frustration that this policy dilemma gives rise to.
David Gyngell (Nine network)
There are no boundaries on the internet and no licenced areas, no restrictions on what can distribute their content and where it can be accessed. There is an avalanche of content pouring into homes across Australia, every minute through new technology. Just consider it: everything from social media to Apple TV, iTunes, Telstra and Tbox, 4G mobile networks, the merger of Foxtel, plus newspaper and radio of course. None of them and not one of them face any restrictions on the percentage of population they can reach across the nation; they are all national businesses.
It is so obviously wrong in this modern age and is plainly unfair to disadvantage free-to-air broadcasters by preventing them from becoming a national business like everybody else. It is just about impossible to argue a halfway sensible case for this nonsensical regulation. It is time to act to set this right not only to provide a level playing field for free-to-air television but also so we can grow their businesses and invest in regional Australia.
In fact, it is introducing a new hurdle because the way the legislation has been drafted, the test for diversity of voices is a test amongst a small group of existing media players. So it does not matter what is happening outside that group of free-to-air television and radio and subscription television. There could be more and more diversity happening outside that group with the Internet and social media but the test is always around this small group. So it is completely removed from what is really happening in the real world.
There has been an explosion in sources of news information and opinion in Australia and globally. Low barriers to entry, thanks to digital delivery, mean that everyone from microbloggers to major media organisations like the Guardian can establish themselves and develop audiences. Search engines, content aggregators and social media disseminate videos, articles, opinions and ideas at an amazing pace.
This exchange involving Kerry Stokes (Seven network)
Senator BIRMINGHAM: Ignoring the government's internal inconsistencies in their arguments there, Mr Stokes, in terms of the capacity of people nowadays to be able to do what you did in Bunbury and start providing media comment, is it a sector with higher or fewer barriers to entry nowadays, and how is that manifesting itself, in your opinion?
Mr K Stokes : Obviously social media has changed the entire gambit of this. Recently there have been well-publicised incidents. Last year I think one well known radio broadcaster was almost torn down by social media, with 150,000 responses. That had nothing to do with mainstream media. The public out there today has access to a voice. It is using it, and I can promise you, if we don't get things right, they are very vocal in their complaints to us. Social media is a different application.
Senator BIRMINGHAM: Just as the capacity for growth in online news or new news services through different mediums has expanded, what do you believe has occurred to the capacity for the general public to actually engage as media critics and to highlight failings or problems or lack of balance or fairness they may see in the media?
Mr Williams : The power of social media, in particular, is something which is of striking force in our community now and where people have clearly self-initiated redress in any number of ways in terms of lodging their complaints.
Senator BIRMINGHAM: Some in the broadcasting sphere would suggest that at present the slow and often tedious approach of ACMA to regulation is far less a threat to the operation of their businesses than a social media revolt, as we have seen in some instances. Can you see a similar trend emerging for your business in terms of Press Council rulings versus a consumer uprising that has an effect on your advertisers and your revenue stream and your business operations?
Mr Williams : That is generally true. I think reputational risk and all that attaches to it, or social media commentary in a wide variety of forms, is something which all corporations are acutely sensitive to now, and has very real and immediate impact on a company.
Conclusion. This time around social media was still a small part of what was discussed, but I've got a feeling they'll all be back in town in a few years time with a much bigger weight being put on this policy conflict between the (diminishing) regulated media sector and the (rising) unregulated world of the Internet and social media.