The Federal Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, yesterday (12th March) announced the Government’s long-promised suite of reforms to media regulation.

The package proposed by the Government is an amalgamation of the measures recommended by the Finkelstein Inquiry (released on 28 February 2012) and the Convergence Review (released on 1 May 2012), some of which have been extensively reworked.

The Government has signalled its intent to introduce the legislation (which should comprise three separate bills) later this week and has issued a deadline for the legislation to be passed, being the end of next week, failing which the Government will not seek to pursue the reforms before the federal election in September this year.

The Proposed Reforms

Senator Conroy has outlined the key measures to be introduced by the Government, which include:

  1. The introduction of a more “rigorous” self-regulated set of standards for print and online news. No detail of these standards has been given.
  2. The establishment of a “public interest test” in relation to media mergers and acquisitions, the aim of which is to preserve diversity in the Australian media. Importantly, Senator Conroy indicated that the proposed public interest test would only apply to significant media organisations. When prompted, Senator Conroy estimated that publications with “above about… 60,000” paying daily subscribers would be captured by the test. This would mean that most blogs and content aggregators (such as Google) would not be subject to the test.
  3. The establishment of a Public Interest Media Advocate, with statutory powers including oversight of the public interest test and some oversight of the press standards bodies, such as the Press Council. For instance:

3.1 in relation to the public interest test, the Public Interest Media Advocate would determine whether prospective mergers and acquisitions of media companies would receive the green light; and

3.2 in relation to oversight of the press standards bodies, the Public Interest Media Advocate will have the power to grant a press standards body an exemption from certain provisions of the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) if they meet the requisite standards.

  1. A revision of the charters in respect of the ABC and the SBS to take into account their online and digital activities.
  2. The reduction of commercial television licence fees permanently by 50%, conditional upon the broadcasters increasing their Australian content by 1490 hours by 2015 (this would feature in a separate bill to be brought before Parliament).

Which Proposals have been left on the Cutting Room Floor?

The Government has elected not to implement several key reforms proposed under the Finkelstein Inquiry and Convergence Review.

  1. Most notably, the Government would appear to have abandoned (at least for the time being) the notion of a statutory body:

1.1 to replace the Australian Press Council (as was proposed under the Finkelstein Inquiry), or

1.2 to manage all compliance matters relating to media content, with the exception of news and commentary (as was proposed under the Convergence Review).

Instead, the Government has opted for a statutory body with far more limited powers (the Public Interest Media Advocate).

  1. As to the question of a statutory tort of privacy, the Government has elected to refer the matter to the ALRC for consideration anew.
  2. The Government will also establish a Parliamentary Committee to consider the abolition of the 75 per cent “reach rule”. The existing rule prevents a person from exercising control over a commercial television broadcasting licence where the licence area is more than 75 per cent of the Australian population.

The future of the 75 per cent “reach rule” is a particular sensitive topic given recent reports in the media that Nine Entertainment is considering a merger with South Cross Media (valued in the vicinity of $4 billion), which could not otherwise proceed without the removal of the rule. However, the Government has indicated that the rule may yet still feature in the legislation if the measure is approval by the Parliamentary Committee before the end of next week.

Media analysis of the reforms made since their announcement yesterday afternoon suggests lukewarm acceptance of some of the proposals and widespread criticism of others. In particular, the Government has been criticised for its failure to embrace only a limited reform package, timed in such a way as to make it difficult to be passed into law.