Survival a priority over regulation

The latest example is the response to media coverage of the affairs of former Federal Labor Party MP Craig Thomson.

An emotional address by Thomson to Parliament gave rise to calls on media to ease up for fear of triggering self harm from the embattled politician.

This is all very well but there is a strong case for arguing that the public expects, and has every right to expect, the highest of standards from its elected representatives and that the media would be failing in its role if it did not support this.

Be that as it may, the Thomson issue – allegedly paying for escorts with union funds – comes hot on the heels of two Federal inquiries into the need for additional regulatory constraints over the Australian media.

The Convergence Review, foreshadowed after the last election by Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy examined the need for a regulatory overhaul in the face of new and converging media delivery platforms.

The so-called Independent Media Inquiry, on the other hand, resulted from a direct political decision by the government in the face of sustained criticism of its performance by Murdoch newspapers in Australia.

This came in the wake of the phone hacking scandal in the UK.

This is an issue which I addressed in last month’s Bulletin but since then members of these inquiries have hit the road to explain the rationale behind their various recommendations for change.

Craig Thomson

Craig Thomson was the subject of a furore over alleged misuse of union funds. PHOTO: Kym Smith

While both reviews dealt in one way or another with regulatory reform, the Media Inquiry headed by Ray Finkelstein QC paid specific attention to what amounts to industry ethics such as the workings of the Press Council.

Justice Finkelstein’s inquiry assistant, Matthew Ricketson, a professor of journalism at Canberra University, told the Sydney Institute in late May that apologies published by newspapers were rarely couched in clear, good and easy to understand journalism, and were often hidden.

Turning to the influence of the media, he rejected the view that if newspapers published “rubbish” people would stop buying them and said keeping advertisers happy was more important to newspaper operators than keeping readers happy.

This is a very subjective view which ignores the reality of the fact that the two issues are interrelated.

But it touches on the core problem facing the print media and that is circulation and readership are on a steep decline. And a major challenge is to attract new readers on to digital sites rather than primarily luring across existing print readers.

It seems to me that both inquiries have had blurred vision in their crystal ball gazing into the media’s future. But that is not surprising.

I’m not sure even the players know where this rapidly changing market is going to end up.

Reviews by major media organisations of their publishing facilities and a move to seven-day news production operations are attempts to grapple with this.

While the Left throws up its hands in despair and disgust at the very mention of concentration of media ownership, the simple fact is government can regulate to its heart’s content but you cannot mandate successful business management – in other words, survival.

I can’t see anything in the reports of these two very expensive inquiries which demonstrates an understanding of this simple fact of life.

Malcolm Colless is a former senior executive at News Ltd and writes a column for The Australian’s media section

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