Media reviews: all sound and fury?

5 Oct 2012

This report provides background on recent media reviews in Australia, and assesses what they may mean for the future.

Since the seventeenth century the media have been seen as the watchdogs of democracy— guardians of the public interest, protecting the people against arbitrary rule by governments. In recent times however, there has been considerable speculation that the media has relinquished its role as defender of democracy; that it is in fact just another industry controlled by and serving commercial interest, rather protecting the public interest.

For many media commentators the News of the World (a former London newspaper owned by News International) phone hacking scandal in Britain validated such speculation. The scandal illustrated the extent to which at least certain sections of the media had failed in their remit by wilfully abusing power and invading personal privacy. Furthermore, the scandal demonstrated the potential negative influence on good governance that can result when powerful media interests become corrupt.

Following the setting up of an investigation into News of the World practices, there were calls for a similar investigation to take place into the Australian media. These calls were premised on assumptions that some of the Australian press was engaging in comparable practices.

The Australian Government announced on 14 September 2011 that an inquiry would be conducted into certain aspects of the media and media regulation. The inquiry was undertaken by Ray Finkelstein QC, with the assistance of Professor Matthew Ricketson from the University of Canberra’s School of Journalism and Communications.

In addition, discussion about what effect media convergence was having, and would continue to have on the media landscape, prompted the Government also to convene an investigation into this phenomenon (see box below for definition of media convergence). In this context, and in light of government commitments made in the NBN: Regulatory Reform for 21st Century Broadband discussion paper and Australia’s Digital Economy: Future Directions Report, the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy, announced draft terms of reference for a convergence review in December 2010. In March 2011, final terms of reference were provided to the Convergence Review Committee, which consisted of Glen Boreham, Malcolm Long and Louise McElvogue.

The findings of both reviews were presented to the Government in the first half of 2012.

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