Ben Eltham | Government Converges on Growing Cultural Reality


Media and communications policy is not currently end-user focused. Will the new policy review, the Convergence Review, deliver much needed reforms to the industry?

Read Ben’s article on the Convergence Review and its impact on the media and communications landscape in Australia, originally published at Crikey, here

Last week I examined Labor’s slowly developing National Cultural Policy. But right now, in Stephen Conroy’s department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, there is another policy review under way — one that may well be more important for the future shape of Australian cultural policy than the National Cultural Policy itself.

The Convergence Review will, according to the government, “examine the policy and regulatory frameworks that apply to the converged media and communications landscape in Australia”.

Chaired by former top IBM executive and current Screen Australia chair Glen Boreham, the review’s terms of reference are very broad, including the relevant legislation such as the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 and the Telecommunications Act 1997, as well as regulators such as ACMA and no less than “the structure of the broadcasting, media and communications industries in Australia”.

To say the review is long overdue is a little bit like saying it would be a good idea to buy a 56k modem so you can check out Geocities on your Netscape browser. And yet much of Australia’s media and communications policy and regulation shares a pre-internet mentality.

Last week, the Convergence Review issued a framing paper, whichBernard Keane examined. He wrote that “the biggest threat in the regulatory consequences of this convergence review comes not via the NBN but from our big media companies and a government willing to play the traditional role of hand maiden to their desire to destroy competition”.

It’s hard to argue with him on this point: the history of media regulation in this country has repeatedly shown that powerful media owners are given far more consideration in policy formation than ideas of competition or the interests of audiences. For those who doubt Keane, look no further than the anti-siphoning rules, the no fourth network policy, or the remarkable decision to hand the free-to-air networks hundreds of millions in license fee rebates.

Given the importance of the Convergence Review to the eventual shape of the content industries in Australia, it’s pleasing to see that a debate about the policy and regulatory frameworks surrounding them has finally emerged. Yesterday saw the release of a high-quality research paper on convergence by the University of New South Wales’ Catharine Lumby and Kate Crawford, who are senior academics at the Journalism and Media Research Centre there.

Entitled The Adaptive Moment: A Fresh Approach to Convergent Media in Australia, the paper does a much better job than the Convergence Review Committee of setting out the patchwork quilt of competing state and Commonwealth regulations that supposedly govern Australian communications, media, broadcasting and the internet.

It’s not a pretty picture. As they point out, because the internet is “a multifaceted, distributed network with no centralised gatekeeper”, the “vast range of communication options it contains were once governed by distinct policy areas”. As a result, “policy responses to convergence end up being ramshackle and jerry-built”.

As a case study, they look at the absurd situation surrounding Australia’s lack of an R18+ classification for video games. Australia is, in fact, “the only country in the developed world” without one, leading to the perverse outcome in which a lightly-edited version ofGrand Theft Auto IV was given an MA15+ rating and allowed for sale to minors, despite its high-impact scenarios depicting “murder, blackmail, extortion and s-x with prostitutes”.

Australia’s need for a new policy framework is unarguable. Lumby and Crawford provide one, geared around deregulatory impulses and a more end-user and audience-focused approach. They also make the obvious recommendations to abandon mandatory internet filtering, to reform the RC (“Refused Classification”) definition, and to introduce an 18+ classification for games.

One way to do this, they argue, is to think about the regulatory environment in terms of three layers: networks, platforms  and content providers. They write:

“At the network layer, we argue, policy makers should focus on ensuring network openness, innovation and user choice. At the platform and content provider layers, government should work with industry and users, including in global fora, to encourage self-regulation while facilitating referral of genuinely disturbing material to national and international government regulatory instruments and agents. Community education about internet use, online security and legal obligations should be a priority in this area. There needs to be ongoing commitment to researching international approaches, emerging tools and community expectations.”

Of particular interest is their suggestion that Australia create a new “one stop shop” regulator that they call a “Convergent Media Board”, which they think should “act as Australia’s centralised point of contact with international fora addressing media content governance”. Such a board would not replace ACMA or the other regulatory agencies, however, but rather work alongside them.

How would such a board work? Who should run it? What “community standards” should apply? Lumby and Crawford don’t explain in too much detail, but perhaps this only underlines just how complex and thorny the issues really are. In today’s world of Anonymous, FourSquare and Chatroulette, the sheer speed in which new content developments proceed shows the difficulty for anygovernment agency trying to get its head around the new world.

It’s also worth thinking about how convergence will shape Australia’s future arts and cultural policies. Historically, there has been almost no understanding among arts policy makers that the internet or broadcast media are even relevant to cultural policy — as the Australia Council’s laughably late and ill-considered attempts to create an arts strategy “for a digital era” attest.

Lumby’s and Crawford’s paper shows what might be achieved if cultural policy was reconsidered in light of the rapid change sweeping the communications and media sector. But the very fact that the Convergence Review  and the National Cultural Policy are being pursued in parallel, with apparently little to do with each other, shows how tough it is to get governments to think outside of their existing silos.

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