Never before in the history of Australian parliaments has so much labour been spent by so many governments over changes to laws that that almost everyone agreed needed to go. Such is the nature of media power.
One of the reasons we now, at last, have change to media ownership regulation in Australia is that desperation has forced commercial rivals to come to some agreements about what they want. Previous governments were too timid to move in the face of division and opposition, even from the diminished media moguls of our time.
But we still donât have a media policy â from either side of politics â worthy of the name. It is all ad hoc and behind hand â puddling around the edges and lacking vision and understanding.
Another reason we now have change is the founding and conduct of a Senate inquiry into public interest journalism.
This, together with some serious behind the scenes lobbying by the new kids on the media block, has resulted in a deal under which Nick Xenophon has won a promise of government funding for journalism start-ups, regionals and independents as a counter to the increased concentration of ownership that will be the immediate effect of the changes.
But the deal is not as good as it looks if you know the history and the context.
Other proposals, including tax breaks for investment in journalism, have fallen by the wayside.
Over the last five years there have been plenty of inquiries and parliamentary committees into aspects of media regulation. All have agreed, with variations, that the present method of regulating media diversity is outdated. All have resulted in great heat, little light and next to nothing in the way of change.
Meanwhile the crisis engulfing commercial media, and particularly public interest journalism, has deepened.
The 2012 convergence review was launched by the Labor government and reported in its last months. It recommended the creation of a converged content production fund, financed by all media players above a certain size. This would, by now, include Google and Facebook.
This fund would have âa broad focus that supports traditional Australian content, new innovative content, and services for local and regional distributionâ.
The convergence review directly addressed journalism in the context of the content fund, noting that
âthe importance of local news to regional communities was one of the key messages from the Reviewâs consultations around Australiaâ¦. Content providers should also have access to the converged content production fund to encourage a diverse range of local services on new platforms.â
So the deal that Nick Xenophon and his team have secured for a $60 million fund to make grants to independent and regional publishers is hardly a new idea. Whatâs missing is the levy on Google and Facebook and other publishers of size.
The convergence review recommendations disappeared in the mire of controversy surrounding its proposal for statutory regulation of journalism standards. After much rubbish (remember the News Corporation tabloid front pages comparing communications minister Stephen Conroy to Stalin?) it all came to nothing.
Then there was another Senate inquiry in March 2016 into an earlier attempt to pass reforms. All the same issues were chewed over â including the crisis in local and regional news services. The bill was not considered before parliament was dissolved, and it lapsed.
So will the changes passed by parliament be good or bad?
Underlying the legal changes is the simple fact that it wonât be ownership legislation that determines the future of media. Rather, it will be the speed of technological change and the success or otherwise in adjusting to it. Government could make real contributions here, but there is no sign of the necessary understanding or vision.
The 75% reach rule is one of the things to go. It prohibits any one organisation from broadcasting to more than 75% of the Australian population. It is utterly meaningless in the era of Netflix, web pages and delivery of content via mobile devices. Nobody defends it.
The two out of three rule refers to the three old-fashioned media platforms â television, radio and newspapers â and prohibits anyone from owning all three kinds in a single area. It is also outdated in the era of podcasting and the web, but this rule has its defenders for the simple and pragmatic reason that its abolition will result in more concentration of media ownership in the cities.
For example, we are likely to see a merger between a commercial television network and Fairfax Media â which owns both newspapers and radio stations.
The medium and long-term results of this change are very hard to predict. Things are moving very fast, and legacy media organisations such as Fairfax and Channel Nine are only part of the story.
It is rare in human history for companies that have dominated one technology to successfully make the transition to dominating the next. Cobb and Co ran the stagecoaches, but never owned a steam train.
In our own time Google and Facebook have quickly become the most powerful publishers the world has ever known, feeding partly the content created by legacy media. Most online advertising revenue flows their way, and most young people consume news through their apps â regardless of where the journalists who wrote the news are employed.
It is the future employment of those journalists that is the most important issue in all this. There is an increasing body of research to show that the crisis in journalism is not, or not yet, in investigative journalism. Legacy media companies have safeguarded it, and some of the new players, such as Buzzfeed and the Guardian Australia, have also invested in it.
Yet there are real deficits emerging in our capacity to satisfy the information needs of a democratic society. The crisis is in the hollowing-out of the traditional, non-glamorous, non-award-winning yet essential reporting of state parliaments, courts, local governments and other local public events and issues.
None of the new players report state affairs in detail, do a solid job of court reporting, or touch local government except when there is a national issue at stake (such as citizenship ceremonies and Australia Day). Meanwhile legacy media has withdrawn from the local.
How are dubious apartment buildings approved? How is it that flammable cladding endangers residents throughout the nation? How is it that grants go to government held marginal electorates? These are national stories that arise from the local.
Even that is to put the local in terms of service to the nation. It is more immediate than that.
In the modern media world, you have more chance of finding out what Malcolm Turnbull had for dinner than why there were half a dozen ambulances at the end of your street last night, or what the water quality is in the local river, or what is happening with the eyesore half completed building in your main street that hasnât been touched for years, or whatâs happening to crime levels in your area, or whether the local police station is under-staffed and why the local school principal has suddenly been moved on.
Increasingly, the journalists arenât there to, as the code of ethics puts it, âdescribe society to itselfâ.
For these reasons, the $60 million fund for independent and regional media is a good thing. It recognises that we have a crisis that merits a concerted civic response.
But it is not enough â and in fact doesnât come close to what has already been cut, including by government. It is one step forward following several steps backwards.
On the best available estimates (which are necessarily partial and imperfect) 3,000 journalists have lost their jobs in Australia over the last five years â many in regional areas. If we assume an average $70,000 salary cost each, back of the envelope figuring suggests it would take over $200mn a year just to get back to where we were.
Or to offer another benchmark, the government gave the Australian Broadcasting Corporation $41.4million over three years for âenhanced newsgatheringâ in the 2016 triennial funding round â but this was a cut from the $60 million a year for the same program that the previous Labor government had provided.
In other words, Xenophonâs fund doesnât even keep up with money that has already been cut from government support for news reporting in Australia â including local and regional news.
Speaking about the ABC, what of the One Nation backed move for an inquiry into its âcompetitive neutralityâ â that is, whether it unfairly competes with its commercial counterparts? The devil will be in the detail. Who will conduct the inquiry, and what are the terms of reference?
Certainly, there is a lot of angst about this in the ABC headquarters at Ultimo. It is one of the greatest threats of recent times.
Meanwhile, changes requiring the ABC to have board members from regional areas and to have a reference to rural and regional in its charter are feel good measures that will not make much difference. There has for some time been rural representation on the board, and the current managing director, Michelle Guthrie, last March announced a raft of new positions in regional areas, funded by cuts to management.
Yet there is no doubt that one of the main narratives of the last decade of the ABC is its increasing centralisation in Sydney, including the end of local television production in Adelaide, Hobart and Brisbane.
Why? Internal politics are part of the answer, but the rest is about funding. If you want a better local presence, it must be paid for.
So what are the answers? While few can argue with the abolition of outdated media ownership regulations, there are now powerful arguments for good media policy and a concerted rather than piecemeal response to the challenges in this vitally important sector.
This might include increased government investment in journalism as an underpinning of democratic forms, as well as regulation and potentially levying of Google, Facebook and their yet to emerge competitors and successors.
Most of all, we need a media policy. Actual policy, with strategic objectives.
Anyone seen one recently?
- Margaret Simons is an associate professor of journalism at Monash University. She was a co-author of two submissions to the Senate committee inquiry into public interest journalism â one from the Public Interest Journalism Foundation and the other from the Civic Impact of Journalism research project, which she led. She also made submissions and appeared before many of the other inquiries mentioned here