The advent of the internet and digital streaming technologies have led some to claim that there is no longer any need for government regulation of the media.
Media regulation in Australia in the analogue era was platform-based: print media was largely self-regulated, according to the established liberal-democratic principle that there should be no licensing of a free press, while broadcast media (radio and television) was necessarily licensed due to the scarcity of radiofrequency spectrum.
In the latter case, there was widely accepted justification for government regulating who could hold a licence to broadcast media content, part of which included setting conditions on content to ensure it met community standards and expectations.
While, in print media, the cost of entry into traditional publishing was prohibitive to new entrants, the production and dissemination of print media did not require the use of limited public assets like broadcast spectrum, so the case for government regulation has always been more hotly contested. There is, of course, a delicate balance between appropriate regulation of the media in the public interest and government overreach that seeks to control and limit the freedom of the press.
This distinction between platforms has collapsed in the wake of digital technologies. Digital content delivery means that ‘print’ content – the written word and still images – can be carried over the internet and published as pages on the worldwide web, and broadcast content – audio-visual, moving images and sound – can be streamed over the internet to screens. All this content can now be consumed on multiple devices, including mobile telephones, that can deliver all content forms on demand – at the time, and on the device, of the consumer’s choice.
The ‘era of media plenty’, then, means that consumers have a virtually limitless range of content from which to choose. They can consume media content from multiple providers, and can create and distribute content themselves.
This has led to the development of the latest argument favoured by media proprietors to limit regulation of their content: that the wide range of content now available on multiple devices to consumers on demand means the question of ‘diversity’ is no longer a relevant consideration for policy makers.
Proponents of this argument contest that, in the era of media plenty, consumers have a more diverse content offering than ever before, delivered by technology and the market, and therefore there is no need for government to regulate in the area of diversity.
This argument willfully misrepresents the concept of diversity in the context of media regulation.
Per Capita strongly advocates that the Committee recommend to the Senate that the policy to privatise the NBN be reversed, and that the network be maintained in perpetuity as a publicly owned, wholesale communications infrastructure network. Further, we recommend that the NBN be retrofitted to include a dedicated public interest content portal, as was envisaged in the original design.
This would provide future governments with myriad options for using such a service to increase and maintain appropriate diversity of ownership and control of media and communications services in Australia, to the great benefit of the public.