Best of the Week: The media manifesto you won't get next week, and the ASX rollercoaster
Welcome to Unmade, written early this morning at rainy Sisters Beach, Tasmania. While I was away in the UK, and the East Coast was taking its battering, our tanks ran dry, twice. Now I’m back for a while, and so is the rain. Hurrah, and also, drat.
Domestic travel isn’t yet as automatic, or relaxed, as it felt before the pandemic. There were far more anxious moments in the simple trip than there used to be. I arrived at Sydney’s domestic terminal a couple of hours early, having heard the horror stories about security queues, only to breeze through in a couple of minutes.
On the plus side, it gave me time to rearrange the display in the bookshop to my own satisfaction.
I then watched delays accumulate for my plane out of Sydney, which meant I’d miss the departure time of the only remaining flight from Melbourne to Burnie-Wynyard. I begged at the desk twice, first diffidently, and then assertively, before they put me on an earlier flight.
In the air, that anxiety refocused on the question of whether my suitcase had made it onto the new flight. What on earth was I thinking putting important documents including my birth certificate in my checked luggage? Had I learned nothing from my bags being offloaded in Darwin when I flew to the UK?
Once I made it to Melbourne my next flight was delayed for about 90 minutes anyway. So that anxiety turned to the question of whether the car hire place would still be open by the time I finally arrived. Small town people are nice. The Avis lady came back specially.
I was half way around Wynyard Woolies when the phone rang. The man at the airport wanted to know whether I’d like to collect the suitcase I’d forgotten in my rush for the car.
I got back to an airport already in darkness, except for the man standing outside the entrance with my suitcase, waiting to lock up and start his weekend. He was kind about my idiocy. Like I say, small town people are nice.
Two decades asleep
One of the depressing things about covering the media beat in Australia is the lack of ambition or big picture thinking when it comes to communications policy.
For two decades or more, there has been no communications minister able to implement a big plan. There’s been a policy vacuum.
Some - like Labor’s Stephen Conroy - had a couple of big ideas. One was the National Broadband Network, which he at least made a start on. Another was greater regulation of the press, which he failed to get implemented.
Others - like the Coalition’s Malcolm Turnbull - thought smaller. His period as communications minister was focused on delivering a watered down NBN and feeding red meat to the right of his party by fighting with the ABC.
From then on it was diminishing returns. Turnbull’s successor Mitch Fifield dithered on reforming the media ownership laws and only eventually got some reforms through, once all of the major media owners reached consensus.
And most recently Paul Fletcher had even less impact. He kicked down the road reform of the anti-siphoning laws, and what little media policy there was emerged from Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg’s News Media Bargaining Code, drafted by News Corp and implemented by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
Not that there’s more policy choice from the other major party either. In the run up to next weekend’s election, Labor has made some pledges around funding of the ABC, but is otherwise presenting a small target. Shadow communications leader Michelle Rowland’s website is bereft of any big vision for a new direction for the sector.
Indeed, the Greens’ communications lead Sarah Hanson-Young is the only politician whose website suggests an alternative agenda on media regulation. Given that she’s also the spokesperson on the portfolios of environment & water, tourism, gambling and transport & infrastructure, she’s spread thin.
There’s a reason why it’s this way. The cynical political calculation is that enacting most significant change will meet opposition from powerful vested interests. So better to let things drift even if that’s in nobody’s interests in the long term.
That was why the 2017 media ownership laws only changed when all the big media companies reached agreement, and came to Canberra to demonstrate it.
There is no desire from either of the major political parties to regulate the media sector according to the public interest. Instead, the assumption has taken hold that the interests of the media companies themselves automatically equate to the public interest. Which they do not.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The structure of media is changing so fast, and in such fundamental ways that it requires deep thinking to have even half a chance of working out what it all means. Seven years ago, few really understood the impact that subscription streaming was going to have. Right now the International Olympic Committee and the AFL are preparing to negotiate rights deals to cover a longer period than that. That requires seeing around some corners.
The same goes for a regulatory framework. It does not require a communications minister with the vision for what comes next. It requires one with the vision to put in place a team to think deeply about policy.
Those people exist within government. For instance, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s interim reports on the state of the digital platforms have been impressive, perceptive documents. The authors have drilled deep and understood a complex world. Imagine if they were unleashed on building a brand new framework for regulating the communications industry towards 2030.
There’s plenty on my to do list:
1. The watchdogs don’t work
Try Googling the word “toothless” alongside the initials ACMA. There are hundreds of results. Last year, the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s chair Nerida O’Loughlin fronted Sarah Hanson-Young’s parliamentary inquiry into media diversity. As I wrote at the time, she came across as complacent.
As ACMA chair Nerida O’Loughlin began to set out how the regulator handles complaints, Senators Kim Carr and Sarah Hanson-Young did not try to hide their astonishment.
Yes, the way that ACMA handles complaints is that it passes them along to the broadcaster, who has 60 days to resolve it, O’Loughlin confirmed. The person who made the complaint needs to get in touch with ACMA a second time, after the 60 days is up, if they are still unhappy. Unsurprisingly, hardly anybody does.
Although the ACMA does have the power to kick off its own investigations, it has not done that for a couple of years, O’Loughlin conceded - not since it examined how Australia’s media handled coverage of the Christchurch mosque attack in 2019.
This is because the ACMA works under a framework of co-regulation, explained O’Loughlin. In other words, the commercial media gets to write and enforce its own rules. The ACMA only steps in a long way down the track.
“What do you do?” an incredulous Carr asked.
O’Loughlin rattled off an impressive sounding list. Those spam emails aren’t going to police themselves. But she was also clear: “We do not have a monitoring role.”
Australia has a lot of media watchdogs, few of them with bite. For instance the ad industry gets to set its own rules and then polices itself. The Australian Association of National Advertisers sets the codes and guidelines, and then the Ad Standards Board enforces them. But there are few consequences for breaking those rules.
Many of the rules that the ACMA keeps a vague eye on were proposed under the co-regulation regime by the TV and radio industry themselves via their own lobbying organisations.
2. Advertising reform
At some point history will look back on Australia’s gambling and alcohol advertising in much the same way we do tobacco. The public harm outweighs the public good, yet the multi millions of dollars that flow through as advertising and lobbying dollars has created a status quo where the public interest is little considered.
3. Spectrum price
The TV and radio networks get access to the public airwaves at a huge discount. Although they always under-paid on the true worth, they at least used to pay a decent annual licence fee based on advertising revenue. This was gradually whittled down by a government keen to curry favours from people who are gatekeepers to the public.
The free market argument is that this spectrum should be available to the highest bidder, in the same process the UK ran for commercial television. That would likely be the incumbents.
After all, telcos pay full freight, so why should TV companies be any different?
Instead, there will be a moment a few years from now when streaming means that broadcast spectrum is no longer needed. If governments don’t plan for that process now, the TV companies will demand fortunes for handing back what is not necessarily theirs in the first place.
4. Broadband policy
The NBN may always be a few years short of being finished as demand for bandwidth grows faster than supply. Yet the government has a role in avoiding market failure. How to avoid the have-nots in the regions? That becomes ever more complicated with the rise of 5G and Starlink. Again, it requires big, joined-up, forward policy that doesn’t exist at the moment.
5. Government advertising
The state of government advertising is a disgrace. Whichever party is in power at the time takes advantage of being able to use central funds for so-called public service advertising which stretches into propaganda. The pre-election splurge spruiking the government’s energy policy was a case in point.
6. Regulating the press
The most complex, and dangerous area, is in regulation of the press. Late in Labor’s time in power, Conroy tried, and failed. It wasn’t just that he started too late. The proposals were badly thought through, and unworkable.
But the problem remains. The Australian Press Council, funded by the big media companies, is weak. And some media companies exploit their influence for their own ends.
Yet the press is also often imperilled by the draconian defamation laws. Stories that should be told in the public interest are left untold. As the current Ben Roberts-Smith case demonstrates, reporters can spend months or even years in court defending their journalism.
There should be more protection and privileges for public interest, independent journalism. That may even go to public money.
But it should come with strings attached. And this is where it requires deeper policy thinking than you’ll find in a Saturday morning email. How to make such privileges only available to media companies that operate under independent standards is a potential key to maintaining not just a free press but a less self-interested, agenda-driven press.
There is indeed a public interest argument for protecting certain sporting events from going behind paywalls, whether Foxtel or streaming. But the mechanism was one designed to keep Nine’s boss Kerry Packer happy back in the day. It’s out of date. The whole system and process, not just the size of the list, needs to be reworked
8. Publicly funded institutions
Now is also the time to build a plan for depoliticising the funding of the ABC and SBS. The UK Conservative government’s current attempt to vandalise the publicly owned Channel 4, and defund the BBC, demonstrates what could happen otherwise.
But that should come with deep thinking about the purpose and remit of both organisations - and indeed whether the correct number of such organisations is still two.
Imagine a weird, parallel world where a communications minister surrounds themselves with thoughtful policy advisers, not PR advisers.
Sadly I don’t think it’ll be happening come May 22.
Unmade Index: 24 hours with the bears
The Unmade Index hasn’t seen a week like it. Like the wider ASX, it was the most volatile since we started tracking Australia’s listed media and marketing companies at the start of the year.
Monday saw The Unmade Index slump by a daily record of 5.1% to 799 points, taking the index down below 800 points for the first time. That was 20% below the 1000-point opening in January, the first time the index entered bear market territory.
On Tuesday, it was almost flat, up 0.4%, just enough to take it back above 800 points. On Wednesday it rebounded some more, up by 2.6%. But was that just a dead cat bounce? On Thursday it looked that way, falling again, by 2.3%.
Then, yesterday, The Unmade Index found its way upwards some more, up nearly 1.8%, and out of the bear market for now.
It was a good day for the audio companies, with HT&E up more than 8% and Southern Cross Austereo 7%. It took HT&E back above a half billion dollar market cap, after slumping on Thursday to its lowest valuation since October.
In TV, Nine finished the roller coaster week in a better place than it began, although it’s still 15% down for the month. Seven West Media is down 9% for the month and stuck below a $1bn market cap.
Dr Spin: Better than Benson?
Dr Spin writes:
It’s been an election where the corflute signs have been more newsworthy than usual, mainly because they keep getting vandalised.
But sometimes it’s possible for candidates to shoot themselves in the foot without the help of the vandals. Dr Spin can’t help think that this poster for Labor’s Benson Koschinski is open to interpretation…
More from the Substack extended universe
For the latest on this morning’s developments on Twitter (it looks like Elon Musk wants to renege, or at the very least renegotiate, the deal he shook hands on), Platformer’s Casey Newton has a great summary:
This is a startling read. The robots are closer than you may think to challenging writers, reveals Hal Crawford:
Media brands don’t die, they move to arbitrageland, says Brian Morrissey in The Rebooting:
Audio companies need the likes of Abbie Chatfield, not the other way round, says The Middle Part’s Natasha Stamos:
Time to let you get on with your weekend.
Don’t forget: If you haven’t yet bought a ticket for our first event, it takes place in Sydney in a week and a half on Tuesday May 24. The topic is Marketing in a Cost of Living Crisis. Tickets are $69, or just $10 for Unmade’s paying subscribers.
It’s a great panel. You can find out all the details here.
Have a great day.