The Gillard Government – already committed to mandatory filtering of the Internet – is now considering an official report which urges it to set up a government-funded News Media Council that would have oversight of online new services like SmartHouse, ChannelNews, ZD Net, Delimiter, Business Spectator or ITNews, along with many online newsletters and blogs, traditional print, radio and TV services.It would be established as a regulatory body – like the ACCC or ACMA – with power to set “standards” and handle complaints made by the public when those “standards” are breached.
The report – which is likely to be hotly opposed by the online industry – was conducted by Ray Finkelstein QC, a Victorian barrister appointed by the Government, and was made public by Comms and Broadband Minister Stephen Conroy late last week.
The News Media Council, if the Government decides to take up Finkelstein’s recommendations, would replace the current Australian Press Council established by the newspaper industry, which in some quarters is seen as being slow to act and having no real teeth.
It would “explicitly cover online news for the first time, and will involve transferring ACMA functions for standards and complaints concerning news and current affairs,” says Finkelstein.
He adds: “The News Media Council should have secure funding from government and its decisions made binding, but beyond that, government should have no role. The establishment of a council is not about increasing the power of government or about imposing some form of censorship. It is about making the news media more accountable to those covered in the news, and to the public generally.”
It would be expected to settle most disputes in days rather than months.
On the question of which online sites should be covered, Finkelstein notes that, apart from major news sites, there are “many newsletter publishers and bloggers” who have a small audience.
Who should be controlled and who can be let roam free? “If a publisher distributes more than 3000 copies of print per issue or a news Internet site has a minimum of 15,000 hits per annum it should be subject to the jurisdiction of the News Media Council, but not otherwise. These numbers are arbitrary, but a line must be drawn somewhere,” rumbles Finkelstein QC.
We reckon Finkelstein’s line would include just about every IT online news source we know. Stand by for the protests.