Broadcasting Coregulation and the Public Good (1999)

In focusing on the role of public broadcasters in countries such as Canada and Australia, I begin this speech by examining several assumptions that underlie broadcasting in general in order to reconsider their relevance to the new technologies and challenges faced in the coming millennium. What role, if any, should governments have in broadcasting regulation? What part do regulatory regimes at the national level play in the purported ‘global village’? How can examining the historical justifications for regulation in the examples of Canada and Australia, for instance, help us understand self-regulation as a balance between industry efficiency and public expectation? By raising afresh considerations such as these, I intend to offer an interpretation of how self- regulatory systems are necessary to ensure the public interest, especially in new broadcasting media such as the Internet.

What role should government have in broadcasting regulation? Following the social philosopher Rousseau, I begin my response to the question by first discussing the nature of government, and specifically how democratically elected governments are obliged to realise the public good consented to in their election. As the guiding principle for the process of public decision making and the outcome of such a process, I suggest that a concept of the public good as not something fixed and monolithic, but determined by circumstance, provides the sole justification for governments to regulate society in general and broadcasting in particular.

Within the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, broadcasting has traditionally been regulated for reasons of dealing with a scarce resource, the broadcast frequency spectrum.

I suggest that underlying such justifications was the sense that government regulation enforced a social or “civic” responsibility for broadcasting content, formulated in the BBC Charter to “inform” and “educate” as well as to “entertain” the public.

Governments implicitly recognised the considerable influence broadcasting had on society as a phenomenon of the masses and increasingly embraced this as their public responsibility, shifting the function of regulation to today’s present concerns – an interest in quality content and the need for accountability in broadcasting, especially relating to portrayals of violence and sex, the fostering of national culture, public education, information and entertainment.

Since 1986 in countries such as Canada and Australia, governments have recognised the emerging civic model for broadcasting by restructuring the regulatory framework to encourage forms of “self-regulation”. Where the regulator is able to intervene if the industry regulation fails, the system is more properly termed “co-regulation” and forms the model for the Australian approach to broadcasting.

The speech then focuses on the Australian experience as a test case for broadcasting in general, and examines how the change in Australian broadcasting history from 1932 to 1999, from a government-regulator to a highly consultative and co-regulatory system, reflects the change in perception from issues of public good and property to issues of promotion and protection of the public interest and national culture. I argue that the greatest challenge facing Australian co-regulation, and other co- and self-regulatory systems worldwide, is that of staunchly defending the public interest and cultural identity in the face of industry pressure to sideline such issues.

Perhaps nowhere else is this challenge more immediate than in relation to the internet, which I argue ought in many respects to be subject to a similar form of self- or co-regulation as broadcasting media. Unlike the frameworks for regulating other media, legislation for the Internet requires the capacity to effectively enforce national standards while simultaneously developing standards at an international level. There is then the need for international cooperation at a high level to establish mutual links in technology and legislation to keep up to date with the transnational nature of the Internet and the many differing notions of public interest that it reflects in being an international environment.

The regulatory approaches I outline in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom balance the right to free expression with the right of communities to determine their local and national interest. I conclude that such approaches, which rely upon the healthy cooperation between industry and public interest, propose a vibrant democratic alternative to the United States model, wherein the discussion of broadcasting regulation is dominated by the free speech lobby at the possible cost of the broader public interest.