Media convergence and information rights in Australia

By Ellie Rennie
Publisher: Open Spectrum Australia     Melbourne, 07 March 2009

In the 1960s and 70s groups of people around Australia campaigned for access to the radio spectrum. The establishment of community radio was not just about making media; it was a rights campaign that introduced an alternative vision of how the media should be used and controlled. The groups had little in common with each other and their business models were sketchy. However, they managed to convince the government that community radio would benefit society and enhance media diversity.

The internet has brought with it a new set of rights issues. Whilst the corporate media now encourage participation, social networking is not the same as community media. Mostly, it is content that commercial media companies can hook ads onto, or a means to drill into our lifestyle choices and consumption habits for the purposes of market research. Some companies are restricting the way that we access the internet, what sites we can visit and our ability to create viable alternatives.

Just like the early days of community radio, there are many grassroots media organisations that are working to achieve democratic and ethical alternatives. Such groups are campaigning for access to the internet, developing open technologies and providing training. They are essentially ‘community media’ organisations – the online counterparts to community radio and television broadcasters.

Late last year, Open Spectrum Australia (a kind of ‘think tank’ for community media) decided to bring together community media groups from both platforms to discuss the issue of media convergence. In order to provide a focus for the day, we came up with an information rights ‘campaign’ of our own and asked for feedback.

We proposed a labelling system for community-based media. The idea was to develop a label that would be used by online, broadcast and print media groups, assisting audiences and producers to differentiate a community media outlet from public service or private media. Why a label? We wanted to create a campaign tool that would increase the visibility of community media, raise public awareness around information rights and provide an easy navigation system for audiences in the new media environment. We hoped it would unite broadcast and online community media and encourage groups to utilise each others’ talents, skills and technologies.

Around 70 people attended the day, including representatives from NEMBC, ACMA, Melbourne’s community radio sector (PBS, RRR, SYN, 3CR), C31, Indigenous community television (ICTV), GetUp, Engage Media,, the Creative Commons Clinic, as well as experts from the ABC and the academic community. The proposal sparked an interesting debate about the future of community-based media, the convergent media landscape and the status of information rights.

What We Proposed

A label, like a brand, is a clear and recognisable image with a meaning attached to it. In this case, the label would signify community media organisations. There would need to be minimum set of criteria that would apply to all who used the label (for instance, groups would need to be community owned and not-for-profit). Audiences and producers would look for, or search, the label in order to identify ‘friendly’ sites and stations – in the same way that we might look out for the organic food label when shopping for groceries. Essentially, we saw the label as an enabler of ethical choice in the complex media environment.

Organisations would choose to use the label, rather than being ‘licensed’ to do so. The label could work either at the national or international level.

Information rights, not ‘trustworthy’ media

As it turned out, our idea for a labelling scheme was not entirely new. Others have proposed labels for ‘trustworthy’ established news media, that tell us whether or not a website is spreading misinformation. Tim Berners Lee, one of the founders of the World Wide Web, believes that we need a ratings system and has been promoting it through his new foundation. The problem with such ratings schemes is that they assume the traditional mainstream media behave according to straightforward, unquestionable ethical principles (which is simply not the case). Moreover, a ratings system for ‘trustworthy’ news sites is likely to marginalise community media rather than strengthen it. Community media promotes access and independence over traditional reporting conventions.

The Open Spectrum proposal is not about ‘truth’ but about the principles of access, community governance, representing minority voices and open technologies. It was proposed as a means to assist audiences to make their own judgements and to differentiate between commercial, government and community media sites. The label was not intended to privilege some forms of content over others or to mark-out ‘trustworthy’ or ‘objective’ media content.

The outcomes

It became clear at the symposium that such a label would apply to distribution sites (community media outlets, whether they be websites, radio and television stations, or print publications) rather than content (as in the audio, video or text media). Content should be free to move across different media outlets. We didn’t want to create something that restricted the flow of information or creative works.

The symposium also revealed some significant tensions between online and broadcast community media. The online groups were concerned that the labelling scheme would inflict a licensing model on a sphere which is otherwise creatively amorphous and open. They suggested that the labelling scheme would be interpreted as a means for ‘old media’ to protect their interests in a new media environment. Engage Media (Anna Helme) and Creative Commons (Elliott Bledsoe) suggested that for such a label to work, it would need to be via a peer-review system. All organisations using the label could add themselves to an online register and peers would informally monitor who was using the label to ensure against misuse.

Representatives from both groups also asserted that organisations already have their own brands and networks to define themselves as community media. Applying a uniform label might mask the character of individual stations/organisations. However, the symposium also uncovered a set of shared values, including: media diversity, participation, access, independence, a local perspective and the importance of not-for-profit organisations. Everyone agreed that there were benefits to promoting community media values and developing a public education movement on information rights.

The Open Spectrum symposium raised more questions than it answered. Some were of a practical nature, involving how the label might work: What type of review/moderation system is appropriate? How do we ensure that the label retains integrity, without infringing on the diversity of the community media sphere? What technical tools (such as a database) are required? Should it be a tiered system, allowing organisations to select different versions of the label so that it adequately represents their particular make-up? We need to do a lot more work before such a system could be put to use.

We also identified other important issues: First, it is not clear that there is any public awareness about why community media institutions exist and how they protect our information rights. The community media sector, in Australia at least, does not behave like a ‘movement’. Although radio, television, print and online groups may share similar aspirations and philosophies, the sectors do not work together to carry out joint education or advocacy on information rights issues. For a sector that spends much time and energy keeping communities in touch with issues that directly affect them, it is strange that so little attention is focused on how we use and encounter the media.

Whether or not we end up with a label for community media, these are important issues that the community media sector must now face up to. Open Spectrum Australia intends to keep the debate going.

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Ellie Rennie is the Chair of Open Spectrum Australia. She is author of Community Media: A Global Introduction (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006) and the forthcoming Life of SYN: A Story of the Digital Generation. Ellie works as a Research Fellow at Swinburne University’s Institute for Social Research.