Provided it can address legitimate concerns around press freedom, the Australian government may yet create a regulatory architecture that helps the media – new and old – maintain the precious confidence of consumers, writes Australian journalist Damien Carrick.

Earlier this year I was a visiting journalist fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.  It might sound counter intuitive given I was living among the architectural wonders of Oxford but one of my most inspiring activities was a daily shopping trip to the local supermarket. The small and ordinary selection of overpriced products on the shelves was not the attraction. Rather, I was drawn to a large perspex box that stood at the supermarket entrance. Divided into 12 shelves, each contained a newspaper.

I would often find myself transfixed by the box. I would stare at the front pages of the 12 newspapers – studying the headlines, the photos and the remarkably different ideas of what constitutes a story. My eyes would dart from one front cover devoted the latest crisis in the Euro zone to another front cover devoted to private life a celebrity I’d never heard of. As people approached the box I would guess what paper they were about to choose – a racy tabloid, a serious national broadsheet or a staid regional newspaper.

Coming from Australia – the newspaper stand took on a slightly sacred quality. Each day I would marvel at the diversity of information, analysis and opinion unknown in my country.  With only 20 odd million people, most of whom live in 5 far- flung urban conglomerations, the harsh economics of the Australian media long ago reduced both the number of newspapers and diversity of ownership. In Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane there is only one local daily newspaper. In Sydney and Melbourne only two. There is only one widely read daily national newspaper. The Murdoch controlled News Limited controls around 70% of newspaper circulation.

As you would expect, in Australia there is debate about the power of News Limited and whether or not it is running a vendetta against the centre-left Federal government. There is a similar debate about whether the national public broadcaster, the ABC (which plays a role similar to the BBC) has a left leaning bias.

But Australia’s lack of print diversity has some paradoxical consequences. Unlike the UK, there is no intense competition between tabloid newspapers. Australia’s Murdoch-owned tabloids are positively tame and chaste compared with the UK’s three major tabloid groups where the personal lives of politicians, footballers, reality TV stars are scrutinised with “Gotcha!” style intrusive investigations, invasive photos and “kiss and tell” exposes. No doubt the intense competition for the tabloid readership was a factor that led to the race to the ethical bottom that resulted in the Murdoch-controlled News of the World hacking the phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler.

This is not to imply that the Australian media is perfect. There are of course concerns about accuracy and bias across all media platforms. And while there aren’t many players in the newspaper sector, competition in commercial radio and TV is cut throat. However in Australia there has been no phone hacking.

Both the UK and Australia are currently engaged in intense debates around how best to regulate the press. I came to the UK to see what lessons Australia might learn from the UK. The lessons were not what I expected.

Throughout the first half of 2012, the UK was transfixed by the proceedings of Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into the culture, ethics and practices of the print media. One of my enduring memories of the UK is attending London’s Royal Courts of Justice and, from a vast white tent erected in the courtyard, watching on a giant video screen as former News of the World editor Rebecca Brookes gave her evidence of her chummy, rather bizarre texting with UK PM David Cameron.

I chuckled as I tried to imagine similar exchanges taking place in Australia. Although Australian governments have a long tradition of cosying up to media moguls, right now the relationship between the Julia Gillard’s labour/independent government and the Murdoch empire is toxic. Canberra’s adoption of carbon tax and a super profits tax in the mining sector have been pilloried in the Murdoch press. Critics of the Gillard government say its focus on media reform is about revenge rather than genuine concern about media ethics.

Australia does share one characteristic with the UK. We also a have “a Desmond problem”. Earlier this year, the only daily newspaper in Perth, the West Australian, withdrew its membership of the Australian Press Council, the industry led body that deals with complaints against the press.

In the UK, at the end of November, Leveson is expected to hand down his much anticipated findings and recommendations. Among other he is charged with coming up with a replacement for the Press Complaints Commission. The newspaper media propose tougher self-regulation. Some victims of media intrusion like are calling for the creation of a tribunal to hear all complaints about defamation, harassment and privacy. There are also a range of proposals that fall somewhere in the middle. They give a series of legal advantages to newspapers that participate in a new, tougher but completely voluntary complaints handling scheme.

In Australia, two government inquiries have looked at media regulation without the catalyst of profound shock and anger caused by the phone hacking scandal. In February, the Finklestein Inquiry into the Media and Media Regulation recommended the creation of a government-funded, statutory body with (for the first time) jurisdiction across all media platforms – TV, radio, print and online. The proposal is strongly opposed by the Australian print media, which have a long tradition of self-regulation. In May, the Convergence Review handed down its recommendations. It called for a single industry-led body to regulate all industry platforms. The Australian government is expected to announce its preferred model sometime before the end of the year.

The Australian proposals raise serious freedom of expression concerns that must be addressed. But what is interesting about the Australian proposals is that they squarely address the realities of convergence. Increasingly media consumers everywhere are not popping down to the local supermarket and picking up their favourite newspaper. Instead they are hopping online and accessing newspaper websites which often contain video. And while there, they might also log onto the website of their favourite broadcaster to read an article.

This brings me back to my beloved Perspex box. The frisson I felt each time I approached the newspaper stand outside my supermarket was tempered the anxiety attached to another part of my daily routine. After shopping, I would ride a rickety bike through ridiculously picturesque, cobbled streets to the nearby Reuters Centre for the Study of Journalism. There I would often chat with other visiting journalist fellows. While several Indian print journalists were optimistic about the prospects for newspapers in their country, in general the print journalists from developed countries were deeply pessimistic about the prospects of their industry. In many countries newspapers are hemorrhaging. A new online economic model which might save newspapers is yet to emerge. But what is clear is that the media is migrating online.

Provided it can address legitimate concerns around press freedom, the Australian government may yet create a regulatory architecture that helps the media, new and old, maintain the precious confidence of consumers.

The Leveson Inquiry, a direct response to the hacking scandal, is focusing exclusively on the profound failings of some newspapers, politicians and police. With so much on its plate, Lord Leveson is unlikely to be able to make the broader recommendations that address the emerging reality of media in the 21st century. Understandably debate is centred on balancing press freedom with the individual’s right to live free from unwarranted press intrusion. However issues around compliance in the age of convergence are also important. One of the challenges facing reformers is how to secure “buy-in” from the emerging, highly mobile online media. A senior figure at the BBC told me that at a recent industry get together, a tabloid executive made it very clear that if he doesn’t like Leveson’s recommendations he will migrate his online operations outside the UK.

Two things are certain. First, the perspex box bulging with daily newspapers is not likely to be around in the future, although hopefully most of the publications will still exist online. Second, once this online migration takes place, the challenges around regulation and ethics will become more complicated not less.

Damien Carrick presents The Law Report on ABC Radio National. He recently spent time at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. His research paper – Privacy, Regulation and the Public Interest is available here. View his full profile here.

This piece is a slightly amended version of an article that first appeared on The Drum – on the ABC website.