Media industry should fund media council – Chang Teck Peng

Media industry should fund media council – Chang Teck Peng

Firms could take cue from telcos and use portion of ad revenue for this

IT has been 50 years since the proposal to establish a media council was first raised by Tun Abdul Razak, the second prime minister, in 1973.

Since then, the idea has been occasionally raised, but it has always been a case of all talk and no action. The closest it came to being realised was in 2018, after Pakatan Harapan (PH) formed the government and then communications and multimedia minister Gobind Singh Deo pushed for it.

At the time, a pro-tem committee was established. Comprising media industry representatives, they prepared a report and a draft Malaysian Media Council Act. However, the proposal was put on hold with the fall of the PH government in early 2020.

Things took a turn after the PH-led unity government came to power at the end of 2022. Deputy Communications and Digital Minister Teo Nie Ching has reportedly mentioned that the establishment of a media council will be given priority.

She revealed early this year that she had met with the relevant media organisations and individuals who share the intention of facilitating the council’s establishment. The pro-tem committee for the establishment of the media council also held a meeting in March.

If the coalition government can last a full term, the media council may finally be established.

Establishing a media council raises many important concerns. However, one of the most pressing challenges is the issue of funding.

According to the Malaysian Media Council Act drafted in 2020, the media council would be a statutory body that can request funding from Parliament or private entities, provided that they do not affect the independence and impartiality of the media council or its executive committee.

However, there is no elaboration on how to request funding from private entities or any mechanism or guidelines to prevent the government and private entities from influencing the operations of the media council.

If the media council is ultimately established as a statutory body, it makes sense to be supported by government funding. However, in the long run, government funding should not be the only source of funding – it should not even be the main source of funding at all.

If the government takes a stand or for political reasons decides to stop or cut funding, how will the media council survive? As for funding from private entities, the expected funders will be large corporations.

But don’t forget that commercial factors (such as advertising interests), in addition to political factors, are the root cause of the compromise of media professionalism and ethics.

These corporations, which provide funding, are likely to be the advertisers of media. In the face of conflicts of interest, how will the media council address it?

The media monitoring by the media council is a concept of self-regulation. When there is unethical behaviour or content that infringes on public rights and interests, the media council investigates and issues censure if the media is found at fault.

The media at fault should also take appropriate measures to rectify its mistakes. This self-regulation approach is not only a means to prevent the government from using state power to punish the media, but also demonstrates the determination to uphold press freedom.

It is in this sense that media companies should actively promote the establishment of a media council, but reality shows otherwise. In contrast, non-governmental organisations and academics advocating for press freedom have been more active than media companies.

The media companies may not even take action if it was not the minister or deputy minister who pushed for it.

Well, let’s put aside the argument on who takes the initiative, though it is also an important issue. What’s more important is that media companies should not stay out of the funding for the media council.

Taking the Press Complaints Commission (PCC, 1990-2014) and the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) in the United Kingdom as examples, their funding was voluntarily paid by members (publishers), who also voluntarily abide by the decisions of PCC/IPSO.

In other words, the media industry should be a major source of funding for the Malaysian Media Council. This can refer to and borrow the concept of Universal Service Provision (USP) in the telecommunications industry, and requires media companies to contribute a portion of their advertising revenue to fund the media council.

The USP in the telecommunications industry is required by the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998. It subsidises telecommunications operators to build facilities and provide telephony and internet services in underserved remote areas.

This allows the population in these areas to enjoy the same communication services and convenience as urban areas, and to catch up with urban areas in economic and social development to narrow the digital divide.

Regulation 27 of the USP Regulations requires all licensees (except for Content Applications Services Providers licensee holders), whose weighted net revenue derived from the designated services for the previous calendar year exceeds a minimum revenue threshold of RM2 million to contribute 6% of the weighted net revenue to the USP Fund.

In comparison, the annual funding required for the media council is a drop in the bucket, and it may not be necessary for media companies to contribute as much as 6%.

As for whether it is 1%, 2%, or 3%, and at what level of advertising revenue must a media company contribute to the fund, it can be discussed based on the estimated funding of the media council and the advertising expenditures of the year.

The media companies should demonstrate their determination. The ball is not only in the hands of media companies but also in the hands of the Communications and Digital Ministry to decide if the Malaysian Media Council Act should require media companies to contribute a portion of advertising revenue (or annual corporate profits) to fund it.

Without this provision, media companies may be unwilling to voluntarily contribute the necessary funds.

– The Vibes, April 20, 2023

(Chang Teck Peng, a journalist-turned-academic, leads the master of arts in communication programme at Tunku Abdul Rahman University of Management and Technology (TAR UMT) )

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