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Issue #1631      March 19, 2014

Editorial

Pressure building for media “reform”

Prime Minister Abbott says his government has an “instinct for deregulation” when it comes to the media. And following a report from the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) commissioned by former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, he is sounding more and more inclined to act on his “instincts”. Giant broadcasting corporations are straining at the leash for new acquisitions and greater market dominance.

Conroy’s successor, Malcolm Turnbull, is also dropping hints that “reform” is on its way. On the chopping block are media ownership rules concerning “reach”, i.e. that restrict the audience for broadcasters to no more than 75 percent of the Australian population and the so-called “two-out-of-three” rule that prevents media corporations from controlling a newspaper, TV station and radio licence in the same market. Turnbull says he is “very sympathetic” to erasing these “black letter rules”.

Deregulation of the media has been in the Liberals’ economic Catechism for a long, long time. Foreign ownership and market share regulations have shifted in favour of the big players over the years and, if the neo-liberal zealots get their way, dramatic change is about to be foisted on audiences across the country.

Pushing these agenda items across the line is not easy politically. Australians don’t support the sorts of pro-monopoly changes the Liberals have been backing since the days of the Howard government. A “magic bullet” argument is usually needed to silence important sections of the opposition to these measures. This time it’s the advent of broadband internet.

“My view is the arrival of the internet, and the additional diversity and avenues for competition that it brings, really says we should have less regulation and more freedom,” Turnbull said last week. He will be very busy in the weeks and months ahead because not even all of his Coalition colleagues are on side. Members from rural and remote electorates would find it difficult to support “reforms” that might finish off local news and other services guaranteed under current legislation.

Nine’s CEO David Gyngel is backing the changes and is talking up his own channel’s commitment to local news and current affairs. Channel Ten is behind the moves but Seven is not. Seven is not expected to do as well out of the rash of mergers and takeovers that would follow de-regulation. The main players are down-playing their ambitions but the face of the Australian media would be radically changed following the Turnbull/Abbott makeover.

Another obstacle to be overcome is public distaste for the Murdoch media empire and Rupert Murdoch in particular. Turnbull has acknowledged this and went to great lengths during the week to explain away comments he reportedly made about the “demented plutocrat”.

“When you compare him to Conrad Black, to Kerry Packer, to Bob Maxwell, Jimmy Goldsmith … Rupert is a very, very straightforward, normal person,” the minister said. Feint praise, indeed.

Another political hurdle is any threat to free-to-air sport. News Corp owns 50 percent of pay TV provider Foxtel and, if News were free to buy out Ten, the anti-syphoning rules that protect free-to-air sport would easily be bypassed. And, of course, pressure to privatise the ABC and SBS will continue to build.

We can expect the poorly covered developments over media regulation to be steered away from the back-room deals leading to take-overs and mergers, the loss of local services and kept squarely on the alleged antiquated nature of the rules.

Why should Google (via YouTube), Apple, Netflix and others be able to gather big Australian audiences and pay virtually no Australian taxes in the process? The media monopolies already have a powerful influence on the way we are given information about what is happening in the world and why.

Trashing media ownership rules will devolve even more power and influence to them.

If Australians are to continue to receive local news and current affairs in rural and remote areas, to have some degree of media diversity and thus information diversity and hang onto the ABC and SBS as public broadcasters, we will need to get off the sidelines of the media regulation debate.

Next article – Party action on Morwell mine fire

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