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Issue #1795      September 20, 2017

Media ownership laws

Murdoch’s monopoly

Last week, by accepting demands of the One Nation Party, the Nick Xenophon Team and four crossbench Senators, the government finally managed to dump certain laws that restricted the operations of major newspapers and “free-to air” media corporations.

Those changes will result in the concentration of media power in fewer hands, and the independence of the ABC is now threatened by conditions that accompanied the changes.

The media law reforms will give established commercial media corporations a financial shot in the arm, and give them commercial advantages over their competitors and the ABC.

But younger people are ignoring newspapers and commercial free-to-air TV, and seeking entertainment and news coverage from digital applications such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. As a result, over a 17-year period digital media’s share of broadcast advertising revenue has risen from zero to 40 percent.

Newspaper proprietors fear that if they abandon hard copy for digital publication they will not be able to compete with the ABC, an independent publicly-funded national broadcaster with a 70 percent level of public trust in its news and current affairs reporting, (compared to 41 percent for commercial TV), which has entered into digital broadcasting with great success.

The government has sneered that by opposing its “reforms” Labor and the Greens “sought to defend media laws that were decades out of date”. But those laws were implemented to prevent corporations gaining a media stranglehold and imposing their extreme right-wing views on the public: monopoly is dictatorship.

That’s still on the agenda, and abolition of the media ownership laws has enhanced the power of the media corporations.

Abolition of the rule under which no company could control more than two out of three traditional media platforms (commercial radio, TV or newspapers) within the same radio licence area, will facilitate domination of the media by one media proprietor, or a small group of proprietors.

The “75 percent” rule, which stipulated that no company could broadcast on TV to an area containing more than 75 percent of the population, has now been eliminated.

Because of the abolition of these rules, one company may now make nationwide television broadcasts, publish a national newspaper and own two radio licences in every radio licence area.

The government has retained the “4/5 voices test” rule, under which it issues licences to at least five independent and separate media operators in metropolitan radio licence areas, and four in regional areas. It has also retained rules under which no company can hold more than one TV licence or two radio licences in a single licence area.

Those rules are intended to ensure media diversity and local content, but given the media law changes a few powerful companies are set to dominate a licence area while abiding by the rules. Media concentration is already happening; a media group associated with Rupert Murdoch is now in a bidding war with US giant CBS for Network Ten.

Broadcasters must now earn 720 local content points every six weeks, with each minute of local news representing two points, and other local content representing one.

Six months after a company begins to broadcast to more than 75 percent of the population, the government will require it to earn 900 points but this could be reduced by two thirds for local news filmed on the spot. The government’s new minimum local content viewing time is 360 minutes every six weeks, but that’s a pathetic 8½ minutes a day.

The government has given $90 million to each major TV corporation by replacing the $130 million broadcast licence fees with a $40 million “spectrum” fee. And Murdoch’s Fox Sports will receive $30 million for promoting women’s and niche sports!

Horse trading replaces principles

The government promised the Nick Xenophon Team it will reduce TV gambling advertising time during sporting matches and ban gambling advertising at other times until after 8.30pm.

Gambling causes massive social damage, yet the government won’t impose a total ban on gambling advertising similar to the ban on cigarette advertising.

Offshore video streamer organisations contribute little local content, and many pay little tax through their use of tax havens. However, the government has taken no action against them. It will direct the ACCC to inquire into digital advertising, but has ignored a Senate Select Committee recommendation to impose a levy on digital media companies to fund public interest journalism.

Over three years the government will provide a $60 million package for journalism scholarships and an innovation fund and cadetships for small and regional publishers. But after the money’s spent it’s back to square one for all concerned.

One Nation Party leader Pauline Hansen hates the ABC, in part because of a brilliant Four Corners revelation of her dictatorial party rule. In exchange for her Senate vote she wanted ABC funding to be savagely cut.

Instead, the government will force the ABC to focus on regional affairs, adopt “transparency measures” for the ABC and SBS, include the words “fair” and “balanced” and references to “rural and regional” matters in the ABC Act, and appoint two people with rural or regional backgrounds to the ABC board.

Inclusion of the word “balanced” would threaten the public interest because it could be interpreted as obliging ABC programs to include all opinions on an issue, but not to draw conclusions about it.

If the government tempts Xenophon with some more horse-trading he may well support changing the Act.

The government will also subject the ABC to a “competitive neutrality inquiry” to determine whether it is “using its status to compete in a way that isn’t reasonable with commercial organisations”, and it may reveal publicly the top ABC salaries, giving commercial broadcasters a competitive advantage.

It’s also considering Murdoch’s demands for the ABC to be forced to supplement its funding with US-style pledge-plea telethons appeals.

It is the media corporations themselves that are out of date. They are hanging on to an untenable position, resisting technological change because they fear losing advertising revenues, and seeking government help to enhance their power and profit levels.

And come to think of it, the government itself is well and truly out of date, and should be replaced with the utmost speed.

Next article – Editorial – Whose law?

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