Media reform could trigger a shakeup of the media landscape, including where and when personalities like Nine’s Peter Overton are broadcast. Communications Minister Mitch Fifield will unveil the reform package in the coming months. Photo: Wayne Taylor
As prime minister, Tony Abbott exhibited a stunning – at times reckless – willingness to make unpopular decisions. Be it deregulating university fees, or creating a new GP fee, Abbott often seemed to make decisions first and think through the politics later. On one issue, however, he acted with extreme caution: media ownership.
His communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, wanted to deregulate the sector – an approach that chimed with Abbott’s focus on reducing red tape. Most of the big media companies were on side. Yet Abbott chose to do nothing.
Close to Seven West Media chairman Kerry Stokes – who feared giving his rivals a commercial advantage – and distrustful of Turnbull, this wasn’t a fight he would take on.
Following Turnbull’s election as Prime Minister, rewriting the nation’s media laws roared back onto the agenda. Turnbull appointed one of his key backers, Victorian Senator Mitch Fifield, as Communications Minister, who quickly flagged his interests in reform.
Over the following months, lobbyists from commercial media outlets have made regular visits to Canberra to argue their case. The business press has reported each development with great excitement. Yet something has been missing in the media reform “debate”: the public. The people who watch the television, listen to the radio and buy the newspapers have, overwhelmingly, yet to tune in.
As we move from lofty talk of “reform” to the gritty policy details this year, that will change.
That’s because media ownership isn’t just a business story. This is about which stories get told, who tells them and who wields the influence that flows from running a big media company.
Fifield’s reform package, due to be delivered by March, is expected to include two key changes: scrapping the so-called “reach” rule and the “two out of three” rule.
The reach rule prohibits television networks from broadcasting to more than 75 per cent of the population. Removing this would allow Nine to buy regional affiliate WIN, for example, or Seven to swallow up Prime.
More controversial is removing the “two out of three” rule. This bans media companies from owning a television network, radio station and newspaper in the same market.
Explaining the case for change, Fifield said this week that “Australians have a lot of options, they have a lot of choices”.
“And so both the reach rule and the two out of three rule are gradually being rendered redundant,” he told Sky News. “And look, they were well intentioned when they were first put into place. It was to ensure that there was diversity of media. But we have diversity of media by virtue of technology. That’s not something that we need to be so concerned about today.”
Indeed, while Australians had to call talkback radio or write a letter to the editor to participate in public debate, they can now tweet, blog and Facebook. The internet has also spawned online players – such as Crikey, The Guardian and Buzzfeed – which compete with legacy outlets. And television networks are increasingly streaming all their content online, undermining laws limiting their reach.
An open and shut case, surely, to rip up the old rules.
But Andrea Carson, a lecturer in media and politics at the University of Melbourne, is not so sure.
“Australia has one of the most concentrated media sectors in the developed world,” she says. “Every major change so far has been to the benefit of the big media companies. We need to be very careful before our legislators make a decision to benefit big media companies at the expense of media diversity.
Just look at last year’s merger of Macquarie Radio and Fairfax Media. After 90 years on air, Sydney station 2UE shut down its newsrooms and no longer produces its own bulletins. Meanwhile, five local presenters at Brisbane talk station 4BC were sacked. 4BC listeners are now beamed up Alan Jones, Ray Hadley and Steve Price from Sydney.
This could happen on a much larger scale if Fairfax was to merge its newspaper and radio operations with the Nine Network, for example. Or if Kerry Stokes was to buy a radio station in Perth to go with The West Australian and the Seven Network.
Labor MP Andrew Giles says: “The policy challenge here is to reflect changing technology while ensuring media markets are not dominated by particular individuals.”
Concentrated ownership, Giles notes, leads to concentrated influence – which can impact on policy making and public debate.
“While we shouldn’t be Luddites, neither should we assume that technology will solve all our problems,” he says.
This is clearest in regional Australia. The internet has yet to produce a business model to support the reporting on councils, sport and business that local newspapers and TV networks have traditionally provided.
That’s why the Nationals are pushing for tougher rules on local content to be included in any reform package. Specifically, they want a new “local presence” requirement to stop regional broadcasters using “rip and read” headlines from the capital cities to mee their local content obligations.
The idea has alarmed the regional TV networks, which say they are already struggling under the current obligations. So too, free-market Coalition MPs who thought the whole point of reform was deregulation not creating new rules.
Other trade-offs are in play.
A major concern for many Labor MPs is that relaxed ownership laws would allow proprietors such as Rupert Murdoch to increase their influence. This is ironic given Murdoch has not been one of the strongest lobbyists for reform.
Murdoch’s priority has been watering down the anti-siphoning list mandating which sporting events must be shown on free-to-air television. This would boost the profitability of one of his key assets, Foxtel, which is increasingly dependent on sports rights.
While the government will not allow the football grand finals or Australian Open to disappear from free-to-air, Fifield has said he is open to reviewing the list.
How much can you give away to get News Corp onside without angering sports-mad consumers (and voters) who like to watch for free?
Scrapping outdated regulation sounds easy in theory but, when you’re talking media it quickly becomes messy.
“This is really important stuff,” says one Nationals MP, readying for the debate ahead. “This is going to have profound consequences.”
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