August 9th 2003

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: IVF - 25 years on

EDITORIAL: America, Iraq and ... Australia

CANBERRA OBSERVED: National Party and the Anderson legacy

COMMENT: Courts turn children into commodities

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Wisdom of Solomons / Do as I say and not as I do / A touching story

SOUTH AUSTRALIA: Water restructure will destroy Murray communities

ENVIRONMENT: Will the Federal ethanol package work?

What a US free trade deal means for Australian media

DEMOGRAPHICS: Russia's population implosion a warning to Europe

ECONOMICS: US-Australia free trade negotiations based on dubious assessments

ASIA: North Korean time bomb still ticking

BOOKS: MARIE ANTOINETTE: The Journey, By Antonia Fraser

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What a US free trade deal means for Australian media

by Tim Wallace

News Weekly, August 9, 2003
Imagine the world dominated by a mere handful of multinational conglomerates that control film studios, television networks, cable networks, satellites, internet portals, music labels, book publishers, newspapers and magazines, not to mention sporting franchises and theme parks. Their vertical and horizontal integration gives them unprecedented power to distribute and cross-promote the content they produce.

Imagine, also, that most of the content is produced in one country, so the concentration of economic ownership also means moving towards a global media monoculture.

Actually, you don't have to imagine, since this is pretty much the state of play already - which is why the current negotiations for the Australia-United States Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA), the federal government is so keen to secure, is ringing alarm bells in the local media and entertainment industry.

The concern is this: Australia has a small, dispersed population in which industry regulation and government support has been essential for the local cultural industries to survive and thrive. This support includes: local content regulations for television and radio; support for public broadcasting; regulation of media ownership to promote diversity and restrictions on foreign ownership; and subsidies for film and television production.

Moreover, while being an English-speaking country is generally to our advantage, it makes us a sitting duck as a secondary market for content produced in the US.

Hernan Galperin, an academic based at the University of Southern California, says the tensions between the realities of cultural production and the principle of free trade are readily apparent, which is why no other industry has been the subject of more exceptions and qualifications in free trade agreements, "despite the present unchallenged reign of the neo-liberal dogma among policymakers of most quarters".

While Trade Minister Mark Vaile has been making soothing noises about leaving cultural production off the negotiating table, Communications and Arts Minister Richard Alston has offered less comfort. Asked on the ABC's Insiders program of June 1 if film and television should be excluded from the free-trade agreement, he replied: "We have made it pretty clear that we don't regard it as appropriate to have that traded off. Obviously, you can't rule anything in or out at the beginning, but all of the indications to date tell me that we won't be having to make the sort of concessions that some people are afraid of."

That is precisely the sort of response that should make people afraid, since Galperin points out the US trade agenda is clear-cut: to eliminate all barriers to the flow of trade and investments in movies and television. As a 1993 report from the US Department of Commerce, Globalisation of the mass media, put it:

"By implementing policies that either foreclose competitive entry or raise its costs, governments can, under certain conditions, skew the globalisation [of the media] process in favour of firms to which they play host. The US should work with the governments of other countries to eliminate such policies for the long-term benefit of all countries."

Of course, the long-term benefit isn't so much for other countries as for the US. As Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), boasted to a Merrill Lynch conference last September, the core copyright industries - movies, TV programs, home video, books, music, computer software - comprise some five per cent of US gross domestic product and bring in more international revenues than aircraft, agriculture, automobiles and auto parts.

"The US movie industry alone has a surplus balance of trade with every country in the world," he said, with members of his organisation having global revenue in 2002 of $US32 billion.

At the May 23 media briefing after the second round of AUSFTA talks in Hawaii, US chief negotiator Ralph Ives was asked about statements by Valenti suggesting the MPAA was pitching for, at the very least a "standstill" in Australia's local content rules. Could Ives confirm that was the US negotiating position, basically locking in current levels as a ceiling? Ives responded:

"I guess I could say that, in terms of the content requirements and the subsidies, we're certainly not seeking, as some in Australia have indicated, to abolish either the broadcast quota or the subsidies - let's make that clear." 

The subtext of that is, yes, the US will indeed be looking for a standstill provision, making it impossible at any time in the future for Australia to introduce initiatives such as the proposal currently before the Australian Broadcasting Authority to bring in a quota for locally made documentaries on pay TV.

According to Simon Whipp, assistant federal secretary of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance:

"If standstill is agreed now, what we are left with is what we have got - measures which are relevant to late 20th and early 21st century technologies and methods of cultural dissemination. But what of the future? Will local content rules on Australian network television in 50 or 100 years time deliver the cultural outcomes that they do today? Who knows? And that's the point."

  • Tim Wallace is a freelance journalist:

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