CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Media laws: dramatic change or maintaining status quo?
, October 28, 2006
The Government says the new rules will better reflect the reality of the Australian media industry, and will allow market forces and the internet phenomena to evolve and create a new media landscape to suit the 21st century.
Critics say the new rules will further entrench existing media mogul dominance and power as well as help destroy diversity of opinion in Australia.
The truth, as always, is somewhere between.The changes
1) Foreign ownership limits will be removed entirely except for the usual perusal by the Foreign Investment Review Board;
2) Cross-media rules will be relaxed so that one company will be limited to two of three types of media assets - either print, radio or television - in any market.
3) A "voices" test introduced to ensure there are at least five media operators in capital cities and four "voices" in regional areas.
4) Regional radio stations will be obliged to broadcast a minimum of 4.5 hours of local content each day and 12.5 minutes of local news. The changes are likely to usher a period of takeovers and ownership changes which are difficult to predict.
But already there are suggestions that James Packer's Publishing and Broadcasting Limited will move to unload some or possibly all of his media assets including Channel Nine, the Packer magazine empire which includes the Bulletin and Women's Weekly, and the highly successful internet site, Nine MSN.
If Mr Packer does proceed to divest his empire of Australian media assets it will fly in the face of claims by former Prime Minister Paul Keating that the new laws are entirely designed to benefit the Packer empire.
In the lead-up to the Parliamentary debate Nationals MPs were particularly concerned about the changes given the fact that their electorates are already dominated by few players - usually either a radio and TV station with little local content or a few local newspapers owned by an absentee proprietor.
The two-out-of-three rule and local content stipulations were largely won through agitation by National MPs lead by Queenslander Paul Neville, but they did not go far enough for fellow Queenslander Barnaby Joyce.
Senator Joyce fought a rear-guard action to protect existing "media diversity" warning that relaxing the media laws would be handing power to even fewer players and that, within a decade or two, politicians would be completely beholden to one or two media barons.
The fact of the matter is that Australia already has a very "thin" media landscape with few major players, and little real competition among television and newspapers.
It has followed the worldwide trend of newspapers amalgamating or closing down and Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Canberra and Darwin are dominated by just one major newspaper. While there are three commercial television networks, their news and current affairs reporting are practically identical in format and content.
In regional Australia Rural Press has become the dominant player owning 160 newspapers.
Independent country radio stations have been swallowed up by major networks and their news services are increasingly being homogenised and broadcast from hundreds, even thousands of kilometres away.
The government says "new media" players will gradually come into the frame and the internet, which will become the dominant media form, is already blurring the lines between different forms of media.
But for practical purposes the current "share" of ownership is likely to remain for quite a few years and the majority of people will continue to receive their news and opinion from the same source as they have been.
ACCC Chairman Graeme Samuel said as much to a Senate inquiry examining the proposed changes.
"The Internet is simply a distribution channel," he said.
"It has not shown any significant signs at this point in time of providing greater diversity of credible information and news and commentary."
Australia does not have a depth and breadth of media like the United States where there are many middle level players, richly-endowed think-tanks, and wide-ranging and contrasting opinion makers.Creating new players is easier said than done and neither the government or the Labor Opposition, which has been critical of the changes, is talking about breaking up the ownership existing players.
And as for "opinion and range of views" trumpeted by critics of the new legislation, in Australia this is largely governed by the journalists, editors, producers and broadcasters, rather than the so-called media barons.
Given that these "content providers" come from similar ideological mindsets and from the same broad educational backgrounds they are likely to continue to produce the same narrow range of views regardless of who owns their media outlets.