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Amid the hullabaloo surrounding the radical ideological changes being railroaded through the Senate by the Coalition, one issue seems to have slipped off the public radar: proposed changes to media ownership laws. While Communications Minister Helen Coonan reviews and revises her wish list for legislative amendment, the debate surrounding the issue is increasingly confined to those working in, or researching around, the Australian media.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson

Some media commentators fear that any further liberalisation of the media ownership laws introduced by Paul Keating will reduce the diversity of voices in the Australian media, thus restricting access to independent journalism. They figure that, if Kerry Packer gets his hands on the Fairfax newspapers, or if Rupert Murdoch is allowed to buy Channel 10, then too much power will be concentrated in the hands of companies who have obvious vested interests in pushing their own views with no space for the opposing voice.

Most citizens understand the argument so far. But what is less understood outside of media studies courses and professional journalism circles, is the extent to which traditional news sources, such as newspapers and television, are already being rapidly supplanted by new media technologies. The rise of the Internet has changed forever the manner in which the media operates as the ‘fourth estate’ in a democratic society.

While, at present, the majority of the news and journalism we consume still comes from the daily paper or the nightly news, the future is digital. Australians are increasingly getting their news and information online, on-demand. And we’re apparently taking up new digital pay-television services in droves. Waiting for the daily paper to report yesterday’s news, or rushing home at the end of the day to catch a half-hour TV news bulletin, are quickly becoming things of the past.

One man who has definitely recognised the power of this shift is the world’s biggest and most influential media mogul, Rupert Murdoch. His comments at last week’s meeting of News Limited shareholders in Adelaide reveal that he hasn’t lost sight of the potential for a new form of media dominance in his old home country. And he’s put his money where his mouth is by buying up over $1 billion worth of Internet assets in the last few months.

The opportunities afforded by convergence and digital technology promise to provide a plethora of television and radio channels, online news sites and on-demand services, all of which will require content content which Murdoch knows News Limited is uniquely placed to offer.

While an increase in the available number of channels and broadcast platforms should, theoretically, allow for greater diversity in programming, the catch, of course, is that these services will inevitably be under the control of huge multinational service providers. This is where the real battle for the future of independent journalism will occur.

While blogs and interactive news sites have revolutionised the media landscape and drastically democratised the provision of information, their future independence is under threat. Once newspapers and analogue television cease to be the dominant media forces, media moguls will switch their priorities to the control of delivery platforms in order to maintain their power over the way we consume information and, thereby, over the way we think. Ever the innovator, Murdoch has already made this shift.

What many of the doomsayers who are worried about changes to cross-media ownership laws seem to have missed is that the battle for a future of independent media with public interest at its heart may have already been lost. While the proposed changes to media ownership are far from certain at the moment, the full sale of Telstra is a done deal. We’re relinquishing public control of our national communications carrier at exactly the time it will assume a central role in the provision of news and essential information for Australian democracy.

Telstra chief Sol Trujillo last week laid out his five year, $10 billion plan for Telstra’s transformation to a digital, third generation (3G) wireless network, which will provide fully integrated communications services nationwide.

Hot on Trujillo’s heals, at a news conference following his address to shareholders, Murdoch happily confirmed his plans to expand and consolidate News Limited’s relationship with Telstra. Recognising the potential of Australia’s ‘virgin territory’ in the cable market, in contrast with what some see as the prohibitively expensive overbuilding of the existing network in the US, Murdoch was enthusiastic about the technological changes that present a whole new world of opportunity for his media business.

Asked about Trujillo’s plans, Murdoch responded ‘[T]hat is the move going on in the whole world that is bringing on enormous change, maybe destroying some business, maybe making other great ones.’ Murdoch’s determination to be in on the ‘ground floor’ of these great new businesses was clear, even though he claims he has yet to work out the details. ‘I’ve really got to meet Mr Trujillo and see where we both want to go,’ he told journalists eager to hear of his plans to provide content for the new nationwide 3G network. ‘You’re asking the right questions but you’re a month or so ahead of the game.’

But anyone who thinks the game isn’t already well underway is living in a fool’s paradise.

Put simply, those still focussed solely on the dilution of diversity in traditional media such as print newspapers and analogue television are playing by 20th century rules. It may be true that any further concentration of traditional media ownership is a real threat to our democracy and will remain so while the majority of the population gets its information from these old-fashioned sources. But that majority is in fast decline.

Meanwhile, the players in the 3G, digital, online competition are busy manoeuvring around the field. Their opponents need to change tactics and get into the game immediately if Australia is to avoid a future dictated by FoxTelstra.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.