Protecting the Powerful


Last week, after more than a year of closed-door consultations with industry bigwigs, Communications Minister Senator Helen Coonan finally released her long-awaited ideas for changing Australia’s media ownership laws.

Ideas, rather than policies after ten years of talk, the Howard Government is happy to extend the conversation, with the release of this ‘discussion paper,’ but the fact that Australian citizens have just over a month to absorb and respond to the paper, compared to the years of lobbying and months of face-to-face negotiations afforded media owners, is entirely typical.

Thanks to Bill Leak.

Titled Meeting the Digital Challenge: Reforming Australia’s Media in the Digital Age, the discussion paper suggests measures aimed at slowly bringing Australia’s media sector into the digital age without scaring powerful media moguls by opening their industry to significant competition the kind of competition that is a fundamental tenet of the free market, and which applies to all other business sectors in the 21st century.

While this reluctance to apply free market principles to the media might encourage the belief that the Government recognises the unique public service role of a free and open media, the truth is far less salutary. The Government’s concern is not so much with our access to impartial information, but to ensure that the owners of (commercial) media ‘owe’ the Government for their licence to print money thereby securing their support when it comes to that most tricky of democratic principles: the free and fair election.

While the paper contains some proposals that may, eventually, bring Australia up to speed with the rest of the digitised world, its primary concerns are the entrenchment of existing power and restricting the introduction of new technologies that would, inevitably, undermine the authority of those voices funded and controlled by the Rupert Murdochs of the world. When Murdoch himself recognises the inevitability of this shift towards digital media, the Australian Government’s Luddite recalcitrance is all the more galling.

In the UK, where more than 70 per cent of the population has embraced it, the digital revolution has been driven by the BBC and is provided via Freeview a digital TV service ‘offering over 30 TV channels and 20 radio stations for just a one-off payment and no contract.’ A combination of new programming and reruns fills the Freeview schedule channels devoted to history, the environment, news and current affairs are available via the infamous set-top box, and prime-time programming is repeated two hours later on secondary channels, making content much more accessible to a busy populace.

Despite Coonan’s warning that Australia risks becoming a ‘dinosaur of the analogue age,’ we’re already lagging behind the rest of the West in the uptake of this technology. At the moment, anyone with a spare $50-$100 a month can access pay TV’s new digital service, which offers access to ABC2 and SBS2 and many of the features of Britain’s Freeview that make television much more controllable by the viewer. Programs are regularly re-broadcast on multiple channels for instance, the ABC’s Insiders is repeated on ABC2 late on Sunday nights, allowing viewers who find the Sunday morning slot too early, or too family-unfriendly, to catch up.

This sort of service should be available at minimal cost to all Australians now. The one-off purchase of a set-top box allows access to ABC2, SBS2 and a range of digital features on existing channels. But without extra content from commercial channels, and with the limited range of programs allowed on ABC2 and SBS2, there’s little incentive for Australians to take up the service.

Coonan’s discussion paper does little to address this. The apparently worthy measures removing genre restrictions from the multi-channelling for the ABC and SBS are undermined by the paper’s softening of the definition of a Public Service Broadcaster (PSB). With the ABC and SBS now referred to as ‘the national broadcasters,’ there is an implicit distinction between the Australian Government’s understanding of public broadcasting and that embodied in the UK by the BBC. Considered alongside the spectre of allowing advertising on the ABC, the threat to public broadcasting is, despite the Prime Minister’s assurances, quite real.

Crucially, when Howard stepped in to stop the ‘ads on the ABC’ speculation, it was to reassure the powerful commercial media players that they need not fear competition for advertising funds from a publicly-funded ABC, further highlighting the Government’s underlying concern to protect the powerful.

Despite assurances that mandated minimum numbers of commercial proprietors in relevant markets would ensure diversity of content, the proposed legislation will do no such thing. Take the Melbourne market as an example. There are currently nine commercial media players: Australian Radio Network (owners of GoldFM and Mix FM); Austereo (Fox and Triple M); Southern Cross Radio (3AW and MagicFM); DMG (Nova and the struggling Vega); TV channels Seven; Nine; and Ten; Fairfax (The Age); and News Ltd (the hugely influential Herald Sun). These could be reduced to five.

Assuming the radio networks decline to swallow each other, there exists the real possibility that Melbourne may end up with only three players engaged in serious news and current affairs (if, for example, the same interests control Channel Ten as the Herald Sun, and another set controls both Channel Nine and The Age). When the pool of journalists is concentrated in this way, it won’t matter how many different modes of delivery are available: the content delivered by new technological platforms will be controlled by the same few, increasingly powerful, commercially driven interests.

The scariest thing about Coonan’s proposals is not that the Government doesn’t understand this, but that it does and welcomes the further stifling of democratic debate that its changes will bring.

Coonan’s discussion paper is open for public submissions until the 18th of April. New Matilda‘s media convener, Emma Dawson, is currently evaluating the paper and will post an analysis on the site next week.

Over the next month, New Matilda invites readers and subscribers to email thoughts, comments and contributions for submission to

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.