Reheated, Recycled Reform


Can anyone believe the soft media coverage Helen Coonan’s been getting over her package of media ‘reforms’? With a few honourable exceptions, like Stephen Bartholomeusz and Malcolm Maiden in The Age, the reporting has set new standards for sycophancy, even for the Australian media.

Having been Shadow Communications Minister for three years (2001–04) and been acting in the position for a few days when the changes were originally announced, I’m well-placed to observe three things. (And I can’t be accused of whinging about unfair treatment, because it’s no longer my job.)

Coonan’s package is little more than a reheated, recycled version of the hodgepodge previously served up by one of her predecessors, Senator Richard Alston. The only major thing that’s changed is the Senate. Coonan has the numbers, notwithstanding the pathetic posturing of the spineless simpletons in the National Party. Alston had to deal with four idiosyncratic Independent Senators. Even I almost felt sorry for him (but not quite!).

The Coonan reforms effectively abolish cross-media and foreign ownership laws, as Alston tried to do. Thankfully, she has abandoned his awful ‘editorial independence’ regime, but replaced it with a totally meaningless ‘number of voices‘ test, which will do nothing to hinder further ownership concentration and the reduction of diversity. When Triple M, Nova and Gold 104 count as equals with News Ltd, Southern Cross and PBL, you know the test is meaningless.

Coonan has recycled the visible datacasting option from Alston’s original 1998 ‘reform’ package, even though it failed then. Maybe things will be different now, but it’s still inherently absurd.

The tiny toe-in-the-water offering of multichannelling is a small step forward, but it merely highlights the overall weakness of the package. Rupert Murdoch’s got a point how does the Government justify tilting the playing field even further in favour of the incumbent free-to-air networks?

The further delay in the switchover from analogue to digital broadcasting until 2010 (at the earliest) is entirely predictable. Most journalists have not noticed the fine print in this issue. The original 2008 deadline was nothing of the sort. In fact it was a reverse deadline: the networks were assured that the changeover would not occur before 2008. Presumably the new ‘deadline’ will be similar.

The purported introduction of a ‘use it or lose it’ arrangement for the anti-siphoning list is not new. Darryl Williams announced this reform, together with some changes to the list, when he was Communications Minister nearly three years ago. But how many journalists noticed that Coonan’s bold new anti-siphoning reform wasn’t actually new?

Ultimately, the most appalling feature of this mess is John Howard’s willingness to put the interests of the incumbent players ahead of the national interest. While Australia falls further and further behind in high-speed broadband access and digital broadcasting, the Prime Minister says that he only wants reforms with industry consensus.

Did Bob Hawke ask for Telstra’s permission when he exposed it to competition? Did he give car manufacturers a veto over tariff reductions?

Yet again, the Howard Government’s approach to reform is nakedly political and ultra short-term.

Unfortunately, the price Australia will pay is going to be very high.

New Matilda will host a forum on the ‘Future of the fourth Estate’ at the Melbourne Writers Festival on Monday August 28. See here for more information. The New Matilda policy portal is currently developing alternative media policies for Australia, and will be publishing a special media edition on 18 August.

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