Let the Carve-Up Commence


As that under-appreciated media commentator Meatloaf once said, ‘Two out of three ain’t bad.’ Well, it ain’t too good, either.

Last week in Canberra, the Senate passed Communications Minister Helen Coonan’s slightly watered-down media Bill, removing foreign and cross-media ownership restrictions to allow large multinational companies to purchase controlling shares in two out of three media platforms (radio, television and print) in any one market.

Any doubts that these changes were designed to pander to Australia’s established media moguls, should have been put to rest by yesterday’s announcement that James Packer was spinning off PBL’s media interests into a new venture (of which PBL will control 50 per cent). Packer has been working on the deal for some time, and was ready to pounce at the height of the market frenzy which followed the passing of Coonan’s Bill. Clearly, the third generation mogul had little doubt that his preferred package would pass.

The further consolidation of commercial media power into the hands of the über-rich is now inevitable, and likely to occur with little resistance from the average Aussie.

Any hope of restoring the integrity of the Fourth Estate in Australia now lies with the ALP, where former leader, Paul Keating, and outspoken back-bencher, John Murphy, have both called for a commitment from Labor to reverse the worst of the changes should it gain office at the next Federal election.

Murphy, like Keating whose ‘moral clarity’ on this issue and other recent public debates is sorely missed and increasingly sought by journalists and analysts understands that the new laws will allow excessive concentration of media ownership. Murphy believes the laws represent a ‘scandalous assault to the public interest and our precious democracy’ and has promised to campaign ‘all the way to the next Federal election to restore cross media ownership laws.’ We must hope he and his Party’s former leader are able to persuade the ALP to add this pledge to its recent suite of bold promises to reverse the most egregious of the Howard Government’s policies, including WorkChoices and the Temporary Protection Visa.

The current Government’s approach treats the media as just another business, with obligations only to shareholders, rather than to the interests of the body politic or as a crucial component of the democratic State. Its support of existing media players who are heavily invested in a rapidly declining sector (free-to-air TV) at the expense of new technology development, actually works against the forces of market competition a typical abandonment of its own ideology by a Government too craven to put its principles before its popularity with the mainstream press.

This attitude is repeated across all areas of the Government’s communications policy. Witness the botched sale of Telstra and the complete abrogation of any responsibility for providing essential communications infrastructure in what is the most sparsely populated continent on earth. If any nation is in need of effective, reliable and low cost communications and media, it is Australia, where friends and family can live thousands of kilometres away within the same country.

Telstra’s announcement of the 3G network was for more than the obvious malfunctioning fire-sprinkler reason a wet blanket to our hopes for Australia’s media future. Sure, tech-savvy young dudes in the inner cities will readily snap up 3G, but without a broader commitment to developing basic communications infrastructure in the national interest, all the digital bells and whistles in the world won’t bring Australia up to speed. While demand for the most efficient and user-friendly communications technology is still tempered by the profit motives of monopolistic companies like Telstra, Australia will continue to lag behind the rest of the world.

This state of affairs can be attributed to one thing: our current Government’s inability to develop policies designed for specific Australian conditions and in service of our own national interest. Howard and his cronies love to bang on about the greatness of the Australian nation, but their actions belie their increasingly hollow words.

Thanks to sxc

Their super economic-rationalist ideals, blind faith in the power of the market, and sycophantic adoration of the USA have combined to produce a shocking atrophy of any original or creative thought within their ranks. Howard’s openly declared and intellectually lazy admiration for the ideologies of Reagan and Thatcher, besides being more than 20 years out of date, has led his Government to abandon the hard work of governing Australia as what it is: a unique and distinct nation, not just a pint-sized copy of the USA.

The population and economy of the US are large enough to sustain a commercial media market with a diverse range of vigorous ‘voices’ all competing in the public domain. Australia simply does not have that critical mass. Importing the US model, in media policy as much as in industrial relations, is worse than useless it’s destructive to our form of democracy.

The fact that a former Anglophile such as Howard refuses to consider the UK’s public interest, public broadcaster-centred approach to media policy confirms that he is the most un-reconstructed, 1980s-style-conservative leader in the world today.

While the declared battles in Howard’s culture wars centre on education, history and national identity, Australia’s media landscape should be designated as another primary battleground. Nothing shows this more clearly than Monday’s announcement of new ‘editorial guidelines’ for the ABC, driven by the resentment and arrogance of the Government-stacked ABC Board.

But more on this next week.

Disclosure: New Matilda is on the record as opposing many of the measures introduced in Coonan’s Bill.

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.