Was Media Policy Ever A Mogul-Free Zone?


"My most alarming experience as Minister for Communications," reports former Fraser government minister Neil Brown, "was to return to the office one day to find Kerry Packer sprawled out on my sofa like a beached whale and ready to give me the benefit of his many and varied opinions on media policy."

"And very lively, original, blunt and amusing opinions they were," he drily adds. This was in 1982. Brown went on to conclude that media policy should be a "mogul-free zone". It wasn’t then — and it certainly isn’t now.

If there is one constant in Australian public policy, it is the power that media outlets — and the people who own them — can wield over the regulations affecting their interests. Successive federal governments in this country have been only too eager to bend to the will of powerful media interests, especially if they think those media outlets can hurt them come election time.

And with good reason.

Australian media barons have never been shy about throwing their weight around politically. Kerry Packer famously demonstrated this to be the case in an extraordinary appearance before a House of Representatives Inquiry in 1991, in which he publicly dressed down the nation’s elected parliamentarians as though they were errant schoolchildren.

Media policy in this country has rarely been about the interests of Australia’s readers, viewers and citizens. Instead, in what one researcher has called "the enduring realpolitik of Australian media policy", it has generally been formulated by governments in the interests of the rich and powerful men who own the commercial media.

And that was exactly what happened on 7 February, when Communications Minister Stephen Conroy issued a bland and seemingly innocuous press release entitled "Government to protect Australian content on commercial television".

"The Government recognises that the commercial television broadcasters will require some assistance to maintain Australian content production while investing in a new delivery platform nationally," Conroy’s presser asserted. Translation: he was giving the commercial television stations a licence fee rebate to help them out.

"Licence fee rebates will be 33 per cent in 2010 and 50 per cent in 2011 to ensure that commercial broadcasters can continue to invest in new Australian content."

And how much will this rebate be worth? Hundreds of millions of dollars.

According to the Australian Communications and Media Authority, television licence fees added up to $286.8 million in 2008–09. So, Conroy has presented a gift from taxpayers to the shareholders of commercial TV networks of something in the order of $250 million. Nice work, if you can get it. Shares in the networks or their holding companies jumped.

At the time, hardly anyone in the national media even noticed. It took a series of outraged articles from Crikey‘s Bernard Keane before other news media outlets started covering the issue. Eventually The Australian (owned of course by News Limited, which also has a stake in pay-TV provider Foxtel — a competitor of the free-to-air networks) took up the cudgels and campaigned hard on the rebate.

At that point, other media players, such as Foxtel and commercial radio stations, who had missed out on Conroy’s largesse started to ask questions about their handouts. Analysts and commentators pointed out that the networks had already been given a big handout by John Howard to go digital 10 years ago and that in any case their Australian content quotas are a mandated part of the licensing regulations.

Of course, no one really believes that this debate is about Australian content.

Even the Opposition’s response is symptomatic of the power that media barons still wield in Australia. The initial reaction was muted before a change of heart from Tony Abbott when he said the fee rebate "looked like a bribe".  It soon emerged that Conroy had met with Seven boss Kerry Stokes on a recent skiing trip overseas. (Since when did Labor ministers take skiing trips? Ben Chifley would be turning in his grave).

A "bribe"? Heavens no, cried Conroy, who pointed out that the Opposition Leader’s remarks were made shortly after a meeting with none other than Rupert Murdoch, the owner of News Limited.

The television press corps didn’t take it so well either. Laurie Oakes issued a stentorian rebuke on Channel Nine news, grumpily declaring that "my message to Tony Abbott is this: when Kerry Packer owned the Nine Network he knew he couldn’t tell me what to say so the bunch of private equity investors who own it now have no chance".

In fact, perhaps the only surprise in this whole affair is that anyone was surprised at all.

Of all of Kevin Rudd’s ministers, Stephen Conroy has shown himself to be by far the most courageous when it comes to cutting deals to protect Labor’s interests — in the fullest satirical sense of the word "courageous".

As his decision to cut Telstra loose and go it alone on the National Broadband Network proved, Conroy has little fear when it comes to handing out favours. And Labor’s political strategy since getting elected has revolved around television news grabs. The aim is to speak over the heads of journalists and commentators in order to get a consistent message into voters’ loungerooms by way of mercilessly repeated simple soundbites. It’s a tried and tested strategy and it has mostly worked.

Indeed, part of Tony Abbott’s improved showing as Opposition Leader appears to be precisely his ability to cut through with a good soundbite like the "great big tax on everything". Looked at from this perspective, Conroy’s tactic not only curried favour with the television networks — which are still one of the most important ways ordinary punters find out about politics — but also got Laurie Oakes pissed off with Tony Abbott. It was typical Conroy: tactically brilliant; morally dubious.

Characteristically, Conroy has gone on the front foot in the face of controversy, granting an interview to The Age‘s Katharine Murphy in which he hinted that he might placate the pay TV sector by winding back some of the Government’s anti-sport siphoning laws (which mandate which sporting events can and can’t be sold to pay TV).

Perhaps the most intriguing theory about the rebate decision was offered yesterday by independent South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon. According to this report, Xenophon thinks it may be part of a wider deal to sell Telstra some of the TV networks’ digital spectrum for its planned fourth-generation ("4G") mobile phone network.

"Does it mean that a deal has been done with Telstra?" he asked reporters.

"Was this the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle to allow Senator Conroy to facilitate a deal with Telstra?"

The issue of broadcast spectrum is of course a live one for a whole range of reasons.

Because digital television takes up less bandwidth than the old analogue signal, the Government is planning to take unused spectrum away from the networks and to sell it — probably to mobile phone companies who can use it for their increasingly data-intensive mobile telephony and internet services.

But that sale is in turn tied up with the Government’s plans for the NBN, in which Conroy plans to arm-wrestle Telstra into giving the NBN access to its legacy network infrastructure, at risk of being locked out of the new spectrum sales it needs for its 4G network.

Confused yet? In the age of digital convergence, when your internet connection is also the thing you use to watch streaming television and read online newspapers, media policy has become fiendishly complicated. It’s the kind of swirling tactical environment in which Conroy, a senior factional warlord in the right wing of Victorian Labor, naturally excels.

As Margaret Simons made clear in Crikey yesterday (paywalled), there is a broader issue here. Where is Australian media policy going under Kevin Rudd? Pointing out that the Government’s rebate guarantees nothing in terms of new local content production, she points out that both Kim Williams and Kim Dalton think that "some of the money the government will gain from selling spectrum should be used to bolster Australian content — a ‘culture fund’."

"This is surely an idea worthy of consideration, but I gather it isn’t anywhere on the Government’s radar," she wrote yesterday. "Why not? Getting cogent explanations from the Government is close to impossible."

Simons is right. A coherent media policy in this country — one that addressed the needs and desires of consumers as well as producers, of citizens as well as media moguls, of the public sphere as well as private enterprise — is long overdue. But such a policy, if it genuinely examined our current media policy, would have to put everything on the table and question all the current handouts, special favours and sweetheart deals. In other words, it would alienate the entire media all at once. That’s not going to happen in an election year — if ever.

In the meantime, it’s unlikely that the enduring tendency of Australian governments to set their media policies under the influence of the media will change anytime soon. As Swinburne University’s Julian Thomas observed yesterday, "[Conroy is] not the first communications minister to give the networks generous rebates without much in the way of public discussion and he won’t be the last. The Coalition made precisely the same move a decade ago when the switch to digital began."

The realpolitik of Australian media policy lives on.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.