Conroy's All Or Nothing Media Reforms


Minister for Communications Stephen Conroy’s ultimatum that he will not barter away his package of media reforms suggests there may be a matter of principle at stake.

In fact, his reforms are a weak compromise that he fears will fall apart under the weight of discussion. There is already division between the media companies about the abolition of the "reach rule" which provides that a television company cannot reach more than 75 per cent of the population. As a result, Conroy has allowed for a one day parliamentary inquiry to resolve that issue. The Greens, independents and the public — that’s us — won’t even see the detail in the bills until Thursday.

One of the few remaining legacies of the report of the Finkelstein Independent Media Inquiry, which met the same hysterical charges of media censorship from the companies whose power its sought to contain, was research which updated evidence for claims that Australia has the highest concentration of media power among developed countries.

The claim was confirmed. Somehow, other countries seem to have used public policy to prevent their mainstream media falling into the hands of a small number of players. The reason they do this is to protect media freedom and diversity — not restrain it. One mechanism is a public interest ownership test, such as the one now being proposed by the Gillard Government and trenchantly opposed by News Ltd.

The details of the test have not been announced. Even if guiding criteria such as whether a takeover would result in "dimunition of diversity" are laid down, the application of a public interest test will always be a matter of judgement of those appointed to make decisions.

Similar tests are often applied in the law and in other spheres of regulation. In Australia, whether or not such a test would be at all effective would depend on whether the Public Interest Advocate was independent and resilient enough to absorb demonising media comparisons to Stalin or Mao, such as those that appear on the front of News Ltd’s Daily Telegraph today.

Given the current situation with the media, there is a limit to what such a test might do. Unfortunately, long ago in 1987, another Labor government allowed News Ltd to take over the Herald Sun, Adelaide Advertiser and Courier Mail. There was a huge campaign against these moves at the time. The chair of the then Australian Press Council, Hal Wooten, even resigned when the council would not vote against the changes. To partly compensate, the government introduced the cross media ownership laws which prevented News Ltd or Fairfax from owning television stations. These rules were progressively weakened but News Ltd has long been determined to sweep any remaining vestiges of regulation limiting its reach away.

Last week News Ltd moved closer to its goal of controlling a free-to-air station as well as pay TV interests. The chair of struggling free-to-air Channel Ten, Lachlan Murdoch who is on the board of News Corp and owner of Australian radio company DMG, hired News Corp senior employee Nic McClellan as the new CEO for Channel Ten. McClellan will retain his role as Chair of News Corp owned REA group, the global property and real estate advertising company which has 19,000 agents in 10 countries.

It’s hard to become excited about the independence of journalism at Channel Ten. After repeated tabloid TV flops, it has recently cut back on some of its already slim reporting resources by sacking journalists. Ten Network director Gina Rinehart, whose buy-up of Fairfax shares and demands for board seats has attracted plenty of criticism, has just launched an attack on the journalistic freedom of Fairfax business journalist Adele Ferguson. Rinehart is trying to subpoena confidential notes relevant to the court case in which her children have sued for access to her wealth.

However, if you are opposed to media concentration as a threat to freedom, you have to oppose News Corporation’s moves. The ALP Member for Reid in Western Sydney, John Murphy, told the 7.30 Report that if News Ltd was allowed to gain control over Channel Ten then it would be a "shocking assault on the public interest and would have enormous consequences for the future of Australian democracy".

He even voiced the old-fashioned thought that it would be better to have "an honourable loss rather than surrender my soul, or for the Labor Party to surrender its soul to Rupert Murdoch and News Limited". Greens Senator Scott Ludlam stated publicly that the Greens were concerned about a further loss of media diversity.

News Corporation is also concerned that its existing television interests in Foxtel would come within reach of new rules. While Seven West Media, headed by ex-Woodside chief Don Voelte, already has nearly a clean sweep of media interests in Western Australia. Volte owns The West Australian, regional newspapers and regional TV and radio, and is opposed to any restrictions on further extensions of its near monopoly in the west.

One way to balance some protection of media diversity with media freedom is to introduce mechanisms that boost diversity. One of these was a suggestion by journalism educators, led by Monash University’s BIll Birnbauer, for tax deductions for investment in investigative journalism. Unfortunately nothing like this made it to the final package. News Ltd and Fairfax’s opposition to these proposals during the Finkelstein inquiry was characteristic of their opposition to public policies which might strengthen media diversity.

Conroy has suggested today that he might permit the removal of the 75 per cent reach rule which currently prevents further domination by free-to-air stations of regional television even if the rest of the package falls by the wayside. His counterpart in the shadow ministry, Malcolm Turnbull, argues that restrictions on ownership are unnecessary because there is already plenty of diversity.

He misses the point of protecting some journalism production in regional media, which Finkelstein noted was already in a dire state. If there are no rules to protect local news and current affairs production outside big cities of Sydney and Melbourne, there will be little available apart from material produced by the ABC.

In another favour to the free-to-air televisions, Conroy’s package includes halving the license fees which free-to-air television pay the Federal government. This offer is supposed to be in return for an increase in local Australian production to 1500 hours by 2015. What appears to be an enhancement of Australian production could become on attack on local production, rather than a boost, because rules which provide for production of children’s and drama production have fallen by the wayside. If this proposal goes ahead, audiences will be left with repeats of soapies on second or third digital stations — a further reduction in diversity.

The proposals also appear to strengthen the arm of the Australian Press Council (APC) by making membership a condition for journalists’ protection for newsgathering under an exemption in the Privacy Act. Seven West Media withdrew from the council when other publishers, facing arguments for more media regulation, agreed to funding rules which provide for some consistency in APC funding, lessening the capacity of companies to use weaken the council’s complaint handling procedures by threats of funding cuts. It is not clear whether Seven West Media would qualify for the protections by running its own council but it seems unlikely.

It is also unclear if this suggestion would apply to independent journalists, who currently qualify for protection if they apply the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance Code of Ethics. While some small publishers are attracted by representation on the APC, other independent journalists or publications may not wish to join an organisation which is mostly funded by big companies.

Malcolm Turnbull, himself a banker and businessman before he was a politician, has said that he sees the media reform package as a threat to freedom. If it does pass, he will repeal the changes if an Abbott government is elected. His position is consistent with his long held position on media regulation and opposition to the government’s role in providing for the broadband network NBN. He exaggerates existing levels of media diversity and dismisses opposition to News Ltd’s bullying campaigns as evidence that people fear critique.

One wonders what he would be saying if the Opposition was subject to a sustained campaign like the one the Labor government has experienced. His position is more likely to have appeal to audiences in inner parts of Sydney and Melbourne where most independent media are focussed. Elsewhere there are few resources for on the ground reporting, and in many parts of the country little capacity for any investigation of the Coalition’s and News Ltd’s neoliberal policies. Regional and rural media are left to survive with few journalists and content that is imported from bigger media outlets elsewhere.

After two years, it is a pity that Conroy is trying to force the independents’ and Greens’ hands; they were the only ones to speak up consistently for media diversity and limitations on media power in the first place, without which there would have been no inquiries or reform proposals at all.

When the Greens and independents finally get access to the full package on Thursday, the need for some limitation on further takeovers which lead to even more concentration and cuts to journalism resources, especially outside Sydney and Melbourne, and some protection for local production, is what is at stake.

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.