11 Mar 2014

Who Benefits From Deregulating The Media?

By Ben Eltham

Malcolm Turnbull wants to remove cross-media ownership restrictions, the only thing holding back the monopolisation of the whole market by a few companies, writes Ben Eltham

Communication Minister Malcolm Turnbull wants to deregulate Australia’s media laws.

In a series of speeches and comments made this week, Turnbull has signalled he would like to roll back the Keating-era cross-media ownership restrictions, which prevent any one proprietor from owning radio, print and television outlets in a single market.

Also potentially up for grabs is the so-called “75 per cent” rule, which prevents a single TV network from reaching more than three-quarters of the Australian population.

"Why do we have a rule that prevents one of the national networks acquiring 100 per cent coverage, why is there a rule that says today that you can't own print, television and radio in the same market?” Turnbull told Sky News. “Shouldn't that just be a matter for the ACCC?”

Turnbull thinks that the internet is making old legislation tied to media technologies irrelevant. “We’ve got this dramatic transformation; the media scene is so much more diverse, so much more competitive. Are these old rules that applied to a pre-internet age?” he asked this week.

What would deregulation mean, for Australia’s media, and for our democracy?

Firstly, on the policy, we don’t have the final proposals yet. But it seems reasonably clear that a deregulatory policy would allow further media consolidation – for instance by allowing News Corporation, Australia’s dominant print newspaper player, to purchase the Ten Network.

It might also allow Seven and Nine to buy up regional television broadcasters, giving them ownership in all the key Australian capital city markets. Another possibility is for Lachlan Murdoch to sell his radio assets to his father’s News Corporation, giving News a bigger stake in both broadcasting and television.

In other words, we’d see another round of media consolidation, and a further weakening of diversity in the Australian mediascape.

Australia already has one of the most concentrated media sectors in the industrialised world. Would further consolidation be good for Australian democracy?

If we look back at the Rudd-Gillard governments’ attempts at media reform, the answers are fairly clear. Big media organisations have a lot of influence on the way politics is reported, and on the perception of politicians and governments. Australia’s media proprietors have repeatedly shown they have no compunction in using their media assets to influence voters and intimidate politicians for their own financial and political goals.

The sorry fate of media reforms under the previous government is a graphic demonstration. Under Stephen Conroy, Labor attempted to modestly reform Australian media regulations, to ensure better standards of accuracy and fairness, and also to reform outdated regulatory structures for the internet age. Conroy failed, miserably.

How did it happen? Cast your mind back to two key inquiries into media reform conducted by Conroy.

The Convergence Review, chaired by IBM executive and Screen Australia chair Glen Boreham, was tasked with a broad ambit, including, to quote its final report, “media ownership laws, media content standards, the ongoing production and distribution of Australian and local content, and the allocation of radio communications spectrum.”

Its final recommendations were a set of mild media reforms, of which perhaps the most significant was the idea of “technology-neutral” regulation. Had it been adopted, this might have paved the way for the eventual regulation of large internet companies like Google and Facebook under Australian media law – potentially implying local content obligations by those companies.

The Independent Media Inquiry was announced while the Convergence Review was still being completed. Chaired by QC Ray Finkelstein, the Inquiry, opportunistically called in the wake of the Milly Dowler-phone hacking scandal that engulfed News Corporation’s British tabloids, was established with the intention of investigating media codes of practice, and the impact of the internet on the media’s ability to fulfil key functions of democratic scrutiny.

Finkelstein’s eventual recommendations were hardly revolutionary. Press standards were to be modestly beefed up, with a slightly more muscular Press Council, which would still of course represent media self-regulation. A public interest test for media mergers was also proposed, policed by a “public interest media advocate”, who would arbitrate on such tricky matters.

Media policy experts generally considered them timid. Deakin University’s Martin Hirst called them “mild” and “diluted”, while QUT’s Terry Flew called Conroy’s package “very cautious, and in many ways piecemeal.”

How many of these recommendations actually made it into legislation? Almost none. In responding to the entirely moderate proposals put forward by the Finkelstein report, Conroy watered them down still further, perhaps assuming that such a modest set of reforms would excite little opposition.

Conroy badly misread the situation. The media’s reaction was savage, and Conroy’s bumbling ensured that the proposals could not even win the support of the Labor party room. The Convergence recommendations met a similar fate.

Of the suite of recommendations proposed by Boreham and his colleagues, only the most politically timid were eventually passed into law: minor changes to the ABC and SBS charters, watered down local content provisions, and a massive freebie to the television broadcasters in the form of a permanent 50 per cent reduction in their license fees.

This last provision, which is amongst the worst pieces of public policy of the entire Rudd-Gillard administration, was of course wildly popular with the Seven, Nine and Ten networks.

The upshot is that Labor achieved almost nothing on media policy in its six years in office. Despite all the pain suffered as the News Corporation tabloids assailed Labor over its totalitarian intentions, Conroy’s half-hearted attempt to examine media standards and legislate for a technologically-converged mediascape went nowhere. It’s hard not to agree with Chris Berg – albeit for different reasons – who in 2011 called the whole thing a “complete, spectacular failure.”

As a result, Labor’s efforts at media reform did little but reinforce the entrenched hostility by the media to any reform proposals of any kind – unless of course those proposals would favour the big players.

And that’s exactly where we’ve ended up. As Katherine Murphy argued persuasively in the Guardian yesterday, the likely winners from Turnbull’s musings on media deregulation are obvious.

“The changes flagged by Turnbull over the weekend won’t actually benefit the upstarts and the disrupters,” Murphy wrote. “They benefit the incumbents, and potentially at least, the biggest, most politically influential incumbent of them all, News Corp.”

And which media organisation was the biggest supporter of the Coalition in the 2013 election campaign? 

Log in or register to post comments

Discuss this article

To control your subscriptions to discussions you participate in go to your Account Settings preferences and click the Subscriptions tab.

Enter your comments here

This user is a New Matilda supporter. Venise Alstergren
Posted Tuesday, March 11, 2014 - 15:12

Apart from News Corp being given carte blanche to further control Australia's media, it would be fair to say that Malcolm Turnbull is being disingenious to an amazing degree.

Let me spell it out for you Malcolm Turnbull. The reason Rupert Murdoch wants to own the whole of Oz media is that 99.99 percent of the media tycoon's readership is composed of blue collar workers, rural wives,  and the little old people who listen to Australia's shock jocks. In short, they are the least educated section of the electorate; the least interested in reading real news; and the least likely to check out the accuracy of Murdoch's toy boys/girls masquerading as journalists.

If anyone is inclined to  believe Malcolm Turnbull's reasoning on the cross-ownership of the media laws they should remember the Godwin Greech and 'the utegate' scandal' which were yet another of Turnbull's fabrications.

The thing that disturbs politicians like Turnbull is the better educated members of the electorate can access on-line newspapers enabling them to select the newssheets of their own choosing. News outlets which may, shock, horror dismay, contain articles not favourable to the government of the day.

Posted Tuesday, March 11, 2014 - 15:40

This is all about foreign and corporate ownership of the very hearts and minds of Australians who live in a country that has become a Murdochracy, Lobbyocracy and Corporatocracy in which Big Money buys people, politicians, parties, polices, public perception of reality and political power.

School teachers, academics, child carers, nurses, doctors, parmedics, all workers, emergency workers, farmers, trade unionists, climate change activists, human rights activists, humanitarians, retirees, students, decent MPs et c etc  should all - variously individually and collectively, - urge and apply a boycott of Murdoch media (see "Boycott Murdoch Media":https://sites.google.com/site/boycottmurdochmedia/ ). .

It is bad enough that about half the population are functionally illterate and functionally inumerate (see (see section 3.1 in Josh Fear, “Choice overload. Australians coping with financial decisions”. The Australia Institute, Discussion paper 99: http://www.tai.org.au/documents/dp_fulltext/DP99.pdf and  "Educational Apartheid": https://sites.google.com/site/educationalapartheid/ ) without them also being brainwashed  by pro-war, pro-Zionist , climate change denialist, US lackey, US-owned Mainstream media.

Of course this corporatist perversion extends beyond the presstitutes of the Murdoch media , the Tell-'ee, the Herald Scum, The Strine etc that simply dominate one appalling boundary of Mainstream media perversion. For details of media-derived  censorship  by the global Murdoch media empire, Australian Fairfax media, the Australian ABC, the UK BBC,  and the Australian universities-backed web magazine The Conversation in Neocon American- and Zionist Imperialist-perverted and subverted Murdochracy, Lobbyocracy and Corporatocracy Australia and elsewhere in the West see “Boycott Murdoch media”: https://sites.google.com/site/boycottmurdochmedia/  ; “Censorship by the BBC”: https://sites.google.com/site/censorshipbythebbc/  ; “Censorship by The Conversation”: https://sites.google.com/site/mainstreammediacensorship/censorship-by  ; “Mainstream media censorship”: https://sites.google.com/site/mainstreammediacensorship/home  ; “Mainstream media lying”: https://sites.google.com/site/mainstreammedialying/  ; “Censorship by The Age”: https://sites.google.com/site/mainstreammediacensorship/censorship-by-the-age ; “Censorship by ABC Late Night Live”: https://sites.google.com/site/censorshipbyabclatenightlive/  , "Censorship by ABC Saturday Extra": https://sites.google.com/site/censorshipbyabclatenightlive/censorship-by-abc-sat and “ABC fact-checking unit & incorrect reportage by the ABC (Australia’s BBC)”: https://sites.google.com/site/mainstreammediacensorship/abc-fact-checking-unit .

Gordon Comisari
Posted Tuesday, March 11, 2014 - 15:54

Quid pro quo. This is totally understandable. The election result was delivered on a plate. Promises were made. Now it is payback time.
Deliver the Foxtel/Telstra fraudband network and do anything possible to assist the big end of town, or else. Power and profit, that is the name of the game.
It is not that the voters hadn't been warned. They just didn't get it or couln't care less! Some have to learn it the hard way I guess. Let us all hope the damage being done right now can be reversed, at least to some extent! What a shambles!

David Ashton
Posted Tuesday, March 11, 2014 - 16:06

Ultimately the Liberal party would benefit, because Rupert would control most of the media and he will direct the content to favour them.

If Abbott and Co manage to destroy the ABC he would also control most of that.

So any moves undermining our rights and interests would go largely unnoticed.