Who Benefits From Deregulating The Media?


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? 

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.