Howard hands media moguls more power

October 14, 2006

Australia has the most concentrated media ownership in the Western world. Nonetheless, the new media bill passed by the Senate on October 12 will further relax ownership regulation and allow the media barons to operate in two out of three media sectors — print, radio and television.

While some National Party MPs kicked up a fracas about protecting local content, what is really at stake in the proposed changes is the pecking order of the main companies that control Australia's $12 billion media industry.

National Party Senator Barnaby Joyce threatened to cross the floor and vote against the bill unless the Coalition agreed to add in that local content be guaranteed, especially on regional radio. A related demand was to curtail foreign ownership of media enterprises.

Regional radio operators were furious about the Nationals' amendments. As Tim Hughes, executive chairperson of Macquarie Regional Radioworks, told the October 12 Australian, "Seventy per cent of our 86 stations are FM music stations. Their audiences don't give a shit about politics, and want as little news as possible. Yet they treat us as a political football to be kicked around so Barnaby Joyce can put himself on air to talk all day."

However, Packer Broadcasting Limited's James Packer (with investments primarily in capital city print and television) stood by the government. "It's been incredibly difficult to reach consensus amongst all of the different, both industry and political, constituents ... On the whole, we think the government has done the right thing and are positive about it", he said.

But as communications minister Helen Coonan reminded the Senate, "There is no point at all in legislating local content levels if licensees go out of business in trying to meet them. We are going to try to get this balance right."

The "balance" Coonan was referring to was, in fact, a major escape clause. The proposal in the bill relating to a 12.5-minute daily minimum of local news will come into effect only if there is a merger in a regional radio market. Research cited by the Australian suggests that this possibility exists in only 18 of the 130 or so regional markets nationally.

While Macquarie Regional Radio has threatened to close at least 10 of its regional stations as a result of these regulations, the trend to syndicated content, in both print and electronic media, is certain to proceed unabated. And the downsizing of outlets will continue regardless of any content formulation.

As the ABC Radio's Media Report reminded its listeners: "The reality on the ground is that there isn't much media diversity in the first place [and] that media diversity in a place like Toowoomba has been eroding over time." When the bill becomes law, there is likely to be a flurry of takeovers as the media barons press their advantage.

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