The federal government last week pushed through its new cross-media ownership laws, ensuring greater concentration of media ownership and a loss of diversity in Australia's media. The following article by Christian Downie, published on Online Opinion (<http://www.onlineopinion.com.au>) provides some background to the debate over the media laws.
The government's case for removing the laws is based, at least in part, on the belief that we "are in a new age of pluralism" brought on by the rise in new media sources. According to the government and its big media allies, the internet will protect media diversity.
But as a study by the Australia Institute shows (see <http://www.tai.org.au>), despite the rising popularity of the internet, as little as 1% of Australians actually rely on non-traditional media sources for their news.
In fact, 75% of the population never or rarely access the internet for domestic news and current affairs, and of those who do, 90% rely on a small collection of websites that have a close association with traditional media providers.
Part of the reason is access. While 99% of Australians have access to at least one television, 33% of households do not have a computer and 44% do not have internet access. It is worse in the bush, where an estimated 30% of people have never accessed the internet.
Senator Coonan has hung her hat on the argument that the emergence of new players and content necessitates reform of the regulatory environment. She is strongly backed by the likes of Publishing and Broadcasting Limited and News Limited. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch has even predicted the end of the "media baron" as the internet and other technologies transform the media landscape. We could be waiting a long time.
Not only do a large proportion of people not have access to the Internet, but the vast majority of popular new media sources are controlled by the big media players. For example, the most popular internet sites in Australia for news are currently Nine MSN, and the Sydney Morning Herald site. Far from undermining the rationale for the existing cross-media regulations, the permeation of the traditional media players into new media markets, such as the internet, reinforces their value.
This should come as no surprise. News gathering is a labour-intensive process that is expensive and slow. Hence new services and delivery platforms largely extend the reach of the established media entities rather than provide a substantial new market for different players.
Many commentators point to the growth in web logs, or "blogs", as an indication of how the internet is spurring a plethora of new media sources. However, a survey of some of Australia's more prominent blogs reveals that their content is generally either sourced from traditional media or indirectly influenced by the mainstream news cycle.
Blogger Tim Blair is a case in point. He is assistant editor at the Bulletin magazine and much of the information on his site is directly sourced from the traditional media. Others such as John Quiggen, also a regular contributor to the Australian Financial Review, primarily comment on news already in the mainstream news.
There are exceptions like Crikey!, a daily subscription email service, that also posts news on its internet site. Others such as On Line Opinion, New Matilda and Australian Policy Online also provide news and a forum for dialogue in the same way blogs have done. But these sites rarely break news, and apart from Crikey!, are largely relied upon for discussion of news rather than as a source of it.
The media proprietors are the major drivers behind the decision to reform the existing rules. They stand to benefit greatly from the changes and have been pushing them for the better part of 15 years. In submissions to the 2002 Senate inquiry into media ownership, the only supporters of the proposals to axe the existing arrangements were the big media players.
Not surprisingly, the federal government has now succumbed to their pressure, forming an unholy alliance that threatens the future of media diversity in this country.
The Australian media is already heavily concentrated by OECD measures, and the government proposal would only make it worse. Removing the cross-media laws will lead to a carnivorous feast until the lions of the industry have more than a lion's share.
Media diversity will always be tied to diversity of ownership. It is time the government caught on.
[This article, slightly abridged, was written in June. For more background on the media laws debate, see Christian Downie and Andrew Macintosh's paper "New media or more of the same?" at <http://www.tai.org.au>.]