New push for media deregulation
by Bob Briton The votes of four independent Senators could now be all that stands between the Howard Government and its goal of the effective scrapping of Australia's cross-media and foreign media ownership restrictions. The passing of the Government's legislation would open the door to foreign ownership and an even higher level of monopolisation than at present. In May or June this year Federal Communications Minister Richard Alston will know whether he has done enough to sell his latest re-jig of legislation designed to enhance monopoly domination of Australia's media. It will then be down to former Democrat leader Meg Lees, Tasmania's Brian Harradine and Shayne Murphy and the Federal Parliament's only One Nation member (though without party status) Len Harris to deliver the coup. They will have to decide whether the Government's proposed "two out of three" formula will be applied. Under this scheme, owners of TV stations, for example, could own a newspaper or radio group in a market, as well. Present rules prevent such an encroachment of owners of one type of media into another type. The principle will be followed with regional media, also. Media owners would then be able to control two (but only two) of the three main media — print, radio and TV. Current restrictions over media ownership would then lapse. However, even under the new regime, media barons would need to limit themselves to owning only one TV station or two radio stations per market. Meg Lees is said to be favourably inclined to the "shake-up" if the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is given a role in the media market. Len Harris is reported to be thinking the same way. It must be noted that the ACCC is far from deserving of such trust. Its role (alongside other authorities) in the deregulation of electricity in the eastern states of Australia has led to the market becoming an endless feast for bloated local and overseas corporations. Shayne Murphy has mentioned a "two out of four" alternative to the government's model. He argues that pay TV should be added to the list of media. The government, Murdoch and Packer are all bitterly opposed to this formula. It would require Murdoch's News Limited and Packer's PBL to divest themselves of their interests in pay TV's Foxtel if they had their hearts set on extending their reach in the big metropolitan markets. This would definitely NOT be according to script. The smaller Seven Network and its media tycoon, Kerry Stokes, are expected to support the "two out of four" idea and vigorously oppose the current legislation. Being smaller operators and not having a place in the cosy pay TV club, they stand to be the big losers out of the proposed changes. In the flurry of takeovers that would follow the Federal Government's changes, Seven could fall prey to News Limited, for example. Expect Seven to campaign hard, though a little disingenuously, for diversity and independence in the Australian media during the coming months. John Fairfax Holdings (owners of The Sydney Morning Herald) are also likely to be swallowed by one of the other major media operators. However, for some time they have also been advocates of "enfettered" competition in the industry. Fred Hilmer, current Fairfax head — and architect of the Federal Government's National Competition Policy — was reported as long ago as 1999 as being unperturbed by the possibility of deregulation. Hilmer put it this way when similar changes to the current ones were mooted: "It would clearly improve shareholder value if we lifted those rules because we would have a chance to buy people, people would have a chance to buy us and there would be jockeying for positions in the oligopoly." That really says it all. The forces currently dominating the Australian media will "jockey for position" — positions actually strengthened by access to outside sources of capital previously declared out of bounds. Whatever the outcome of that jockeying, the Australian media, already one of the most monopolised of any industrialised country, stands to become even more concentrated. The only major media outlets left would .be public radio and TV — both of which are on the government's agenda for privatisation and possible foreign ownership under the WTO's General Agreement on Trade in Services and in the government's much hoped-for Free Trade Agreement with the US.