Margaret Simons, Andrew Dodd and Peter Browne write:|
Dec 14, 2007 12:00AM |EMAIL|PRINT
Dear Senator Conroy,
Christmas cards are such a bore, and Crikey doesnâ€™t seem to be on your list in any case. Nevertheless those of us who write about media for this gossip sheet feel a deep and doubtless unrequited need to be in touch with you as you approach the festive season burdened with your new responsibilities for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy.
You see, we have some advice. Or perhaps it would be better described as a Christmas wish list. We were disappointed that you didnâ€™t release a media policy before the election. True, it might be seen as a no-win area of policy, but from early last year you did promise, and promise, and promise, that we would get a policy. What happened? I guess you are no Santa, though calling you a DalekÂ seems a little unkind. Anyway, whether or not we have been good this year, we thought we might as well send our wish list up the intertubes.
You agreed with us when the Howard Government passed its laws allowing the flurry of ownership changes. On 17 October last year you said the passage of the laws was “a disastrous day for our democracy,” and a “betrayal of the Australian people”.
But you have also said that it is too late to unscramble the omelette. Senator, you may be right, but canâ€™t we at least stop too many more eggs from being cracked?
The rump of the Packer empire may be up for grabs. Well-connected commentators like Mark Day have said that it would be a “no brainer” for News Limited, or Telstra, to take it over. Senator, please donâ€™t let this happen. It would spoil a lot of Christmases to come.
And please follow through on your promise to introduce a national interest test into the Trade Practices Act relating to media mergers. As you have said, itâ€™s long overdue. And we agree with you: it probably isnâ€™t enough. What do you intend to do in this area?
Now, we should talk about Telstra. They were getting so cosy with you in the lead-up to the election that Crikey thought you might have done a deal. Going by the rhetoric of recent weeks, we were wrong. Telstra donâ€™t seem to be too concerned about staying on your Christmas card list either. Meanwhile you have flagged that tenders will go out for the new Broadband network by July. It really isnâ€™t clear to us how you plan to navigate all this, with Telstra so bolshie, holding so many of the cards and so willing to run to the courts.
Nothing about this is easy. We understand that, and we wish you well. Itâ€™s clear that Telstra should not have been privatised without a means of ensuring the infrastructure was held separately from the retail business. This was an enormous failure by your predecessors. Itâ€™s another omelette, but on our wish list would be the hope that you can unscramble this particular dish, and cut a deal that keeps Telstra in check before it becomes a power the like of which we have never seen before â€“ bigger and more powerful in this country than Rupert, and even more aggressive and ruthless. Please, Santa. Please.
You will of course be getting to grips with Digital Broadcasting, and we are not the only ones giving you advice here. We are really hoping that you will show the vision your predecessors lacked, drop all the datacasting nonsense and move fast to an analogue switch off date, letting as many digital flowers as possible bloom in the new era of comparative spectrum plenty. Yes, a fourth commercialÂ television network would be nice for Christmas, but why stop at four?
For some time various commentators, (Alex Encel was the first) have been asking why the Government doesnâ€™t just give out free digital set top boxes and move quickly to analogue switch off. Maybe there are good reasons for not doing this, but your predecessor Senator Helen Coonan was never able to say what they were. Weâ€™d like to see you at least consider the prospect, and if it isnâ€™t feasible, please can we have a New Year message telling us why not.
While weâ€™re on digital broadcasting, we hope you donâ€™t forget community and Indigenous television. Please can they have in their Christmas stocking a full 7MHZ digital channel, with a stipulation that it carry local community television in each market area free of charge? Please donâ€™t let communityÂ TV fade out with the death of analogue, or get hidden away into the backblogs of the Foxtel offerings. Community television and radio is Australiaâ€™s third public broadcaster. Any Minister who is concerned with diversity should not ignore it. And while weâ€™re at it, what about some better funding arrangements for Remote Indigenous Media Organisations, where local video training and production are presently in a dire position? A nice Christmas present that would please and help a lot of people â€“ and not too expensive.
And of course there is the ABC. Crikey has had enough to say about Board appointments in the last few weeks. We hope you can get that arm’s length appointment process going early in the new year.
But even more important is funding. In our Christmas stocking, could we please have a copy of the KPMG report on ABC funding that the last Government commissioned, then refused to release. That should kickstart debate. And then can you commit to the new digital childrenâ€™s channel, and the regional studios that the previous Government promised before the election?
Then we would like you to depoliticise ABC funding by referring it to a select parliamentary committee. Hereâ€™s another idea. What about setting future ABC funding at a set proportion of the federal budget? Of course, the legislation to lock in that funding formula could be changed by a future government, but the difference would be that the decision to cut funds would beÂ debated in parliament, rather than decided in cabinet. The ABC is special, Senator â€“ a public asset like no other. Please take care of it.
Well, weâ€™ve gone on too long. You will of course be hearing from us in the New Year, and we hope we will be hearing from you. As you can see, weâ€™d still like a media policy in our Christmas stocking.
Is it too late to hope?
Margaret Simons, Andrew Dodd and Peter Browne
(Additional ideas from Professor Julian Thomas and Dr Ellie Rennie of the Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University of Technology.)