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Public interest test? How about some media policy debate in the real world

Despite the lack of a Labor media policy during the election, the new Communications – sorry, Broadband – Minister, Stephen Conroy, has spoken about establishing a public interest test for media mergers.

There are some enthusiastic adherents of a public interest test at Crikey, with Margaret Simons, Andrew Dodd and Peter Browne last Friday putting it on their media policy Christmas wish list . That’s entirely appropriate, because if you think a public interest test would add anything to our media regulatory framework, you’d believe in Santa Claus.

People like the sound of a public interest test because they can see themselves implementing it. They’re pretty sure they know what the public interest is, and which media mergers would be contrary to it – probably, as far as most Crikey readers are concerned, all of them.

Problem is, everyone else thinks exactly that, too. In fact, a public interest test is entirely subjective. It’s not like the Trade Practices Act, under which the ACCC assesses issues like “substantial lessening of competition” based on clearly-defined and objective criteria. No matter how you structure it, qualify it or identify the basis on which it must be considered, ultimately a public interest test will require an individual, or group of individuals, to make a judgement call about which media mergers should proceed and which shouldn’t.

And you can guarantee that they’ll have their own ideas about what constitutes the public interest – ideas that may or may not accord with those of the rest of us.

Who gets to make this judgement? In the absence of Solomon being reborn and agreeing to vet mergers at Rem Tribunal rates, who gets to decide what’s in the public interest? The Communications Minister? The media regulator? The ACCC? Federal and High Court judges? Almost certainly the latter, because with so much money at stake, what media proprietor wouldn’t exhaust every avenue of appeal after they’ve been knocked back?

These are just a couple of the reasons why virtually no one else in the world bothers with a public interest test for their media sector.

Simons, Dodd and Browne also made some other extravagant demands. In particular, they called for community television to be given digital spectrum, which takes us beyond Santa Claus and off with the pixies altogether. Please – community television is not “Australia’s third public broadcaster”. It is an unaccountable, unwatchable waste of bandwidth, run by amateurs and hucksters and avoided like the plague by the viewing public.

This “sector” has been gifted publicly-owned spectrum for far too long already, and the death of analog is a splendid opportunity to kill it off as well. If they want any more spectrum, let them pay a commercial rate for it to government. At least then they might be compelled to attract a wider base of support, and make programming that someone, somewhere wants to watch. There’s no danger of that under current arrangements.

Tell you what’s on my Christmas wishlist – media policy debate based in the real world, not in some academic fantasy. One can only hope that now he’s in office, Stephen Conroy shows a more realistic understanding of media policy than hitherto.

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