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In an age of globalisation, market deregulation and media convergence, the principles that have governed public and commercialo broadcasting in Australia are fast becoming redundant.
In an age of globalisation, market deregulation and media convergence, the principles that have governed public and commercial broadcasting in Australia are fast becoming redundant.

The rules, written and unwritten, that have kept Kerry Packer’s hands off Fairfax, stopped Rupert Murdoch from owning a television network or prevented the ABC from forming commercial partnerships were fine in a media landscape largely dominated by newspapers and free-to-air broadcasters.

However, those rules seem almost quaint in their failure to grasp the new reality that has come with the emergence of the internet.

The internet is not so much a single medium as it is an impossible to control organism.

It has the potential to mimic, and integrate with, all other mediums that have preceded it.

And, unlike those traditional mediums, it doesn’t need to rely on – better still, it can simply ignore – the sanction of sovereign governments.

State borders are all but a meaningless abstraction in cyberspace, and, as our politicians are discovering in their silly attempts to control netporn, policing content on the web is, in the main, a loser’s game.

The internet also has the potential to overtake efforts to upgrade the delivery capacity (and extend the life) of the most pervasive and heavily protected traditional medium, television.

Of course, there’s more to digital TV than enhanced images and audio. The protected licensee will be able to broadcast additional channels. And those additional channels can be used to provide inter-active services or, perhaps more significantly, as conduits for the internet. This is a rear guard ploy to retain the primacy of the TV set in the home.

The already privileged free-to-air licensee gets eight years breathing space from new competition to bankroll the upgrade to digital, and heavy restrictions are placed on new players in the digital game to ensure their product will be inferior to that offered by the traditional broadcasters. For example, digital providers will have limits placed on the amount of full-motion video they can show.

All this completely overlooks – or maybe it doesn’t – the rapid technological advances being made in the laissez-faire world of cyberspace. Already, website operators anywhere in the world can mimic what radio stations do with audio streaming.

America’s National Public Radio has no radio license in Australia but you can here its daily current affairs program, All Things Considered, simply by going to the NPR website and clicking on an audio bar. It’s also possible, now, to download full motion video from the net, albeit with limitations on the size and quality of the picture and the amount of material that can be delivered at anyone time.

However, there seems to be no limit to the advances being made in digital compression – squeezing more and more information down the line. It won’t be long before website operators will be able to pump out full-screen, full motion video to a global audience, at a fraction of what it costs traditional broadcasters to deliver pictures to a government protected, yet restricted, local market.

Anyone with a video camera, a web page and the right software – more than likely shareware downloaded free from the net – will, in time, be able to netcast to an international audience, the potential size of which Kerry Packer could never dream of commanding as long as he relies on political patronage to protect his small and shrinking pond.

To be sure, Kerry Packer is aware of all this. Hence his move into the cyber market through ecorp and ninemsn. But as he waits for those businesses to grow and turn a profit he is determined to extract as much cash flow from the sheltered TV pool, with obliging gatekeepers in Canberra keeping potential poachers at bay until a time when the pool may not be worth protecting.

Although it is slowly diminishing, TV’s audience share still makes it the most consumed of all mediums.

Kerry Packer and his fellow free-to-air licensees in television and radio have managed to get the best of both worlds: continued protection at a time when such protection is increasingly unjustified while being subjected to very little public accountability in return for that protection.

Since the Keating Government’s sweeping changes to broadcasting laws eight years ago – let us never forget Labor created this farce, the Liberals are merely maintaining it – licensees have enjoyed self-regulation, governed by codes of conduct they were allowed to write themselves.

The 2UE cash-for-comment scandal and the subsequent limp-wristed punishment meted out by the Australian Broadcasting Authority have shown us how brilliantly the system is working.

It is in this environment that ABC managing director Brian Johns has decided to get into bed with Telstra. It would be nice to oppose the deal on principle but such is the new reality that no communications provider can regard itself as an island anymore.

The new reality also includes a political dimension – a hostile government determined to undermine the ABC’s independence and reluctant to provide it with adequate cash to upgrade to digital technology, while showing no such reluctance to help commercial players.

The issue is no longer whether the ABC should or shouldn’t enter into commercial partnerships. The question, now, is how does the ABC retain its editorial independence and integrity in the process of forming and maintaining commercial relationships?

It is possible to write iron clad contracts to ensure there are adequate fire-walls to prevent commercial partners influencing the ABC’s editorial content. But on the strength of the ABC’s sorry record in dealing with outside commercial interests, it is fair to question whether Aunty possesses the management expertise to negotiate and enforce such contracts.

For all its boastful rhetoric about independence and integrity, the current ABC management has performed dismally in preventing breaches of its own conflict of interest rules. It can’t police its own staff let alone outsiders. It’s also questionable whether the current management has the hard-headed business nous to negotiate a reasonable price for the services it’s selling.

In principle, it is not inevitable that the ABC will lose its soul if it sells its content. But it is inevitable under this management.

A new managing director arrives next month. There’s hope Jonathan Shier will purge the mediocre meddlers who now dominate the executive ranks.

Only then should the ABC sign anything.

Stephen Feneley is now a freelance broadcaster in Melbourne.

Peter Fray

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