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May 18, 2005

Media law changes – don't read all about it

We're hearing a lot about one of the biggest bangs the government has planned for when it has control of the Senate – industrial relations reforms. But what about the other big 'un

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We’re
hearing a lot about one of the biggest bangs the government has planned
for when it has control of the Senate – industrial relations reforms.
But what about the other big ‘un – cross-media ownership?

While
very little is being said about the government’s media agenda, Crikey
spies lurking in the corridors of power understand that Communications
Minister Helen Coonan is telling people she’ll have the rules changed
by Christmas.

What’s planned? Well, before we get on to that,
controversy number one. Our spies tell us that Coonan doesn’t intend to
have any formal process for public input into her position paper.
That’s odd – and unwelcome. Everybody uses the media. The prime
minister has been at pains to say that the government will not be
arrogant after 1 July. Will he have to step in here and guarantee at
least a token consultation?

Token, because there’s a fair amount
of detail about the media changes already down on paper. Crikey
understands that under the Coonan plan, proprietors will be able to own
two out of three main media – newspapers, radio or TV – in a market, an
increase of one.

We understand that the plan has ignored calls
from Seven to include pay TV in the main media definition. Kerry Stokes
wanted it included to ensure that News Limited couldn’t get into
free-to-air TV without selling its newspapers. Crikey narks tell us
that Seven is now privately acknowledging that it has failed to win
government support for its proposals on pay TV and, significantly for
media choice, a further bid for multi-channelling on free-to-air TV.

Foreign
ownership restrictions are to go – surprise, surprise – and there are
special plans for SBS. The government now sees SBS as the place to park
low-rating sports programming. Some $4.7 million was allocated in the
Budget for SBS to buy the sports rights. Remember the Ashes deal announced in March, giving SBS the free-to-air rights to this year’s series? Our spies say the PM personally acted there.

The ACCC will still be there to act as umpire, but this all puts Graeme Samuel’s recent Deakin University Law School Oration – “Cartels, media and telecommunications: the rapidly changing face of Australian competition regulation” – in a new light.

And the final wash up? Well, little Kerry has been ignored, but we
hear that the government told News and PBL that there wouldn’t be any
changes unless they could come to an agreement about what they wanted.
Private deals, it appears, are OK, while public brawling looks unseemly.

They
seem to have settled and the changes are going ahead – with just one
fascinating matter unresolved. There’s talk that the Packers would like
to sell Nine. Who might end up owning it under this new regime? News
Limited or some other foreign company?

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