Communications minister Helen Coonan yesterday confirmed what Crikey
predicted a few weeks ago – that the government plans to water down the
media ownership laws this year.

Asked on the ABC’s Media Report
whether we can expect changes to the laws, she said: “Yes, of course. I
mean obviously there needs to be a freeing-up, and the government’s
policy on both cross media and the relaxation of restrictions on
foreign investment that affect the media specifically, will need to be
changed.”

In the extensive interview with Richard Aedy, Coonan
wouldn’t confirm the other part of Crikey’s story – that the new cross
media rules would allow companies to own two out of three media – TV,
radio and newspapers – in a market, instead of the current
one-out-of-three.

But she ran hard with the proprietors’ line
that media companies in Australia should “get an opportunity to be able
to make investments to take advantage of innovation and all of the new
ways in which media now is available, and to be able to have a very
competitive media sector,” and read from the proprietors’ briefing
sheets when she said that: “The whole media landscape has changed, and
if we’re going to have a thriving media sector and ensure that there is
diversity and choice for consumers, we’ve got to do something about
relaxing the sort of lock-step that the current media companies in
Australia are undergoing.”

Coonan also reluctantly acknowledged
the obvious – that loosening up the media rules would result in fewer
media companies, not more, when she said that the changes “might
involve some consolidation.”

And she made sure she stayed within
the Packer guidelines when asked about the possibility of a fourth
free-to-air TV channel, with this comment:

Well I think in a sense you have to also realise
that it’s an old model, the free-to-air television model, and with all
the innovation that’s now available and all the ways in which you can
get either TV, data, or TV-like services, there are some real pressures
I think, coming up for that standard free-to-air model. So whilst I
accept that certainly the industry is currently profitable, it does
provide I think a very good service for Australians, and I’d be very
reluctant to simply erode that, unless you were really guaranteeing
that consumers could get a much better range and diversity of choice
without affecting their right to get free-to-air TV, which they value.

CRIKEY: Helen Coonan can’t deny the obvious – that
watering down restrictions on cross-media ownership will result in
fewer owners and, therefore, less diversity. But with the media
proprietors’ script in front of her, she continues to push the line
that diversity will improve if Australia has a “thriving media sector.”

The flaw in the argument is that the “thriving media sector” she and
the proprietors want is a sector where media companies buy other media
companies and each own bigger slices of the existing media. But without
a public debate – which won’t happen – the government and the
proprietors will get their way, and the country with the highest
concentration of media ownership in the developed world will have even
more concentrated media ownership. Which will be great for media
company shareholders and executives, and a disaster for Australian
democracy.