Former Telstra CEO Ziggy Switkowski resurfaced publicly today for the
first time since he was shoved aside to make way for Sol Trujillo on
June 30. The nuclear physicist delivered a fascinating speech on media reform to the National
Press Club which you can pick up live on ABC Television between 1-2pm
if you’ve got time.

Without a commercial barrow to push, Ziggy is uniquely and
independently placed to comment and he opened with an attack on the
government’s failure to act in the best interest of “the public” by
instead allowing the media moguls to try and agree on a set of media law changes.

“While her (Coonan’s) proposals were constructive, the
qualification that practical progress required media industry consensus meant,
to me, that the proposed changes inevitably belonged to a minimalist model
anchored by legacy obligations and interests,” Ziggy said.

“The main point I want to make here today
is that the key policy decision must be to set and enforce an early date for
total conversion to digital broadcasting – no later than January, 2009 – and
that all other media law changes pivot around that date. I say this because I am convinced that
we stand at the threshold of an era of proliferation of content, platforms,
services etc that will benefit the Australian community particularly if it is
encouraged by light handed regulation within an all digital environment.”

Ziggy painted a stark picture of the wrenching changes we’ve seen over
the past decade and laid out what he’d like to see by 2015. As to the
present, he pointed out that “nine out of ten Australians own a mobile phone which
is rapidly becoming the communications weapon of choice. Emails outnumber phone calls by 10 to 1 and wireless
text messages, SMS, are now approaching the volume of local telephone calls and
will overtake them shortly.”

Rupert Murdoch might think he is infallible but Ziggy doesn’t see him
or Kerry Packer on the scene in 2015 when he predicts that “every one
of today’s media companies will be
headed by a new generation of leaders.”

“These leaders are unlikely to have the authority,
power and single-minded focus of today’s media moguls, and all will be
increasingly subordinate to broader shareholder interests and less able or
inclined to use media properties as trophy assets or to assert private agendas.”

Ziggy laid out a desire to see a complete free for all with a fourth
network, no anti-siphoning lists to protect the likes of Kerry Packer,
multi-channelling, unlimited foreign investment and government
subsidised digital set-top boxes into the home, complete with lucrative
spectrum sales for new digital TV licences.

He’s not even worried about
cross-media restrictions, albeit with a caveat: “providing it is part of a package that permits the
issue of new broadcast licences to diversify the range of content and opinion
available to Australian consumers.”

All up, it is a fascinating and far-sighted contribution from the man the
Howard Government hand-picked to run Telstra for seven years. Sadly,
the cynicism of politics will probably see bipartisan support for
Australia’s two richest and most powerful families, the Packers and the
Murdochs, as they lean on the government to only produce minimalist
changes that maximise their wealth and power – to the detriment of the
broader public, as Ziggy so eloquently points out today.