In relation to plans to relax cross-media ownership
restrictions, it is worth recalling that the Norris inquiry set up by the Hamer
Liberal government in Victoria in 1980 offered a mechanism to deal with
concentration of print media ownership at a state level and allowed for some
consideration of cross-media ownership.

There was little questioning of the constitutional
validity of Sir John Norris’s recommendation, which was to set up an independent
authority that would scrutinise transactions leading to further concentration of
ownership and control of newspapers in Victoria to see if they were in the
public interest. Those not passing the various tests would be deemed
void.

At the same time, Norris recognised that it might
be in the public interest for some transactions to go ahead notwithstanding the
fact that they would lead to further concentration of print media ownership. For
example, the authority might grant consent if “the purchaser has no significant
interests in press, broadcasting or television in the same region as that of the
paper to be acquired” (see page 201 of the inquiry into the ownership and control of
newspapers in Victoria).

Under
the Norris recommendations, transactions likely to increase cross-media
ownership would of course not come before an authority – the
states do not have power in relation to broadcast media and can only
regulate print media ownership if they so choose (which they generally
don’t). But the Norris approach does allow that a state, in regulating
print media ownership, can give consideration to the cross-media
holdings of a prospective newspaper buyer.

The likely impact of this “consent criterion” was
never publicly explored, but one can see it achieving some of the goals of cross-media ownership restrictions. The Norris
recommendations were never put into practice and thus were never legally
challenged.

If federal Labor is seriously concerned about
stopping further concentration of print media ownership, it arguably could
achieve much of this goal by encouraging the two major states to set up
newspaper merger authorities. Were these tribunals to employ Norris’s cross
media “consent criterion”, this would impose some restriction on cross-media
ownership as well.

Not perfect, but all quite achievable … if Labor
is serious.

Peter Fray

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