It’s more than 40 years since a new TV licence was issued in Australia (excluding that strange hybrid, Foxtel). Communications Minister, Helen Coonan, had the chance to catch up with at least the Twentieth Century last week, in her “Meeting the Digital Challenge” Statement, by announcing new free-to-air and other licences for the communications industries. She failed the test.

Why? Canberra believes it owns the airwaves – not God, or Nature, or least of all, the citizens. They are owned by the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Nationals, the Department of Communications, and, last of all, by the Minister. Helen can get a piece of the action so long as she does what the PM wants.

What the Prime Minister’s Office wants is innovation and new technologies, so long as the existing free-to-air oligopoly continues, and so long as any new technologies do not offer a serious challenge to the oligopoly’s revenues. That’s how it was under Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, and Keating. And that’s how it is now.

Blocked on the big ones the new Minister made a series of other confused announcements:

  • Digital TV is mandated to be firmly in place by 2010 or 2012. But there are problems with this. To put the required set top boxes in place for the conversion would require the public to purchase four million plus boxes a year. This is pie in the electronic sky. It won’t happen, partly because many households have multiple television sets and most will want to convert only one. Making the conversion compulsory will provoke a voter revolt. There is an election due in 2010.

  • There are to be 30 or so extra specialist channels. But, there are problems here also. These channels are mandated by the PM’s Office as niche or “snack” channels to be run by two new operators, and in no way to compete with the free-to-air channels of James Packer and co. Who, then, would want to buy a licence and set up a network which could not compete for some part of the major advertising dollar? The National Ballet? The Bob Carr Bushwalkers’ Association?
  • There will be changes to the cross-media and foreign takeover restrictions. Problems arise here, too. Minister Coonan may have thought she was getting away with an injection of the free market into the system. However, under the overall restrictions, changes to the cross-media and foreigner rules may very well lead to more concentration of media ownership. Under some conditions, News could buy Seven or Ten and keep its papers. PBL could buy the Fairfax papers and keep the Nine Network. They could jointly keep their 50% interest in an expanding Foxtel.

The sharemarket is betting on consolidation and an increase in concentration. This would reduce the number of newsrooms and the range and flow of comment and opinion, which has already alarmed the smarter national MPs. Coonan’s statement also made gestures towards multichanneling and datacasting, both uncertain in scope and surrounded by restrictions. Who would want to invest in these areas when they are subject to Canberra ownership and policy direction?

One thing Canberra will not do is open up all of the spectrums to the latest technology and leave it to the market of investors, customers, providers, and inventors to sort out the myriad possibilities for information, news, entertainment, communication, and services.

In communications, transport, and so many other areas, this is not a market-oriented administration. In transport, for example, there are numerous perks and subsidies for major roads and road transport, which are not available to rail and other forms of mass transport. Road transport costs the nation about $45 billion a year in construction, maintenance, Fringe Benefits Tax concessions (the further you drive the greater the tax concession), etc. Not much more than half of this national cost is recovered in taxes and charges. The market is distorted against passenger and freight rail, and associated industries.

There are hundreds of thousands of jobs potentially available in a world-class communications sector. Jobs in design, installation, broadcast, transport, sales, distribution, research, information storage, instruction, health services, to name some. Whilst government restrictions, delays, and protection are throttling these industries, 450,000 Australian are permanently unemployed, and 600,000 seriously underemployed.

Whilst the Communications Minister, or rather the PM’s Office, was spelling out the further restrictions on entry, Rupert Murdoch told an overseas audience a different story. He said the new information and communications technologies are moving power away from the old media elite. Not in Canberra, Rupert.

Peter Fray

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