Crikey editor Misha Ketchell writes:

Cross-media rules with the potential to create “mini-moguls” in
rural areas will be substantially amended or possibly scrapped in the
face of mounting opposition from Coalition backbenchers – both
Liberal and National – and at least two Ministers so far, according to
National MP Paul Neville.

Neville, the chair of the Coalition backbench communications committee,
told Crikey this morning that over the past week Coalition MPs had been
queuing
up to have their names added to the list of those opposing the proposed
consolidation of media ownership – all the Nats plus several Libs including Warren Entsch, Barry
Wakelin and Jackie Kelly – and he’s also had significant
behind-the-scenes endorsement from two
cabinet members.

He said the last time consolidation of media ownership was proposed, under former minister Richard Alston, seven
MPs in a row stood up to speak against the idea, after which the Prime
Minister threw his hands up in the air and said he got the message and
the plans would be scrapped.

“We’re just as serious this time,” he said. “What we want to try to
achieve in regional Australia is greater diversity, not just diversity
of ownership but diversity of programming. The second thing is
competition.
Competition for programming and competition in creating choices for
advertisers.
The third thing is the need for there to be localism and local news.
There’s been a
trend over the past decade to dumb down regional radio to the point
where some
parts of Australia
just get a generic program.”

“The whole idea of deregulation and competition policy is to create a
more
competitive environment to the benefit of the community be they
advertisers or listeners/viewers,” he said. “If you develop a system
that ends up creating more
concentration of media, or even if you go so far as to create a near
monopolist, you’ve defeated the whole purpose of the changes.”

Neville said one lobbyist had recently told him that “the next
era of media is the consolidation of regional news” and “there’s an
element that would like to see a super newsroom with an editor-in-chief, camera
and recording equipment and two of the mediums ripping and reading from the third.”

He said he would push Senator Coonan to drop rules that would allow a minimum of four players in rural areas
and five players in metropolitan centres – and failing that he would
push for restrictions to ensure proprietors at the very least kept
separate newsrooms. And he wants the Minister to have the authority to create a new
licence where localism and diversity fails. “To have economic rationalism in the form of consolidation
for consolidation’s sake is obscene,” he said.

Neville also attacked the ABA for being “asleep at wheel” over the
past ten years
and said there were glaring examples of poor quality news services in
regional areas, including stations where local emergencies couldn’t be
covered because no one could be found to open the newsroom, poor
coverage of the Canberra bushfires and the recent example of John Laws
being broadcast on delay into Innisfail as Cyclone Larry was about to
wreak havoc.

If the changes went ahead there would “inevitably” be closure of
regional newsrooms based on cost, Neville said. “What I find
extraordinary, is that when a new licence goes
up for sale, we get someone paying $10 to $15 million for a country
outlet” but what follows is that new players have to “drop news bulletins and cut costs”.

Peter Fray

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