The
Communications Law Centre has given Crikey a sneak preview of their
report on regional media (due out early next week) titled “Content, Consolidation and Clout – How will regional
Australia be affected by media ownership changes?”


Studying the impact of possible media ownership changes on four
selected regional areas – Wollongong, Townsville, Toowoomba and
Launceston – the Law Centre concluded that the “minimum number of
players” (whereby a certain number of separate
players would need to remain in each market in order for mergers
to be permitted) test proposed by the government won’t work
as a safety net to provide an adequate level of diversity in regional
media; that the government has “underestimated” the
importance of local daily newspapers, and that the proposal doesn’t
look at the “effect of media mergers on the local news culture”.

  • …There
    could be substantial change to the media ownership arrangements in
    regional Australia if the cross-media rules are replaced by a “two-out
    of-three” rule (where a person is restricted to having control of
    two of the three types of mainstream media in the one market) or by a “minimum number of players” rule, as proposed by
    the Minister in her March 2006 discussion paper.
  • …a “two-out-of-three” rule would have no effect in protecting current
    levels of diversity in the selected markets and suggests that it would
    have little or no effect across regional Australia.
  • The “minimum number of players” test
    proposed by the government will not work
    effectively as a safety net to provide an adequate level of diversity and prevent further consolidation. In Toowoomba,
    the number of separate players could be
    reduced from eight to four; in Wollongong and Townsville, the number of separate players could be reduced
    from six to four; while in Launceston the
    reduction could be from five to four.

  • …the importance of local
    daily newspapers has been underestimated in the government’s proposal –
    and the Minister’s comments since the release of the discussion paper
    appear to confirm this … the Minister indicated in an
    interview that many regional media markets are so small and have so few
    players (that is, four or less) that the new rules would effectively
    block any mergers: “small operations right throughout Australia, about
    85% wouldn’t even come within the threshold anyway”. The implication in the Minister’s
    statement is that the changes to the cross-media rules would have an
    effect on very few regional media markets.
  • …most markets in which the cross-media rules
    prevent the local paper from merging with a local television or radio
    group will be subject to consolidation under the Minister’s proposals.
  • …the main weakness in a “minimum number of
    players” test is that by its nature it only counts the number of
    companies currently operating in any market without considering the
    corporate profiles of those companies and their operations within the
    communities they serve. It that sense … it does not look at the effect of media mergers on the local news culture.

All
of which is hardly going to boost confidence in media transparency.
According to the report, people who live in regional areas already see
media elites as part of local power elites and “readily cite cases of
revolving doors between journalism and working for local politicians or
companies.” They are also “very aware of the potential for corruption”
that this creates.

They value ABC local radio as a “credible alternative to the journalism of the daily paper”.

But the government “evidently faces demands from a few,
already-powerful corporations,” says the report. If media ownership
becomes “even more driven by corporate values, as is to be expected
from any deregulation, this will further erode these public spheres.”

And “in the markets we have examined it is clear that some mergers would result in a
profound disruption to the news culture of
those communities.”

Peter Fray

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