It seems that the
change in media ownership legislation might finally be upon us. It was announced yesterday that Communications
Minister Helen Coonan will present a submission to Federal Cabinet in the
coming weeks for major changes to Australia’s
media ownership laws, and that she hopes to have legislation before Parliament
as early as the winter session.

It would be a mistake
to think that it’s a done deal. We
have seen in the Snowy scheme turnaround
how quickly John Howard is capable of changing his mind when faced with
public opposition, particularly from the oh so sensitive regions. Coonan’s
changes to media ownership regulation still have to run the gauntlet of
National Party concerns that they will lead to a reduction in local content in rural areas.

John Howard has
indicated all along that he is not prepared to expend political capital on the
issue, so the result is still far from certain.
But it now seems most likely that the changes Coonan outlined in a discussion
paper some months ago will go ahead more or less intact, and sooner rather than

But there is still an
important piece of the jigsaw missing. Before the end of the month the head of
the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Graeme Samuel, is expected
to release guidelines on how he will regard media mergers in the wake of the
changed laws. In a speech last month he indicated that the ACCC is no longer quite as fussed about who owns the
various forms of the media, but is more interested in who controls the
content. The Australian’s Matthew Stevens gave an excellent analysis here.

Samuel has been singing this song for at
least a year. He has said that he
believes that so long as the “blood” of content flows freely, it
doesn’t matter so much who owns the arteries or pipes that bring it into the
home. But Samuel has left a lot of questions unanswered.

It is easy to understand why he sees it as
crucial to make sure that no one operator corners the rights to what he has
described as “compelling content” such as coverage of major sport,
but how does this apply to journalism, news and information? How can anyone
dominate the market in that, unless they somehow ” own” all the
journalists serving a particular population?
It’s not even clear that the “market” for news and information
can be defined in any legally robust fashion.

So what is to stop merged media
organisations from combining their newsrooms?
We return to one of the central questions of the new media age: Will
there be enough journalists? Or to stretch Samuel’s metaphor, will public life
grow anaemic?

Peter Fray

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