Mark Day is probably the best connected
media commentator in the country, at least so far as News Ltd is concerned. He is a personal friend of the boss, John
Hartigan. Those who read his regular
column in The Australian‘sMedia section will not have been entirely surprised
to hear that News Corporation is now opposing Coonan’s plan to reform media
ownership legislation.

Way back in February, Day wrote that News
Ltd had lost enthusiasm for reform and “would not be fussed in the least
if the Prime Minister decided the whole thing wasn’t worth the effort”.

We now know he was right. There is a breach
between the members of the cosy club that has run the media in
for most of our lifetimes. Rupert apparently wants a fourth free-to-air
television network, and an end to the protection of the Nine Ten and
networks. But News Ltd surely knows
that it is next to impossible for the government to back down on its
long-standing policy of not allowing a fourth network. What Rupert is
really concerned about is the
new datacasting licences and how all the unused spectrum might be used.

Perhaps Coonan now regrets the linking of
two things which need not be linked: cross-media ownership regulation, and
incentives for the Australian population to invest in digital television

Coonan has been trying to prise some
benefits for consumers by dangling the carrot of freeing up ownership
regulation while at the same time trying to get some concessions from the
moguls on issues such as genre restrictions on the ABC and SBS, and data
casting. All this against a backdrop of
the Prime Minister having made it clear that he will not proceed unless Coonan
can get agreement from the industry players.

The linking of the two issues may now mean
that the whole house of cards falls over.
As Day said back in February, the idea of datacasting licences makes
News Ltd very nervous. The losses caused
by meeting new competition would probably outweigh any advantage from removal
of cross-media ownership regulation. Day predicted that John Howard would wait
until Coonan’s proposals went to Parliament before killing them off if the Nationals
opposed them, as they probably will.

So where will that leave us?

In the short term we should be glad that cross-media ownership regulations might stay, because of the risk of further
concentration of ownership if they were removed. But with Fairfax already
streaming video from its sites, the ability of all players to podcast, let
alone the potential of mobile telephones and IPTV, within a few years it will
be clear to everyone that laws preventing newspapers, radio and television
stations from having the same owners have become irrelevant.

Other mechanisms will be needed to protect
diversity. And those of us who are concerned about such things should hurry up
and think about what those measures should be.

Meanwhile, if it is to have any policy
credibility, the Howard government must push on with mechanisms to persuade
Australians to invest in digital television technology. Nevertheless on
Howard’s recent record, it’s not out of the question that as Mark Day predicted,
the whole programme of reform will simply be consigned to the too hard basket,
without complaint from the big players.

Which will leave us as we are for the
moment, but in a serious mess very soon.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey