There is too much muddy thinking about
Helen Coonan’s media reforms, and what John Howard may have meant when he
apparently contradicted her on the timetable for legislation.

Coonan’s media reforms have always included
two components: cross-media ownership regulation on the one hand, and measures
designed to take Australia into the digital broadcasting age on the other.

There is no reason why the two have to be
linked. All that is happening now is
that they are coming uncoupled. Cross-media ownership reform is being effectively dropped by putting it off until it
becomes irrelevant. Meanwhile the
digital action plan will sail on its slow and stately way.

The reason these two quite separate areas
of policy were presented in one package is that Coonan hoped to horse trade. The idea was to offer the media
moguls the benefits of lifting cross media ownership restrictions in return for
them being reasonable about accepting competition from new media.

The horse trading has failed. The moguls do not agree, and can in any case
see that cross-media ownership regulation has ceased to be as important as it
once was. The technology is overtaking
the regulations.

Coonan’s discussion paper included a
face-saving “out” by nominating two dates for the liberalising of
media ownership regulations: next year, and when the analog television signal
is switched off between 2010 and 2012.

She is now likely to plumb for the second
option. By 2010 Fairfax and News Ltd will be involved in television delivered over the internet,
which will make redundant regulations prohibiting them from having a
broadcasting licence. All media
organisations are likely to be providing podcasts and audio streamed over the internet. So they will be a lot less
fuss about regulations that prohibit them from owning a radio station. And so on.

For those of us concerned about media
diversity, this delay in lifting cross media ownership regulations is probably
a good outcome, if for bad reasons. It gives us some breathing space and time
to think about how to make the most of new media opportunities. But the tragedy is that the “as you
were” option probably means that nobody will be giving any thought as to
how media diversity is to be protected in the future. A new approach is needed which is not based
on the medium, but rather on the generation and ownership of content.

Meanwhile the second part of Coonan’s
package, the digital action plan, must go ahead, and I suspect there will
indeed be some legislation very soon.

This doesn’t mean a tsunami of change
any time in the next few months. The only
things that Coonan proposed to happen next year were the lifting of genre
restrictions on the public broadcasters, and the granting of two new
datacasting licences. Everything else – multichannelling, the possibility of a fourth television network and so forth,
isn’t due until 2010 at the earliest.

So what does it mean when Coonan and Howard
apparently disagree on the timetable? Not
much. Quite possibly Howard is thinking
of cross media ownership legislation, and Coonan is thinking of the digital
action plan.

Minimal face has been lost. And if we’re not careful, innovative thinking
about protection of media diversity will be put off until it is too late.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey