Those hanging out to know what is going to
happen to our media as a result of the Federal Government’s reform plans are
going to have to hold their breath another 24 hours at least, until the detail
of exactly what Cabinet agreed to yesterday is released. Without this detail the announcement that
Coonan got her package through yesterday is almost meaningless.

There are two parts to the package. On the one hand there is cross media
ownership reform, and on the other the digital action plan, aimed at pushing
the public and the vested interests of the media club into the new media age.

The digital action plan has to go ahead
and has never really been in doubt. It
was never likely that the government would reverse years of policy and adopt
Rupert Murdoch’s suggestion of a fourth television network and an instant “all
bets are off” approach to broadcasting regulation. Under Coonan’s package, nothing much will
happen soon, other than a couple of new datacasting licences. Everything else is delayed until analogue
signals switch off between 2010 and 2012.

Without radical changes to long-standing
policy, there was no real alternative to Coonan’s conservative and
steady-as-she-goes approach to persuading Australian consumers to invest in
digital technology. Some form of digital
action plan is essential. Anything else
would be the equivalent of opting for the telegraph rather than the telephone
as a method of communication.

So the only part of the policy that is
truly up for grabs is that relating to cross media and foreign ownership
regulation. Coonan has already signalled that the government may take the
face-saving option of delaying lifting cross media ownership regulation until
the analogue switch off, rather than doing it next year as some anticipated. Given all the changes that will happen in
politics and media between now and 2010, this delay tactic is almost as good as
canning the whole thing. All the issues
will have to be revisited in any case.

Before we can assess the package that has
made its way past Cabinet we need to know the following: the analogue switch-off date – 2010 or 2012? Cross media
ownership regulation: changes next year, or not until the analogue switch-off? How is the government going to define
datacasting? Will the new services be attractive,
or so hobbled by regulation that they will make little real difference to the
media landscape? And who will get the
licences?

Those concerned with diversity of media
ownership should be pushing for a broad definition of datacasting, the earliest
possible introduction of multichannelling, and a fourth television
network. We will have to get over the
shock of finding ourselves in agreement with Rupert Murdoch on these issues!

Finally, we need to know the attitude of the
head of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Graeme Samuel, who is
meant to be coming up with guidelines on how he will regard markets for
advertising, news and information once cross media ownership laws are
liberalised. My information is that as
little as two weeks ago, Samuel still considered the whole issue to be very
much “up in the air”. This
lends force to the view that nothing much will happen on this front for at
least another four years.

Peter Fray

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