National Party MP Paul Neville, the man most likely to determine the fate of Helen
Coonan’s media reform package, will be “networking” with his
colleagues at the party’s national conference later this week with a view
to getting big changes.

Neville,
presently on holiday in Europe, told
Crikey yesterday that he would be pushing for Australia’s 18 to 20
large provincial cities be treated in a category of their own. Under Coonan’s proposal, the number of media
owners in regional areas could be reduced to four “voices”. In many large regional centres that might
mean mergers between radio, television and newspaper organisations, with one
newsroom serving all mediums.

But Neville,
who chairs the Coalition’s backbencher communications committee, wants media
proprietors in regional cities to be limited to owning no more than two kinds
of media outlets: radio and television, but not newspapers; newspapers and
radio but not television and so on. This
should be in addition to the four “voices” rule, he said.

“We
also need to pay attention to what constitutes a local ‘voice’. Are
we talking local newsrooms, or will a program made in Sydney but used on
a local station count as a voice?” he said

Neville said
he thought delaying the lifting of cross-media ownership regulations
until the analogue signal is switched off in 2012 would be “too late”,
but on
the other hand nothing should be rushed.

Neville
supports the Digital Action Plan part of Coonan’s package. He said he understood the new
“datacasting” licences to be awarded next year would not go to
existing media players, and would be awarded to those with the most innovative
services, not necessarily to the highest bidder.

But on cross-media ownership regulation he is
determined to get changes to Coonan’s package.
Nor is he happy with the protection of diversity being left to competition
regulator Graeme Samuel and the Australian Communications and Media Authority. He remembers when the Australian Broadcasting
Authority was “asleep at the wheel” in the 1990s, and allowed
shocking increases in concentration of media ownership in rural Australia. “There can be a slippage in these
things. We need the protections to be in
the legislation.”

Would the
National Party support the legislation in its current form? Neville would not be drawn. “Helen Coonan has indicated she is
prepared to listen to arguments. And so
we will argue with her. There is no huge
conflict or battle yet, but I don’t see why we should give further advantages
to those who are already doing very well when the whole point of reform is to
encourage a more diverse and lively market.”

And by the
sound of it, Helen Coonan’s hopes for getting the legislation through
Parliament in the next session and into force early next year may be
optimistic. Neville says, “I don’t think it should be rushed. We need to make sure we have got it exactly
right.”

Peter Fray

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