The changes announced by Senator Coonan are not, in any sense, a reform. Rather, they are the working out of that undertaking given by John Howard … that, upon achieving office, he would remove the cross-media rules which, at the time, were frustrating Publishing and Broadcasting Limited’s attempts to acquire control of John Fairfax Holdings.

After the frustration of Senator Alston’s first run over the trenches, the government charged the Productivity Commission to report on the ways and conditions in which the cross-media rules might be removed. In March 2000, Professor Richard Snape and Commissioner Stuart Simpson recommended that the cross-media rules should only be removed after the regulatory barriers to entry into broadcasting – including the availability of spectrum for new broadcasters – were themselves removed, along with a parallel relaxation of the foreign investment restrictions as they relate to media.

The government hated it. The Productivity Commission was telling the government point-blank that there could be no guarantee of diversity in media ownership without there first being a removal of barriers to entry and an allocation of appropriate spectrum. It was a message completely lost on Senator Coonan

Senator Coonan is simply singing the tune that the free to air television networks have composed. She is proposing that there be no fourth network, let alone a fifth or a sixth, and that the existing networks should also be free to buy dominant print assets in the same markets. No half measures for her.

The only remnant of the Productivity Commission recommendations that Senator Coonan has picked up is the removal of the foreign investment restrictions. But this is only one aspect and does not amount to a “policy”.

What Senator Coonan is proposing would, for instance, allow Publishing and Broadcasting Limited to bid for and own The Sydney Morning Herald and or The Age and or The Australian Financial Review despite the fact that its television network has, for half a century, maintained the dominant influence in the television markets of Sydney and Melbourne. Under the Coonan policy, one management could run the lot. And let’s not entertain any drivel about five so-called “media voices” in a market. In Sydney, that would already include the existing radio stations and, at a stretch, The Wentworth Courier.

If anyone needs a case study as to why this kind of manipulation should not be concomitantly spread to broadsheet newspapers, they need only read former Channel 9 news director Mark Llewellyn’s affidavit, which PBL so desperately tried to keep under wraps. In it we saw how the managing director of PBL, John Alexander, encouraged Llewellyn to do a hatchet job on Seven’s Kerry Stokes.

This initiative was based on the same kind of spite which underpinned the attacks on me by Channel 9’s 60 Minutes program in 1999, and more recently by The Bulletin. And guess what? The editor of The Bulletin, who published the recent hatchet job, is now director of news and current affairs at Channel 9. And the author of the hatchet job, the hapless John Lyons, is the person Alexander directed Llewellyn to re-engage after Llewellyn had fired him. Alexander, obviously, can only feel comfortable with his very own sheltered workshop.

Is there any case for vesting all that power in one media management?

Tomorrow: Paul Keating answers Crikey’s questions on cross media laws.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey