Paul Keating answers five Crikey questions on the Government’s proposed cross-media reforms:

Crikey: You have painted an extremely bleak scenario –
but where is the official Opposition in all this? Are they scared of proprietors’
retribution? Can this kind of honest criticism of powerful media proprietors
only be made by politicians when they are no longer in office?

Paul Keating: I believe the Opposition has made its position
clear on this matter. It favours media diversity and that is best guaranteed in
the circumstances proposed by Senator Coonan by the retention of the cross-media
rules. It is probably a fact that the Opposition has
received scant publicity for its views, but that in itself underlines why more
diversity and not less is appropriate. John Howard spent years railing against what he
called political correctness of a kind, he said, was instituted by me. His
alternative, of course, is political incorrectness of a kind instituted by him.
The propensity to marginalise people, the right to affront their creed and their
looks. Such a society is now well and truly with us and part and parcel of that
is the hush-hush treatment the media is now schooled in giving to this
government’s political friends. It is hard in Australia now to get issues of
any kind up and going in the public debate, and I should have thought that media
concentration of the kind that Senator Coonan is contemplating should be
anathema to every thinking Australian.

Crikey: If these laws are passed do you believe this
will this guarantee support for the coalition government by PBL and Fairfax
during the next election campaign?

Paul Keating:
Definitely. PBL says it doesn’t want to buy
newspapers and Fairfax says that free to air television stations are declining
businesses. Neither is to be believed. If the government succeeds in removing
the cross-media rules, it will give rise to a set of snatch and grab purchases
of a kind that the media sector has not before witnessed. In that context, does
anybody truly believe that both of the organisations mentioned won’t back the Coalition to the hilt?

Crikey: Despite your grim predictions, there is almost
no public or political debate about the issue of reduced media diversity, and
even the limited debate in the National Party is restricted to the impact in
regional areas. Why aren’t many more Australians – and Australian politicians
– up in arms about these proposed changes?

Paul Keating: I said in 1996, when the government changes the
country changes. In 1996, a majority of the public voted for a
government, not of enlargement but one of straighteners. The recent industrial
relations changes give evidence of that. But over the course of the decade, this
government has seriously bruised the nation’s soul, such that people have come
to expect little by way of anything which is inclusive, upright and, dare I say,
moral. In such an environment, people keep their heads
down. And this goes for media organisations and journalists who might wake up
any time soon with the management of one of the major television owners as their
boss. In such an environment, there are diminishing courts of moral appeal, if
the government and a major proprietor has it in for you. So, less is said;
people learn to shut up; this happens in countries where tolerance of divergent
views is progressively crimped. In the end, there is no substitute for standing
up – politician or no politician.

Crikey: PBL owner James Packer has repeatedly stated he
is not interested in owning the Fairfax newspapers, and Fairfax chairman Ron
Walker has also insisted his company is not interested in owning commercial
television. Surely the assurances of such respected community figures should be
enough to make us all breathe easily?

Paul Keating: In that case, why is each organisation seeking
to have the cross-media rule abolished? PBL can buy virtually anything in Australia,
including online portals etc, without in any way being constrained by the
cross-media rules, but it cannot buy capital city newspapers where it has a
network outlet. Fairfax for its part, can buy virtually anything,
as it did in New Zealand recently with an online portal. But it cannot, under
the cross-media rules, buy a television station in Sydney or
Melbourne. These cross-media rules do not constrain either
one of the businesses, save for stopping them buying that which they should not
be allowed to have. It would be unconscionable to allow PBL to run the Nine
network in Sydney and Melbourne, along with its stock of magazines, and at the
same time, control The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Unconscionable. It would make the country hardly worth living in; the freedom of
every one of us to get our news and to live a life unfettered by the whim of
some proprietor or their pumped up executives. And this goes equally in the
case of Fairfax, seeking to own free to air television stations in the cities of
Sydney and Melbourne. It would amount to a monstrous concentration of

Crikey: If the new laws pass, what do you predict will
happen once the dust settles – who will end up owning what and what kind of
place will Australia be?

Paul Keating: If the new laws pass, media diversity will be
rapidly constricted. In this respect, despite the support of these
major media organisations for the coalition, I cannot understand why John Howard
or any one of his party believes they owe them such power. For like the wrath
released from Indiana Jones’s Ark of the
Covenant, it will surely return to
hollow them out.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey