Backbenchers can be like sheep – and a little sheepish at times. They like to be lead. They can be shy in coming forward.

Last week Crikey put a series of questions on Helen Coonan’s proposed media law changes to Government MPs. Only two have responded in detail so far. There are two explanations for this. One’s charitable. The other isn’t. It’s concerning.

Backbenchers can be sheepish. When confronted with a series of questions, they wait for the standard response from the relevant minister’s office. It keeps them all singing from the same sheet and prevents any nasty “split” stories. And saves them the bother of thinking for themselves.

And the less charitable? Well, when it comes to self-preservation, backbenchers are always ferocious – and not just by sheep standards. Media law changes involve some very powerful interests. If Government MPs have decided the discretion is the better part of valour here – that if they say nothing, they won’t offend proprietors who can give them the oxygen of publicity. In which case they’re saying sod the voters – and offending democracy.

Queensland Liberal Peter Lindsay told Crikey he had spent weeks in committee meetings dealing with the proposed legislation. “When you get virtually all the major players disagreeing with the Government for one reason or another, then you know you have probably got the thrust of the policy right,” he said.

Crikey isn’t just concerned about diversity of ownership. We’re also interested in consumer choice. “If there’s room for niche services on multi channelling, why isn’t there room for a fourth commercial TV network?” we asked. Lindsay’s response is blunt:

More choice is not necessarily in the consumers’ interests. Australia is a small media market so more channels would deliver more cr-p. The ability to deliver quality programming would be further eroded. So what does the consumer want? Cr-p or quality?

Lindsay is unworried by Helen Coonan’s diversity test, providing for five major players in metropolitan areas – there are currently 12 in Sydney and 11 in Melbourne – and four in the regions.

Why would 12 players be reduced to five? The market could well drive the status quo. We have 12 radio stations in Townsville with most of them only having less than three per cent of the listening audience. I could therefore make the point that there is little public interest in the existing diversity.

Wilson Tuckey has a little more to say – on both competition within the industry and its regulation. He says “the Government should say competition is wide open”:

My fundamental view [on media laws] is that we’ve gone around insisting the states commit to competition policy and we seem to want to be the last in the queue when it comes to doing it ourselves. My coalition colleagues are not the least bit inclined towards deregulation…

Tuckey responds “Why not a sixth?” to the question of a fourth commercial TV network:

If someone thinks there’s a commercial benefit… Why should we be knuckling our forehead to the present day proprietors? One can hardly say they give a service of great quality. They’ve been given the free to air rights to sport and then want us to stay up until midnight to watch it so they can fit in Desperate Housewives.

The regulatory responsibility of government is in terms of the overall quality of the program… Government’s role is to see fair play within the market place. Ensure program quality, not to say how many there are.

“We want to give people the right to aggregate through owning print media as well as electronic,” Tuckey says. “That is only a problem because we don’t let others start up…Murdoch’s got two choices – he buys an existing body out or he starts a new one. What’s wrong with a new one?”

Tuckey’s electorate of O’Connor is one of the largest in the country, taking in almost 180,000 square kilometres of country. He suggests his constituents may be more concerned with the signal strength, not who owns the transmitters:

When we got the second commercial network in my electorate the viewers got nothing. When they got WIN they had to swap stations to watch rugby or AFL and until the WIN signal was universally across the electorate you didn’t get it anywhere. My constituents’ problem was actually spending the money to get the signal.

My view is if you want a licence you can have it but you have to demonstrate that you’ll give full coverage. Black spots are one of the major concerns for regional viewers.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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