How do you measure the credibility of a media outlet? It seems this is a question that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission may tackle as it wrestles with merger proposals following the relaxation of cross media ownership regulations.

Last night the head of the ACCC, Graeme Samuel, addressed a function held by the Latrobe University at the State Library of Victoria. He gave a speech, that contained no surprises for those who have been following his public pronouncements in recent times. But then he was generous with his time and energy in responding to questions, as well as talking to journalists later.

Asked how he will go about defining markets for news and information, Samuel responded by talking about the credibility of journalism outlets. He was making the point that in order for competition to exist consumers must have alternatives available. If one news outlets can substitute for another, regardless of whether it is an Internet site a radio station or a newspaper, then it might well be that there is sufficient competition in the news and information market. But, he said, the fact that there are, for example, Internet outlets available does not necessarily mean they are credible enough to be alternatives to mainstream media.

So will the ACCC be trying to assess the credibility of journalism services in each Australian regional area where takeovers and mergers are proposed? “We do that kind of detailed analysis all the time,” he said. Samuel drew a comparison with mergers between supermarket groups. ACCC staff visit each area and assess whether consumers have a reasonably easy access to alternative supermarkets carrying similar ranges of products.

And so, he seemed to be saying, the ACCC may well get into the business of assessing how regional news services are used and regarded by their consumers, including whether they are seen as credible.

But is this really as simple as assessing supermarkets? I would have thought not. A rip and read radio news service may well be perfectly credible if all I’m after is the football scores. But what if I want an investigation into the goings-on at the council? At the very least it is a very complicated equation.

One thing Samuel is sure of is that journalists, or as he described them “the software of news organisations, the content providers” will be more valuable than ever in the future. He is optimistic that consumer demand will ensure the survival of high-quality journalism.

Samuel appeared to have lined up a Dorothy Dixer question on his dealings with Telstra. He took the opportunity to assure the audience “unequivocally” that Australia will soon have high-speed broadband Internet despite Telstra’s withdrawal from its FTTN proposal. It simply wasn’t the case that Telstra’s withdrawal had condemned Australia to remaining in the digital dark ages, he said. Samuel outlined five possible means by which high-speed broadband Internet could be achieved.

First, Telstra might yet build the FTTN network. Second, the so-called G9 group might build it. Third, the existing cable used to deliver Foxtel and Optus pay television might be used for high-speed Internet. Fourth, wireless broadband is already in the process of being developed and may well be the most practical solution for rural Australia. Lastly, third and fourth-generation mobile phone technology may well provide part of the answer.

Samuel is nothing if not an optimist about the market’s ability to provide what consumers demand and need. Others expressed pessimism about whether markets for news and information can be adequately defined, and how robust such definitions will be if faced with legal challenges.

It’s a hornets’ nest.

Peter Fray

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