As I write, National Party MP Paul Neville, the man most likely to determine the fate of Helen Coonan’s changes to cross media ownership regulation, is addressing the joint party room in a last ditch attempt to get changes to the package. In the meantime, his spokeswoman says, he is “holding his counsel” when it comes to talking to journalists.

But clearly he isn’t happy, and the fight is on. Communications Minister Helen Coonan is determined to get the changes through, but John Howard is not. The Prime Minister has again made it clear that he won’t push on with cross media ownership changes if there is substantial resistance. And there is.

If Neville, who chairs the Government’s influential backbench communications committee, sticks to his guns then it is likely that the Government will once again back down on at least the controversial parts of its package. And this is a good thing, in my opinion.

There is still some hope of a passable outcome from Coonan’s reforms. In what can only be recognition of the likely outcomes, Helen Coonan has reportedly split her media reform package into three separate Bills so that most of her package can proceed even if some of it is blocked.

The three packages of legislation are cross media ownership reforms, the Digital Action Plan and the powers of the regulator. The Digital Action plan absolutely must go ahead. The main problem with it is that it doesn’t go far enough in opening up the opportunities for diversity in the new media age.

But on cross media ownership Coonan is going much too far too quickly. The current legislation is clearly nearing the end of its relevance and usefulness, but relaxation of the rules now is far too soon. All independent commentators, including the Productivity Commission, have argued that the current laws should be retained at least until digital broadcasting frees up the spectrum, creating the opportunity for more diversity.

Meanwhile Neville is pushing for Australia’s 18 to 20 large provincial cities to be treated in a category of their own with media proprietors in regional cities limited to owning no more than two kinds of media outlets. This should be in addition to the four “voices” rule proposed by Coonan, he argues. He also wants protections written into the legislation, rather than being left to the competition regulator.

But Coonan has argued that there would scarcely be any point in proceeding with reform if Neville’s idea were implemented.

Previously Neville has also supported the datacasting licences to be made available next year, being awarded to new players with innovative services, rather than to the highest bidder. This may be another source of conflict with Coonan, who initially supported new entrants but is now reported to be considering allowing allow established television companies to bid.

All in all, it seems that a likely outcome will be the passage of the Digital Action plan, and the delay – at least until after the election – of attempts to relax cross media ownership restrictions.

So far as the public interest is concerned, this would be not a great outcome, but the best we can reasonably hope for.

Peter Fray

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