It now appears unlikely that the Senator Helen Coonan’s media reform package will pass in its present form. Nobody is advocating it. If there is an argument that what is presently proposed is in the public interest, then nobody has articulated it. But of course it comes down to numbers, not arguments, and the National Party is holding firm in opposition and John Howard is hardly staunch in support.

Coonan, by splitting her package into several different parts, seems to be preparing for the possibility that part of it may fail.

The risk is that the National Party will be thrown a bone at the last minute to buy them off and let the legislation through, which will leave the rest of us, and the nation as a whole, in a pretty pickle.

The bone for the Nationals might be extra powers for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to act against reductions in local news diversity in regional areas.

In this context, National Party Senators could do worse than read this thoughtful piece on the role and record of the regulators by author Jock Given.

Given reviews recent speeches by ACCC head Graeme Samuel in which he seems to suggest that competition law might be able to grapple with issues of media content quality. Given is sceptical, and it is indeed hard to see how it might be done.

There is no doubt that ACCC is adept at measuring audience habit. Drilling down into Samuel’s statements, it seems that what he is really about is measuring how consumers presently use their media – which is quite a different thing to measuring the quality and diversity of news and information content.

And in any case, Samuel’s recently released discussion paper makes it clear that his work will not necessarily prevent further concentration of media ownership. We will have to wait and see, he says, for the particular merger proposals to emerge and be assessed.

Given’s article concludes with some advice for the National Party and others:

Anyone worried about what might happen if the rules are changed the way the government has proposed will be best off extracting their safeguards in the legislation that emerges from the parliament, rather than hoping for the ACCC or ACMA to block mergers case-by-case.

Those safeguards might include the “media specific public interest test” recommended by the Productivity Commission, or a tougher threshold than the 5/4 voices test, though neither is guaranteed to prevent a disturbing degree of consolidation.

Indeed. But one cannot quote the Productivity Commission without also remembering that it stated very strongly that cross media ownership regulations should not be relaxed at all until digital broadcasting had allowed the establishment of new entrants to the industry.

Which means that the best things the National Party could do – for the whole of the country, not just the regions – is force the delay of cross media ownership relaxation, and press for more guts in the Digital Action Plan.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW