“Why would the nation do that to itself?” asked Paul Keating on Lateline last night, talking about the Government’s cross-media ownership reforms. It’s a bloody good question.

Those press gallery journalists who get their kicks from taking up acres of newsprint with the minutiae of Canberra machinations could actually be of some use here for a change. They should be trying to find out what has happened to Senator Helen Coonan.

Consider her record. She begins by muttering to ABC journalists that she wants to be their friend. Then she appoints ABC enemies Janet Albrechtsen and Keith Windschuttle to the board – the latter described by ABC historian Ken Inglis as the most provocative appointment in the ABC’s history. Admittedly she also fights for more money for the ABC, but succeeds in getting only a little, and much less than is needed. In a short while we will hear who the new Chairman of the Board will be, at which point we can judge whether with friends like her, the ABC is in any need of enemies.

Then cross-media ownership. She starts early this year by talking about benefits to consumers. Relaxation of cross-media ownership laws may be delayed until 2010, by which time there will be new entrants in digital broadcasting and internet-based television. Datacasting will be redefined so it is attractive and innovative. Existing free-to-air broadcasters will be locked out of bidding for the spectrum, which will go to the most interesting and innovative services, not necessarily the highest bidders. All this would have been reasonable, though not ideal: a compromise between the politically possible and the public interest.

And what do we have now? The rush is on to lift cross-media ownership restrictions before a single new entrant has got established, and the free-to-airs are going to get their grips on the only attractive Datacasting licences.

This is about more than concentration of media ownership, though that’s serious enough. It’s about the uptake of digital broadcasting. This change simply must happen, but in the present package there is very little to persuade consumers to start making the switch. There is no reason to believe that the Government will be able to switch off the analogue signal in 2010, unless the Government takes up Alex Encel’s suggestion and simply goes out and buys all Australian households a set top box.

If we haven’t made the switch over by 2010-2012, it will be a bit like being stuck with the telegraph when the rest of the world has switched to using telephones.

So what happened to Helen Coonan? Has she been rolled or convinced? Whom did she talk to? What went on round the Cabinet table and in the party room? How did the reform of the last big area of protection in the Australian economy go so awry? Press gallery: please enlighten.

Peter Fray

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