The Government has failed to identify a single benefit of media ownership concentration that will flow from its current reform package, says Queensland National MP and chair of the backbench communications committee Paul Neville.

On Friday, Neville took the unusual step of appearing before the Senate inquiry into the new laws to argue for stronger safeguards for local content in rural and regional areas — an appearance whose content got almost no coverage in the media.

He told Crikey this morning that while he supported aspects of the Coonan reform package, like accelerated uptake of digital television and multi-channeling, he was baffled over what is motivating the Government to increase media ownership concentration.

“If we go through this process and end up with more concentration and less competition, we defeat our own raison d’etre — we are totally at odds with what the three major parties in this parliament notionally adhere to,” he said.

“The whole idea is supposed to be to create a more vibrant and competitive market for the benefit of the consumer, not just a whole lot of big media companies.”

Neville said at least one major media player had told him privately that the proposed laws would force them to buy more assets or merge with other companies — even if they were reluctant to do so.

He said that past experience showed ownership concentration – and the price premiums that come with it — almost inevitably lead to cost cutting and diminished services and news coverage in rural and regional markets.

Neville said that while communications minister Helen Coonan argued that the ACCC and ACMA would regulate to protect diversity, their track record suggested otherwise.

“My argument is that the old ABA, which I say was asleep at the wheel, never advised the government that [media owners were already] getting a bit too willing. They haven’t demonstrated up until now that they have the power to act quickly and decisively in these matters. Various ministers and other MPs have asked me ‘what are you worried about?’ but once you’ve got a precedent of one merger happening it can happen right across Australia… Why don’t you legislate, and put it beyond doubt?”

“That leads me to one of my basic premises – if we are to allow some form of more concentration ownership, what are the trade offs? If a proprietor can afford to purchase additional forms of media in a market, should there not be the requirement to re-establish a news room as a demonstration of a serious commitment to that market? How do we avoid the continuation of the current situation – or should we see this as an opportunity for a renaissance in regional media rather than a meaningless concentration?”

Peter Fray

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