It has finally happened. The media ownership penny has started to drop. Inspired by Nationals Senators Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash, there is now a growing realisation among federal politicians that the key issue in the debate about the government’s plan to remove or modify the cross-media rules is simply the power of media owners to influence the public debate.

It’s not about the “diversity” of ownership of all media, it’s about the diversity of ownership of the “media of influence”, mainly newspapers (metropolitan and regional) and influential TV and radio news and current affairs programs. Despite the growth of new media technology, despite blogs, despite mobile phones, despite YouTube, the power to influence the Australian political agenda still sits where it always has: in the laps of a tiny handful of media owners.

Senators Joyce and Nash simplified the situation with great clarity last Friday in their Dissenting Report to the Senate committee investigating the proposed media law changes: “A major concern with the proposed media reforms remains the over centralisation of the media market and the lack of capacity of the ACCC to have effective oversight of media mergers and their effect on the democratic process of our nation.”

Senator Joyce put it in blunter terms yesterday when he told The Australian: “I just don’t think the Red Hot Chilli Peppers are going to change the election.” And in even starker terms when he told the Canberra Times: “There’s not one call I’ve received in Queensland from people saying make sure when you get back to Canberra that you help centralise the media market.”

And any politicians who doubt the existence or reality of that power, or the need to retain the existing controls on it, should read Rupert Murdoch’s frank comments about politicians and power in a forthcoming interview with The New Yorker:

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, whenever I’m in town they say, ‘Can’t you come over for a cup of tea?’ When you’re invited by the Prime Minister to have a cup of tea, you have a cup of tea. It’s sometimes very inconvenient — if you’re only there two days and you have a month’s work to do. And you have to be careful to have a cup of tea with them both, or they are very suspicious that you are lining up with the other one.

Abolishing or watering down the cross-media rules is an issue about one thing: the power of a tiny number of media owners to influence the public debate. It’s about the power, stupid.

Peter Fray

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