There is a way out of the impasse on Senator Helen Coonan’s package of media reforms. Coonan herself wrote it in to her discussion paper way back in March.

It is to push ahead with the Digital Action Plan, but delay the relaxation of cross media ownership restrictions until the distant and constantly shifting horizon of the switch-off of the analogue television signal, and the opening up of the spectrum to new entrants that should result.

Coonan has probably come too far to save much face with this course now, but rather than trying to fiddle around the edges of the package, the National Party should be pressing this outcome. It would be in line with the Productivity Commission’s recommendations back in 2000, and much more logical than pushing ahead with cross media ownership relaxation now, before we have seen a single new entrant into the mainstream media market.

Instead the debate over Senator Helen Coonan’s media reform package has become Orwellian. Words have twisted meanings. A “voice” is not a voice, but an owner. Diversity means further concentration. New services means restrictions on the use of technology, and new entrants means protection for incumbents.

The ACCC is said to be a safeguard against reduced competition in media markets, yet in its own discussion paper released in August, that body stated that it was impossible to say whether its implementation of the Trade Practices Act would prevent further concentration, or not. We would have to wait for the assessment of particular merger proposals, the discussion paper said.

As I write the package of reforms seems stalled but not defeated. It is likely the Nationals will be thrown a bone or two, and the rest will pass.

On the other hand, John Howard is once again indicating that it is not a top priority issue for him. He has said this so often that one begins to wonder if he is protesting too much. Or perhaps he is just preparing to save face if a back down becomes prudent.

Meanwhile, although the focus of controversy is media ownership, the Digital Action Plan part of Coonan’s package is mostly uncontroversial. Commercial television networks are already preparing for the start of High Definition “multichannelling” from next year, and the ABC is pushing the boundaries of the “genre restrictions” that hobble ABC2 in preparation for their lifting next year.

Peter Fray

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