Delay. Delay. Someone please move for delay. This is the only way to change the cross media ownership legislation presently before the Senate from a cumbersome mishmash with potentially disastrous results into good policy.

As I write, the Greens and Democrats are considering moving further amendments to the cross media ownership legislation currently before the Senate. More on this below.

But so far as I can tell no one is seriously considering perhaps the simplest and most easily justifiable amendment of all — delaying the implementation of the legislation until the analogue television signal is switched off.

It’s not a new idea, nor a radical one. As long ago as 2000 the Productivity Commission, having conducted the most comprehensive investigation of the broadcasting industry in history, recommended that cross media ownership laws should only be relaxed once the analogue television signal was switched off, at which point the spectrum could be opened up to multiple new entrants.

Helen Coonan herself canvassed this option in her discussion paper released in March this year. Democrats Senator Andrew Murray pushed the idea in his minority report from the Senate inquiry earlier this month.

It really is inarguable in good policy terms. Yes, relaxation to cross media ownership, but not until spectrum is available for new entrants.

The Greens told Crikey today that they will introduce amendments to strengthen the test for what constitutes a “voice”. Radio stations that provide only music should not be regarded the same weight as its news services providing journalism and analysis.

Secondly, the Greens want stronger local content provisions for regional radio to include a requirement for at least three daily news rather than the presently proposed five per week.

Lastly, they propose amendments responding to Barnaby Joyce’s concerns about related entities being used to get around the “voices” test.

All this would knock some more corners of the package, but it is not as simple nor as good as simply tying implementation to analogue switch-off.

The strength of the Government’s approach has been that they are half right when they say that new media make current the laws of declining relevance. But at the moment the laws remain a crude but useful way of protecting diversity.

By analog switch off, which at the earliest will happen in four years time, the picture will look different. Internet protocol television will be with us. Other Internet based media organisations will be better established. Quite possibly new business models to support journalism will be in development. Most importantly, all the justifications for preventing new entrants in broadcasting will disappear.

With Barnaby Joyce reserving in his right to back further amendments to the Bill, the tragedy is that nobody seems to be prepared to move a simple amendment tying its implementation to analogue switch off.

Peter Fray

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