Last Wednesday, as she bullied dissenters and bludgeoned her media legislation through the Senate, Communications Minister Helen Coonan predicted the new laws would not immediately trigger a wave of takeovers, denied they would open the way for concentrating power in the hands of a few media owners, and insisted they would improve media diversity. Six days later, as the legislation is still passing through the lower house, her predictions have been kicked back in her face.

Today, the first big move in the consolidation of the Australian media has been unveiled, as the Financial Review reveals in detail: PBL, the country’s biggest media company, is selling off a large but non-controlling slice of its major assets – the Nine Network, ACP magazines, its share of Foxtel, NineMSN and several major internet properties – to US-owned private equity investors. The result of such a sell-off makes a mockery of the government’s prediction there would be no wave of takeovers, and it makes a mockery of the promised diversity.

PBL and its partners are now poised to take over further media assets under the new cross-media regime – including part of the Fairfax empire – and today’s deal is almost certain to trigger more big media mergers and acquisitions in what is the last great land grab in the regulated life of the Australian media industry. As for diversity, we now know the identity of the new media owners who will change the face of Australian media – foreign-controlled private equity players. Investors whose singular objective is to ramp up profitability and sell out after a few years for hefty profits. Is that the kind of media diversity the government had in mind as it spruiked its wares?

Even as they are still being debated in parliament, and while foreign ownership limits are still (technically) in place, Australia’s brave new media laws have handed a giant windfall to Australia’s biggest media proprietor and have been shown to deliver sham diversity. Not to mention the contempt the timing of today’s deal shows for parliament and democracy.

Peter Fray

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