It’s worth revisiting, in the present context, what the 2000 Productivity Commission report said about the real effect of increased concentration of media ownership on the marketplace for ideas.

One of the great bug bears of new media audience fragmentation is the fear that it will lead to a nation divided – that we will no longer share a common “front page”of concerns. That we will all be watching, and thinking about, different things.

The Productivity Commission study suggested that in many ways, we are already there. Readers of the broadsheets should not assume that their concerns have even penetrated the minds of the majority of Australians.

Eschewing the usual crude statements about reduction in diversity of information and opinion, the Commission looked at the way people actually use their media. This is highly significant, because this is exactly the kind of analysis ACCC Chairman Graeme Samuel has been talking about in his recent public statements about assessing prospective media mergers.

The Productivity Commission conclusion was that when it comes to news and information, the effects of mergers would be very different for different people. Readers of the Fairfax broadsheet newspapers were light viewers of commercial television. Readers of the Murdoch tabloids, on the other hand, were more likely than Fairfax readers to get their news from commercial television.

66% of Australian Financial Review readers watched less than two hours of commercial television per day. More than half of the readers of The Age watch less than two hours a day of commercial television. On the other hand, almost seventy percent of Herald Sun readers watched more than two hours of commercial television a day, and almost a quarter watched more than four hours a day. For readers of the Murdoch tabloids, commercial television news was overwhelmingly their main alternative source of news and information. This was not so for readers of broadsheet newspapers and the Australian Financial Review, who were heavy users of ABC news and current affairs. The PC concluded they “may not be directly affected by mergers of either Fairfax of News Corporation with, for example, the Seven Network.”

However tabloid readers could be profoundly effected.

The Commission went on to talk about how hard it is to measure this kind of thing – let alone to measure media “influence”

“An hour spent listening to the radio may have substantially different social and political influence from an hour spent watching television, reading a paper or surfing the Internet. A program consumed by a small audience of people influential in policy making may have far greater influence than one consumed by a larger group of less directly influential people.”

And when it came to “the marketplace for ideas”, should one include books, or magazines, or even documentary films?

It was this kind of analysis that led the PC to recommend a broad media specific public interest test in the Trade Practices Act, to allow “social, cultural and political dimensions” to be considered before media mergers were permitted.

The Productivity Commission report was a subtle yet thorough and robust inquiry into this difficult area. Re-reading it now, one wants to weep that all that intellectual effort has been spurned in favour of the crude and craven policy mish-mash that has now passed through Parliament.