ACCC boss Graeme Samuel says his Commission will ensure media competition is preserved.

One of his predecessors, Allan Fels, disagrees. Fels says retrospective legislation might be needed to protect media diversity. That’s a very radical statement for anyone who’s held the office that Fels has held. But Fels has some very strong opinions that he offers in The Fin today:

As the new media ownership game unfolds much faster than any politician anticipated, consumers are left with a second-best feeling.

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Media assets are changing hands for billions of dollars. Foreign private equity funds will become part-owners of some of Australia’s most prized media names. It is, as James Packer says, a “land grab”, not just for the global casinos he intends to acquire but for Australia’s media under the new Howard government rules.

But there is nothing in the “grab” for consumers. Indeed, if the private equity funds acquiring half of Packer’s PBL follow their usual cost-cutting pattern to fatten profits for future on-sale, some of Australia’s best journalism will suffer, worsening the outlook for media consumers and diversity of opinion.

How could consumers be left in this secondary position? Media reform has always been, as Prime Minister John Howard said, a second-tier issue.

The media proprietors played their part, letting it be known that while they favoured relaxation of cross-media and foreign-ownership restrictions, they were not that fussed either. In reality, they didn’t even wait for the new rules to become law before staking out claims for the impending “land grab”.

The second-tier atmosphere around the reform debate was reflected in the government’s consultation processes surrounding the reforms. Proprietors were consulted in several “rounds”, but consumers hardly got a look in.

A second-tier issue with second-tier outcomes for consumers – and a second-tier package of laws that creates two tiers of proprietors.

The owners of free to air television remain protected from real competition for now.

Who knows what will be left of our media landscape once the dinosaurs have trampled all over it?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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