On the day her new media laws squeaked through the Senate by a single Family First vote, Communications Minister Helen Coonan dismissed concerns of a wave of media takeovers.

And tonight, in the annual Andrew Olle media lecture, the minister will claim that “as journalism moves to the internet, democracy can only be enhanced” and that “I strongly believe good journalism can and will prevail” if the media’s delivery platforms change (according to today’s Financial Review).

Bunkum. The Minister and her government are the architects of a train wreck for media diversity and, as a consequence, an impending disaster for journalism and its place in democracy – and here’s the wave of media ownership activity since the laws were passed to prove it:

October 17: On the day the new laws pass through the Senate, and before being passed by the House, Australia’s biggest media company PBL sells half its media empire to a foreign-based investor group for more than $4.5 billion – potentially positioning itself with a big war chest for more media acquisitions.

October 18: Seven Network owner Kerry Stokes buys a 14.9% stake in West Australian Newspapers, Perth’s dominant newspaper publisher, positioning his company to either buy or control the West Australian when the new laws are proclaimed.

October 19: News Corp buys a 7.5% “strategic” and “friendly” stake in its major competitor Fairfax Media for $360 million. News chairman Rupert Murdoch later says he would not hesitate to lift its stake to stop another company or private equity group from taking over Fairfax, saying the stake was “just to make it difficult for anybody to take them over”.

October 20: The controlling shareholder of the Ten TV network, CanWest Global Communications, reveals it has appointed advisers to look at selling its Ten stake.

November 3: Australia’s biggest newspaper publisher News Ltd asks the ACCC for approval to buy Sydney’s Wentworth Courier — the most profitable suburban newspaper in Australia – and another 11 suburban newspapers. This would take its stable of suburban newspapers across Australia to 128 papers.

November 7: Regional TV operator WIN says it has been approached to sell its television and radio businesses and is “in discussions with a number of institutions about a possible float early next year”.

November 16: Macquarie Bank’s media arm swoops on Southern Cross Broadcasting – owner of 2UE, 3AW, Adelaide’s Channel Nine and a string of regional TV stations – buying 14.9% to take effective control.

The day after the Senate passed her laws, Senator Coonan said she didn’t “expect to see a flurry” of media takeover activity. She was right. There hasn’t been a flurry, there has been a free-for-all.

Peter Fray

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