Dear Graeme,

Nice to read your ACCC is at least concerned about some aspects of Rupert Murdoch buying FPC’s 16 suburban newspapers and that you’re extending the deadline for submissions on the matter to 22 December.

But Graeme, as I feared when I wrote to you via Crikey on 6 November, it seems you’re hung up on the minor detail and therefore missing the big picture. Something about not seeing the forest for the trees, or the trees for the wood, or the macro market for the micro – something like that.

It perfectly suits News Corp’s legion of lawyers and lobbyists to concentrate on the minutiae of individual suburban newspapers’ “overlapping” circulation – the FPC’s Northside Courier, for example, competing with the North Shore Times and Mosman Daily.

They’ll argue their way around it or, if pressed, do a deal to flog that particular paper to someone else, preferably a weak wannabe publisher without the capital to pose anything like a serious threat to Murdoch’s market power.

The reality remains that News Corp dominates newspaper publishing in this country – about two-thirds of the business – and is busily trying to leverage that into a similar position on the internet. Having a look at the way News is trying to build up its internet classified offering from its vast network of suburbans and think a little bit about the future.

Then consider the persistent anti-competitive behaviour of the Murdoch camp – I’ve previously cited the war in Adelaide on a couple of wannabes, the threats made to Fairfax about what would happen if it offered a commuter giveaway and, for all its confusion, there were some pretty clear messages in the C7 court case as well. Whatever it takes.

The Federal Treasurer has bent over backwards to accommodate Rupert under the existing foreign ownership laws, redefining the English language to change the meaning of “no new newspapers” to “no new newspaper businesses”. That doesn’t mean you should give Murdoch whatever he wants as well.

The reservation I’ve long had with the ACCC is that it tends to act only when the canary in the coal mine stops singing. To be of real use, you have to start preventing the gas entering the mine.

The reality is that the Murdoch empire already enjoys a degree of dominance here unmatched in the relatively free world. Fairfax tries to keep it honest in a couple of sub-markets, but the overall picture is bleak.

If you allow Murdoch to buy any further titles, you’re contributing to that domination, the lessening of competition. And it’s News Corp policy to extend that power.

The canary is already unwell.

Peter Fray

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