Anyone remember Graeme Samuel’s big promise to be the guardian of media diversity? Turns out it was all nonsense – the ACCC either has no idea what the words mean or it just rolls over for Murdoch like every other arm of government.

In a very bleak day for Australian media, the ACCC has pre-approved News Ltd’s acquisition of FPC’s community papers, allowing Australia’s dominant newspaper publisher to get even bigger, handing it clear monopolies in markets that previously enjoyed competition and apparently not even considering editorial diversity in its feeble effort of going through the motions.

It’s a dire foretaste of how the ACCC will “safeguard” media competition when the Coonan Gift is promulgated.

A bunch of suburban throwaways might not be the linchpin of Australian journalism, but a very dangerous precedent has been set at a time when a reasonable person might think the ACCC should be particularly sensitive to such things.

For the moment, let’s ignore the issue of the publisher of two-thirds of Australia’s newspapers being allowed to buy another 16 titles. By the ACCC’s demonstrated thinking, it would be perfectly acceptable for News Corp to take over every paper in the country with the possible exception of just three – The SMH, The Age and maybe The Sun-Herald.

Samuel’s comments yesterday indicate the ACCC was only interested in the advertising market, not editorial coverage, in accessing the Murdoch application.

The regulator “was satisfied that sufficient advertising alternatives existed in this case to provide a competitive constraint on News Ltd”. Which is not what the watch puppy was suggesting last month when it singled out Sydney’s Lower North Shore market as a particular concern.

This is a considerably bigger market than any of the country towns that excited National Party MPs for a while and it’s one that Murdoch’s Cumberland Press already dominates with the North Shore Times and Mosman Daily. FPC provides some competition though with the Northside Courier.

As Lisa Murray recalls in the SMH (but unfortunately not online), the ACCC last month said “market inquires” suggested competition between the FPC and News titles had assisted in preventing increases in advertising rates and that general advertisers would have no significant alternative to advertising with the two free newspapers.

The News lawyers and lobbyists obviously were able to convince Samuel otherwise.

Too bad about editorial difference though – it just doesn’t count. The suburbans provide residents with just about the only source of local news. In a city the size of Sydney, the Terror and SMH obviously can’t and don’t cover the many local governments except at their most bizarre.

Furthermore, with the metropolitan dailies suffering static or falling circulation, the suburbans increasingly are the only papers most people get. And they are very nicely profitable indeed.

But that doesn’t concern the ACCC. Jilted local advertisers presumably can stick flyers in letterboxes. And editorial diversity, any concept of a market in local news ideas, is not an issue.

Funny that that wasn’t what Graeme Samuel was saying back when he was providing backup for Helen Coonan. Maybe he should stick to threatening to tell Australia who sells petrol here.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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