“We know nothing.” That would be the honest way for commentators to greet the announcement that the Government’s media ownership legislation will be proclaimed on Wednesday of next week.
Newspaper commentators are paid to at least look as though they know stuff, so there is some obvious speculation in today’s media about what might happen along the lines of it-will-be-an-anti-climax, and watch-out-Fairfax and watch-out-rural-Australia and whither-Channel-Ten.
But it is worth remembering that not one commentator (including me) accurately predicted any of the major media buyout moves so far.
The restructuring deals at Channels Seven and at PBL came as a complete surprise. Everyone underestimated the interest of private equity funds in Australian media. Nobody predicted the planned Fairfax-Rural Press merger.
So we should probably expect the unexpected.
The proclamation comes sooner rather than later, suggesting that the Government has decided to clear the decks of any resulting media unpleasantness well ahead of the Federal election.
Coonan had previously indicated she would not proclaim this legislation until the auction process for new datacasting licences, with their potential for new content providers to enter the market, was underway.
But the auction process is unlikely to occur until late this year at the earliest, and is now being described as a “price based allocation process” rather than what Coonan originally foreshadowed, which was “alternative methods of allocation” with the emphasis on “opportunities for new innovative digital service options of interest and value to consumers, rather than services that mirror traditional television services.”
The remaining shreds of Coonan’s concern for diversity seem to have been put aside in the interests of getting the media moguls suitably happy and the landscape nicely tidied up well before an election. So, given that we know nothing, what is likely to happen next week and in the days following?
Some of the factors that have been overlooked include whether Telstra, hungry for content for its emerging platforms, will be a buyer of media assets.
There is also the potential for unexpected overseas proprietors to move in – although Javier Moll, whose Prensa Iberica is a leading publisher in Spain and Portugal and who was once interested in owning an Australian daily newspaper, has moved on. He already owns the Adelaide Review, and is quietly building a national stable of street magazines, but I understand that is the extent of his ambition.
Some of what is euphemistically called consolidation is almost certain in rural and regional Australia, although the attractiveness of commercial regional radio assets has been reduced by Coonan holding firmish on the local content requirements in the new legislation.
But all this is just speculation. Anyone planning big media deals will be doing everything they can to prevent people like me from finding out about them. Expect to be surprised.
Conspiracy theorists might see significance in the timing of this announcement – just before the Fairfax Rural Press merger is to go through. Fairfax spinner Bruce Wolpe, had only a terse “no comment at all” when I telephoned him this morning.
Given the huge role of footloose and faceless foreign capital in the deals done so far, the news that the Democrats have secured bi-partisan support for a Senate Inquiry into private equity is very welcome and timely – but any regulatory or legislative responses will surely be too late to effect media outcomes.
So it’s all steam ahead for the good ship Coonan – but the truth is nobody knows where we are going.