What a difference a year makes. This time in 2006 we were contemplating the Government’s plans to liberalise media ownership laws and all the worry was about personalities — the media moguls, their peccadilloes, political influence and acquisition ambitions.

Now it is clear that the real story is the exit of personalities from Australia’s most powerful media companies in favour of faceless, debt-fuelled foreign cash. Who owns our media? The truth is that for much of it, we no longer know.

This is a trend confirmed by the Australian Financial Review’s front page story today signalling James Packer’s staged exit as a media proprietor. His private equity partner CVC will soon control Channel Nine and the magazine stable, leaving Packer with just 5% interest. As the Fin comments: “It is a turning point in the evolution of the media industry.”

So consider the media landscape. Channel Nine will be controlled by private equity. Channel Seven is half controlled by private equity. Channel Ten is on the market, with only private equity firms showing an interest in buying. Tony O’Reilly’s so far unsuccessful attempt to buy the rest of APN is fuelled by private equity cash.

As I have written before I see little reason to mourn the departure of James Packer from media, but there is absolutely no reason to celebrate the entry of private equity into our most important story-telling companies.

So far as I am aware nobody foresaw the interest private equity funds have shown in Australian media. Nobody could have wished for it. And certainly there is no sign that the Government has thought about whether and how it should be managed.

It is not that private equity is all bad. The plusses, minuses and challenges are spelt out quite well in this article from Democrats Senator Andrew Murray.

But what we are seeing is the departure of personality from the ownership of big media companies. The proprietor is dead – or in the case of Rupert Murdoch, aging. Soon there will be very few people owning our big media companies who act from motivations that include the love of content, and the love of power. It will all be about money and returns.

Yes, the media moguls could be dreadful. Yes, they distorted our democracy. Certainly there were too few of them. But we may nevertheless find reasons to mourn their departure.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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