What’s going on behind the scenes on the thorny issue of protecting local content on regional radio? Or to put it another way, what has Max Moore-Wilton, formerly John Howard’s right hand man and now Chair of Macquarie Media Group, been promised?

Today National Party Senator Barnaby Joyce told Crikey he was certain there had been “constant negotiations” between Moore-Wilton and Communications Minister Senator Helen Coonan’s office regarding the review of laws that mandate minimum levels of local content on regional radio.

Joyce believes that such negotiations may have influenced Macquarie’s decision to buy Southern Cross’s regional television stations.

Meanwhile Coonan’s office advises that she received the results of a review of the laws on local content just five days ago. “It is a comprehensive review and the Department is looking at it closely, and will provide advice back to the Minister.”

What convenient timing.

Last year Joyce forced Coonan to include tough measures to protect local content on regional radio as a condition of supporting her package of media reforms.

His move was largely a response to the record of Macquarie Media, which with its dominance of regional radio has become a “media hubber” par excellence, with local news often nothing more than, as Media Watch has put it, a “haphazard collections of stories from somewhere”.

The National Party anticipated that Macquarie might make a move on Southern Cross, and would then combine newsrooms across television and radio, reducing local content even further.

The National Party amendments to Coonan’s package guaranteed that from 2008, local radio must broadcast four and a half hours of local content each business day and that when a change of ownership occurs, extra requirements apply relating to the number of news bulletins and “local presence”.

At the time Macquarie protested that these laws made regional radio uneconomic, and that radio stations would have to close. Since then lobbying has been intense and constant, resulting in the review of the requirements within six months of them becoming law. And now Macquarie is making more investments in regional media.

When Moore-Wilton, formerly Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, became chairman of Macquarie Media, The Australian quoted a source tipping that he would be much better able to negotiate the “politically sensitive” negotiations over local content regulation.

Now nobody seems to believe that the local content requirements will be allowed to stand.

Who can doubt that there will soon be moves to relax the local content laws, making Macquarie’s investments even more profitable.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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