I’ve read yesterday’s piece by Julian Thomas on a public interest test for media mergers several times and, dullard that I am, I can’t work out why his arguments in any way justify such a policy.

New technologies won’t provide diversity on their own, says Thomas, and we need an approach that enables judgements about the impact of old and new media. I guess what he is trying to say is that a qualitative mechanism for regulating media diversity (like a public interest test) is better than a quantitative mechanism, which is what we’ve had for 20 years.

To the extent that a qualitative regulatory mechanism allows a finer-grained judgement of each case than the blunt instrument of a numerical test, that will always be true.

But we still run into the same problem that I flagged initially. Such a judgement is entirely subjective. One person’s media diversity is another’s monolithic tool of capitalist oppression. Some of us think that, by enabling users to provide their own content, and respond to others’ content, new media have fundamentally changed current affairs reporting and commentary. Others think blogs are for w-nkers and contribute nothing to diversity. Some think radio is still a key source of opinion. Others might look at Alan Jones trying to go back to his old coaching gig and decide that radio is now irrelevant.

So if Graeme Samuel decided on balance that the Brisbane Times site and the availability of TV programming online added sufficiently to media diversity that News Ltd’s purchase of a Brisbane television station was in the public interest, would Thomas be cheering the decision? Or would he complain that Samuel got it wrong, and that our media diversity was now in the hands of a Howard Government-appointed businessman, making decisions behind closed doors?

And if Samuel knocks such a proposal back but is reversed on appeal by the High Court, would he be arguing to legislate away appellant rights?

Thomas IS correct in noting that, contrary to what many people believe, it is not the ACCC’s job to protect media diversity, but markets for traded products. Nevertheless, Samuel and co have indicated that they see the provision of news as a market in some circumstances, and that control over sources of news would therefore be a factor in considering the competitive impact of media mergers, especially in small regional markets.

So do we overlay a complex, uncertain and subjective test on top of the competition process? You’d wonder why anyone would bother investing in media companies if we did that. But perhaps that’s what Thomas would prefer. Because if there’s one thing that proponents of further media reform all have in common, it’s the conviction that there’s too little media diversity now, and that virtually any media merger should be blocked.

That’s why they like a public interest test. But they may be horribly disappointed if they get one.