With our national media reduced to six dominant groups, and key groupings such as the Murdochs, the Gordons, the Stokes and James Packer working in concert in varying permutations across influential media, it’s time to reconsider how we regulate media diversity.

The last overhaul of media ownership laws was in 2006, when the Howard government liberalised them as part of a wider set of media reforms. The reforms went through on the vote of Steve Fielding after Barnaby Joyce crossed the floor, despite of a list of sweeteners offered to the Nationals on the regulation of regional content.

If you think 2006 isn’t all that long ago, consider the changes in Australian media since then (some of which were engendered by the reforms, some of which were occurring anyway). And note that in the UK, the media regulator OfCom is required to review the UK’s more stringent media ownership laws every three years.

Regardless of everyone’s strong opinions on the subject, regulating media diversity is complex and difficult. The basic difficulty is that diversity, or its close cousin plurality, is a nebulous thing, and only exists in the eye of the beholder or by common agreement. When we talk about regulating for diversity, we’re really talking about regulating diversity of news content, but we can’t regulate that directly without putting regulators in every newsroom in the country.

As a result, we use ownership as a proxy for diversity.

This isn’t entirely satisfactory. A consolidated media company operating across different platforms can provide diversity, if it cares to. Indeed, it may be in its interests to provide diversity if it operates more than one service in the same medium, enabling it to appeal to different market segments (as an analogy, though not an example, the ABC provides different kinds of news and current affairs services via Radio National, Triple J, Local Radio and NewsRadio, because it serves multiple markets in the same medium). Moreover, diverse ownership may not mean diverse news sources, if different companies source news and current affairs from the same provider.

Still, ownership is a much more concrete, objective, easy-to-regulate phenomenon than diversity, so we’re stuck with it.

And then there’s competition in the media. People get confused about the relationship between diversity and competition, and tend to mix them together. The two are only coincidentally related. The application of competition laws to the media is no different to their application in any other industry — it’s about markets, and whether a transaction substantially lessens competition. Markets require things to be bought and sold — such as advertising, or programming. Some people try to link competition and diversity by talking about a “marketplace of ideas”, but the idea doesn’t work under competition law because the “marketplace” is a metaphorical one, not an economic one.

Thus we regulate the ownership of the primary news and current affairs media, with the goal of balancing the tendency of industries to consolidate and develop economies of scale, with the commonly, though not universally, accepted goal of retaining media diversity. We used to regulate to keep foreigners (other than Rupert Murdoch) out of our media, too, but that was axed in the 2006 reforms.

This involves some choices. What are the primary news and current affairs media? Traditionally they’ve been television, radio and newspapers. Newspapers are slowly declining in influence because their circulation is falling. And the inclusion of radio in that group is increasingly anomalous, given that news and current affairs occupies a relatively small component of the radio industry’s output. TV remains the most influential medium by far in news and current affairs (interestingly OfCom found in the UK that TV had become more influential, not less, in recent years). But radio licence areas are the traditional unit of regulation when it comes to media ownership in Australia. Our media ownership laws consider who owns the newspapers and TV licences in each radio licence area. This is important in regional areas, where there are fewer media outlets and therefore each one is automatically more influential, but creates the anomaly that influential newspapers such as The Australian or The Australian Financial Review aren’t counted towards the media ownership rules anywhere. Nor is subscription television, which doesn’t operate on a licence area-based regulatory system, even though it probably produces more influential news and current affairs than most of the radio industry.

And then there’s online media, long considered a source of additional news and current affairs diversity (Richard Alston, for example, partly justified attempts to liberalise cross-media laws in the late 1990s by referring to internet services). In Australia, new media hasn’t been a significant mass media source of additional news and current affairs — especially not compared to, say, the United States. New media was rapidly colonised by the old media (using a business model that cleverly wrecked their own revenue streams), and the sites of traditional media companies and the ABC are the primary online news sources. The primary role of new media re diversity has been to enable greater user connectivity — traditionally, media companies were the gatekeepers for foreign media content, but they have now been bypassed by the internet, and blogging and other content-sharing media connect up communities and provide analysis and commentary. Actual additional news sites, such as Crikey, are rarities in Australia, and don’t attract anything like the traffic of the large media companies. Even so, given sections of News Ltd evidently feel sufficiently threatened by new media to try to silence critical views, the level of influence of new media might be ripe for reappraisal.

Then there’s the role of the ABC, which has a comprehensive charter but the core role of which is seen as the provision of high-quality, independent news and current affairs (for argumentative readers wishing to dispute “independent”, go look it up in a dictionary and compare its meaning to “balanced”, which is your real beef). The newscaff role of the national broadcaster is supposed to be in addition to what we get from media diversity, but increasingly the ABC (and to a much lesser extent SBS) seem to be regarded as having to do the heavy lifting of providing diversity of news content. That’s certainly the case in regional areas, where commercial radio has hubbed itself out of local relevance and ABC Local Radio and community radio stations have been left as the only real local voices other than the daily newspaper, if one exists.

Either we’re serious about diversity in this evolving media environment, or we leave the current rules to ossify, because they’re doing little to protect genuine diversity in light of the Packer-Murdoch move on Ten.

*Bernard Keane worked in broadcasting policy in the Department of Communications from 2000-08

Tomorrow: toward a new national media diversity rule