Stephen Conroy has included media diversity in the draft terms of reference for the Government’s 2011 convergence review, opening up the media ownership issue for the first time since the Howard Government’s 2006 reforms.

Crikey has been a lone voice calling for a new look at the way we regulate media ownership in the wake of the Packer-Murdoch venture at the Ten Network. If you want an example of “convergence”, look no further than ownership convergence — the spread of the Murdoch, Packer, Gordon and Stokes families across and within Australian media. And the arrival at Ten and Fairfax of Gina Rinehart — one of the participants in the shameless and successful attack by a coalition of mining interests and News Ltd on the Rudd Government earlier this year — only reinforces the case that a serious look at media diversity is timely.

The issue isn’t exactly up in lights in the draft TOR — “the development and maintenance of a diverse, efficient and effective communications and media market that operates within an appropriately competitive environment and in the best interest of the Australian public.” But the accompanying discussion paper is rather clearer. “The Government intends that the review consider appropriate policy settings to ensure that Australians have access to a diverse media sector offering a range of services and perspectives.”

Unlike the Howard Government’s multiple attempts to deregulate cross-media ownership prohibitions, there’s no industry-led push for ownership deregulation at the moment (which means, incidentally, Conroy should be acknowledged for pushing the issue forward). The post-2006 framework gives the big players plenty of room to consolidate and extend their grip on Australian media assets, and that’s exactly what they’ve done. Removing the “2 out of 3” rule might appeal to Fairfax and Kerry Stokes in individual markets, but it’s not a priority. The only ownership rule that the industry agrees should go is the 75% reach rule for TV — and Conroy has repeatedly signaled he agrees.

The lack of interest from moguls, however, frees up the review to explore what diversity should mean in a post-switchover environment. What are the influential media that we want to see distributed across multiple owners (ownership being the proxy we use for diversity of opinion)? Traditionally TV, daily newspapers and radio have been assumed to be the “influential media.”

We can start by looking at where people source their news. This week’s Essential Report data shows FTA TV news remains the pre-eminent source of news — more people get their news from the commercial stations’ news bulletins than anywhere else, by far (64% weekdays, 59% weekends; 32% of people also use ABC TV news). Next — the categories aren’t exclusive — is internet news sites. That is predominantly the ABC’s site, the newspapers’ sites and others like ninemsn.com, which draw content from TV networks.

It also includes small independent operators like Crikey and overseas media sites that until the internet were available to Australians only to the extent that local newspapers used their content — but by and large it is dominated by mainstream media.

After that it’s newspapers – 42% on weekdays but rising to 50% on weekends. And after that… daylight. 17% of people use commercial radio as a news source. 9% use subscription TV news. 4% use blogs (most of them, apparently, Greens voters).

This model will change, mainly away from newspapers. Newspapers skew old. More than half of people over 65 use newspapers (newspapers are also used more by men than women, and by people with higher incomes — one of the reasons The Australian is written for old white male self-funded retirees in Queensland). But for Generations X and Y, only just over one-third use newspapers. Newspapers’ target audience is, literally, dying.

TV doesn’t change anywhere near as much as newspapers across demographics – younger people use it less, and poorer people more. And internet usage  is strong across all age groups.

This doesn’t give us a direct glimpse of “influence” though. Bizarrely, the more people use newspapers, the less they trust them. Younger people, who don’t read newspapers, have much higher levels trust in newspapers than older people – 41% of people over 65% believe newspapers are seldom or never trustworthy, despite their being the heaviest users of them. No other media has this strange disconnection between usage and trust – the ABC, for example, also skews old — even more so than newspapers — but trust rises with usage. The same with blogs — the biggest users of blogs as news sources are people under 25, and they have the highest levels of trust in them (still not particularly high — 26% regard them as “always or usually trustworthy”).

If you were designing a diversity test from scratch, would you include radio in the list of influential media? And leave out high-traffic news websites? Based on these figures, no.

This is the sort of issue a rigorous diversity review would get to grips with. In the absence of strong industry interest in ownership regulation, non-industry stakeholders are going to have to drive a serious examination of influence and diversity when the review gets underway in 2011.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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