Lachlan Murdoch’s move to interim Ten CEO raises no issues about media diversity because … it changes nothing under the current media ownership rules.

According to the Australian Communications and Media Authority, Murdoch is already a “controller” of Ten, since he bought into James Packer’s share and joined the board. His shift to acting CEO merely confirms what the regulator already thought.

Murdoch’s role at Ten was the biggest recasting of the media diversity numbers in each of the major markets since Fairfax moved back into radio, because Murdoch also controls radio network DMG (his company Illyria owns half of it), which like Ten operates in every mainland state capital. That meant one less media group in each of the capitals courtesy of Murdoch controlling both Ten and DMG. Adelaide and Perth are now just one merger away from reaching the minimum number of groups, 5, after which no merger or hook-ups can happen.

The real issue re Lachlan Murdoch isn’t with Ten or DMG, but with News Ltd. Murdoch is a director and shareholder in parent company News Corporation. And despite the current focus on James Murdoch as the heir apparent, Lachlan’s obviously an heir, along with Rupert Murdoch’s other five children from his three marriages, of his father.

If this were deemed to be a form of “control” under the BSA, Lachlan Murdoch would be in breach of the “two out of three” ownership limit in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, courtesy of News Ltd’s metro dailies, his DMG network and Ten. Even the Howard Government baulked at allowing that.

ACMA doesn’t believe that’s the case. Lachlan isn’t in a position of “control” at News Corp, is its assessment. Our media ownership laws weren’t really written with dynasties in mind – despite the Fairfaxes, the Packers and the Murdochs playing a key role in Australian media since the 1930s.

But Murdoch has had his ownership problems with the normally quiescent “co-regulator” ACMA.  In a strangely under-reported finding in January, ACMA found that Murdoch and his DMG board colleague Siobhan McKenna, were in breach of the Broadcasting Services Act while they were directors of regional broadcaster Prime Media Group, (which inter alia is the television affiliate of the Seven Network, not Ten), by breaching the rule limiting ownership of two radio licences per market.

“The ACMA has determined that the commercial radio broadcasting directorship limits in section 56 of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (the Act) were breached by Mr Lachlan Murdoch and Ms Siobhan McKenna,” ACMA announced. It happened in October when Murdoch and McKenna became directors of Prime. McKenna later quit DMG’s board and Murdoch abandoned his role at Prime when he moved on to Ten.

Characteristically, ACMA decided to take no action, “noting the particular facts of the matters (including the overlap complexities) and Mr Murdoch’s and Ms McKenna’s resignations and co-operation in the matters. Following the ACMA’s findings, companies in the Illyria group have advised that they have implemented revised procedures to ensure that appropriate consideration is given to the radio directorship limits before new directors are appointed to their boards.”

This is one of the reasons why, despite an array of rules about who can own what and when, all ostensibly intended to protect diversity, our media is composed of a half dozen families and companies that treat television networks as playthings for them and their mates.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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