Our media maestros must be rubbing their hands in glee this morning to hear that Australia’s cross media laws are destined for the dustbin.
If the Convergence Review’s interim report is accepted by the government, it would be possible for Kerry Stokes (our No. 5 maestro) to buy Fairfax and a radio station to add to his Seven Network, or indeed for him to make a grab at his rivals at Nine or Ten (where he has just bought a 2.1% stake).
Similarly, it would be possible for Rupert Murdoch (our No.2 maestro) to take over Network Ten, with a bit of help from his eldest son Lachlan (who already owns 9%) or buy Nine from the poor old banks who lent it $3.7 billion (or the hedge funds who now own some of that debt).
How so? Well, the review (which is due to bring down its final report in March) has recommended the existing cross-media laws be scrapped. If that happens, media moguls would be allowed to own more than one TV station in a market, and to own a newspaper, TV network and radio station in the same city if they chose to do so.
At the moment, they are only allowed to own one TV station and a maximum of two of these three “voices”, radio, newspapers and TV.
The report suggests that pay-TV and online already count as other “voices”, and that these provide diversity. The new rule would be that there must be at least five of these “voices” in a city, and four in a region. But frankly, we can’t see any possibility of this ever being breached in our major cities.
So the only real limit to expansion would be a new public interest test, along the lines of the one introduced in the UK in 2002, which was what Murdoch’s opponents were relying on to block News International’s takeover of BSkyB. They were not optimistic about it being successful.
Quite what this public interest test might involve here has not been made clear by the Convergence Review’s chairman, Glen Boreham, former Australian managing director of IBM. But we believe it would be pretty hard to argue against most likely media mergers.
For example, peering into the future, we can imagine a News Limited bid for Fairfax being ruled out as against the public interest, but it would be much harder to make the case if Murdoch wanted to buy a TV station, like Nine or Ten. Indeed, we can see a future where all media groups are allowed to have a stake in all five “voices” — radio, TV, print, pay-TV and online — and end up having a share in four of them (ie all but pay-TV).
Nevertheless, committee member Louise McElvogue told The Power Index this morning that she believed the public interest test would be an important and effective new power.