Stephen Conroy is the most powerful media maestro in Australia, beating the Sun King, Rupert Murdoch, into second place. And here’s why.
In the past couple of years, Conroy has pushed through a new $35 billion National Broadband Network, forced Telstra to hand over its cables and customers for everyone’s use, set up two major media inquiries, and taken a shot at Murdoch’s The Australian and The Daily Telegraph for running a “campaign of regime change” against the Gillard government. He’s also handed back millions of dollars in licence fees to commercial TV stations, boosted ABC funding, changed the way ABC board members are chosen, and tried to censor the internet (so far unsuccessfully).
Most recently, he has overruled his own public servants to snatch the Australia Network from Sky TV — part-owned by Murdoch’s BSkyB — and deliver it to the ABC in perpetuity. And this week he took delivery of an interim report from the government’s Convergence Review, which recommends the scrapping of Australia’s cross-media laws. He’s a busy man.
Not so long ago, Conroy was also a powerful political fixer on the Labor Right in Victoria, where his ShortCon faction (the other half is Bill Shorten) has held sway for the best part of a decade. Nowadays, he does not kick heads in the factions, because he’s too busy being a minister, but he still likes to get his way, whatever he’s doing.
The Power Index suggests he’s really a bovver boy, and he laughs. “I call it as I see it,” he says; “I’m prepared to say what I think”.
The 48-year old Chelsea fan’s no-nonsense approach is one reason why Conroy is so powerful. Another is that he knows his stuff after seven years in the portfolio. And that’s why we recently made him No. 1 in our digital media list too.
But any minister for broadband, communications and the digital economy would have enormous clout, even if he weren’t so keen to give News Limited a kicking. The minister not only referees the media scrum in this country, he also makes the rules by which the game is played. Which is what Conroy is busy doing right now.
And thanks to the NBN, that game is changing at breakneck speed. It’s “very big,” Conroy enthuses. “Our media laws, which are suited to the 1950s, have been completely overtaken by technology.”
Next March, Conroy is due to receive the final report from the Convergence Review, chaired by IBM’s ex-Australian managing director Glen Boreham, and will have to figure out how to police this new media landscape. The interim report is already urging him to scrap the cross-media laws, introduce a new public-interest test for media takeovers and set up a new watchdog to police the whole media industry.
But the big question is whether any rules can be made to work.
“With new TVs you can now sit in your lounge room and watch everything on one screen,” he says. “Free-to-air channels, pay-TV, the internet, Facebook, YouTube, plus movies or programs from 2000 channels you can download from around the world. We’re looking at how you can regulate that.”
He cites the example of kids TV, which requires programs shown between 6am and 8.30am and 4pm to 7pm to be G rated. “But kids get back from school and watch YouTube, and that has no classification at all. Can you make it have one? Probably not.” Let’s hope he doesn’t try.
Australian TV also has rules laying down a minimum percentage of Australian content. “Can you extend that to YouTube or to programs downloaded off the internet?” Conroy asks. “Again, probably not. But Boreham wants him to try.
“So how do we ensure Australia can tell its own stories?” Conroy asks, before replying: “No one has the answers. We’re the first in the world to really look at this. Others are waiting to see what we’re going to do. But the NBN means it’s all happening here much faster. It’s like a big steam train bearing down on us.”
Big technological changes are also happening in newspapers, where Conroy will have to respond to any recommendations from the Finkelstein inquiry, also due in March.