Richard Alston once accused the Labor opposition of having a “mogul-centric media policy”. The joke of course was not so much that he was right, but that the Coalition would mention it, since they too based their media policy entirely on balancing the demands of moguls.

Media policy statements from major party politicians should always be vetted against mogul-centrism, for that is their key purpose. Yesterday’s venture into media policy by Tony Abbott was no exception.

The speech was ostensibly about free speech, a subject Tony Abbott would be best to stay away from. For one who values free speech so much, he was strangely silent on the Howard government’s serial attacks on it — its restrictions on discussing euthanasia, its internet censorship laws, its sedition laws. “The job of government is to foster free speech, not stifle it. It’s to increase the number and the range of people who can participate in public debate, not reduce it,” Abbott said. Shame he didn’t speak up when John Howard and Phillip Ruddock were stifling public debate.

And Abbott devoted quite a bit of the speech to attacking the government over media regulation, despite the lack of any extant proposals from the government. Curiously, Abbott has been entirely silent on a range of actual government proposals with significant free speech implications, put forward in the current national security inquiry.

There was also Abbott’s perspective on China, that “the blogosphere and tweeting could soon give even China the ‘question everything’ mindset that has been so important to other countries’ creativity and weight in the world”. Perhaps Abbott, or his speechwriter, could do some fact-checking next time. That might tell them Twitter is routinely blocked in China and the best parallel is Sina Weibo, which eagerly censors according to Beijing’s agenda. Then again, we already knew that, even for a middle-aged man, Abbott is particularly clueless about the online world.

But the central message of Abbott’s speech was to media moguls: that there’d be no change on either media content regulation or media ownership laws under his government.

In particular, there’d be no public interest test or “suitability” tests of any kind. Australia’s existing numerical media ownership laws would remain.

That of course suits the incumbents perfectly well. There are six major media groups/families in Australia — the Murdochs, James Packer, the Stokeses, the Gordons, CVC and Fairfax. That’s all the diversity we’re likely to ever get from now on: Gina Rinehart is a new entrant and expands the potential diversity of ownership, but Packer is exiting in favour of becoming a gambling mogul. Moreover, all of these major players, except Fairfax, have shown a willingness to work closely with each other on some issues, to cross-invest with each other, to put aside once furious and litigious rivalries in order to co-operate. Despite her war with the Fairfax board, even Rinehart has indicated she’s quite happy to work with the Murdochs at Ten.

We’ve ended up with this concentration because our analog-era ownership laws, based on the quaint principle of how far radio signals travel, have with the connivance of both major parties allowed the growth of a small number of dominant national media groups that comply with numerical limits but defeat the intent of the law, to preserve diversity.

While a public interest test isn’t the solution, doing nothing will only entrench our lack of media diversity further.

But Abbott won’t be able to get away with doing nothing on broadcasting regulation: analog switch-off — hopefully someone has explained what that means to Abbott — is coming, and with it the attendant problems of a broadcasting regulatory framework designed around three single-channel commercial broadcasters. The commercial broadcasters also want to throw off their current regulated content burdens, or failing that see more burdens imposed on subscription TV, internet content and, well, anyone else who’s a potential threat. They also want to hog the spectrum they should be giving up come switchoff.

Abbott may be happily marching in lockstep with News Ltd now, but down the track that route will eventually run counter to what the free-to-airs want, even if Lachlan Murdoch has a foot in both camps (as Kerry and James Packer did for a long time).

Speaking of being in lockstep with News Ltd, Abbott also leapt to the defence of Andrew Bolt and promised to amend the relevant section of the Racial Discrimination Act under which he was found guilty last year. The rubbish about comparing Christians to “activist Aborigines” notwithstanding, Abbott is correct in wanting rid of the highly subjective “offensive behaviour because of race, colour or national or ethnic origin” section, which sees judges making determinations about poor journalism and banning websites. Just because powerful people abuse basic rights doesn’t justify their curtailment.

But what a pity Abbott’s new-founded interest in free speech doesn’t extend to more serious threats to it.

Peter Fray

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