Ah, media reform. It’s like a great Shakespearean play, endlessly restaged with different actors and sets; you know what’s going to happen so the real interest is in the performances, the mise-en-scene, what new take the director brings to material everyone knows by heart.
Malcolm Turnbull has sent a package of proposals to the Prime Minister’s Office for his consideration prior to going to cabinet. That’s as usual — ultimately it is the PMO that says yes or no on media reform, while the communications minister merely implements it. The core of the Turnbull proposals is exactly the same as what Richard Alston proposed nearly 14 years ago — let’s get rid of media ownership restrictions because now there’s the internet. Admittedly, there’s considerably more substance to such an argument in 2015 than in 2001, when Alston didn’t want Australians to have broadband on the basis that it was only good for online gambling and porn.
Turnbull, it is understood, wants to remove two of the hard numerical ownership rules, the 75% reach rule (you can’t control TV licences reaching more than 75% of the population) and the prohibition on controlling more than two out of three of radio, TV and an associated newspaper.
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The reach rule is the closest thing you’ll get to a no-brainer in media reform. Even Stephen Conroy wanted to get rid of it — it’s an analog rule of no purpose other than to prevent efficient consolidation of an industry that already, apart from a few remaining remote licence areas, consist of three commercial programming suites. Typically for media reform, however, support for its removal isn’t universal — Kerry Stokes doesn’t need or particularly want the reach rule dumped, because doing so would benefit his competitors more than it would benefit him.
The removal of two out of three primarily benefits News Corporation, because it would free the company to acquire a TV network — i.e. Ten — in markets where Lachlan Murdoch already owns radio licences and the company operates newspapers. So why has News Corp criticised Turnbull’s proposed changes? Because of what isn’t in them — significant overhaul of the anti-siphoning list, the anti-competitive regulation that forces many sports rights holders to sell their content, at a cheaper price, to free-to-air networks.
Reform of the anti-siphoning list is a political minefield for any politician, and it’s not surprising that Turnbull is shy of venturing in. Stephen Conroy, in an underappreciated achievement, actually managed to put together a reasonable package of reform that would have significantly reduced the list, and Turnbull, equally to his credit, didn’t run a scare campaign on it from opposition. But Conroy never implemented that package, and Turnbull apparently has no plans to try.
News Corp’s opposition speaks volumes about the state of the media market in Australia, and about News Corp itself: its priorities lie with bolstering its profitable pay TV operations, the Foxtel monopoly is shares with Telstra, and the Fox Sports content provider that it fully owns, rather than with acquiring a free-to-air TV network. Buying Ten would give News Corp more political influence, which is not to be sneezed at at a time when everyone is acknowledging that its newspapers no longer possess electoral clout, but also mean a slow return to profitability, if it ever manages to get there. News Corp already has The Australian; it doesn’t need another eight-figure financial sinkhole.
There’s another source of opposition to Turnbull’s changes, one that for the most part is missing from the coverage of the latest re-staging of the media reform. Enter the Nationals, the Fool of the play, whose capering and inanities disguise a potent warning about how far the big players can go. The Nationals are the reason we still have a two out of three rule: in 2006, they threatened to block the Howard government’s ownership reforms until Peter Costello offered the retention of two out of three.
The Nationals talk a lot about local content, despite the fact that the era of the Howard government brought relentless centralisation of regional radio networks that killed off local content for many smaller markets. The Nationals’ vision of media policy is radio and TV companies forced to run generously staffed newsrooms in every licence area. The removal of two out of three offends them because 1. Turnbull has proposed it and they can’t abide Turnbull; and 2. they believe it will bring yet more networking of content in regional licence areas that aren’t at the minimum number of media groups (that’s the other quantitative media ownership rule, which no one is currently proposing to dump).
In 2006, the Nationals demanded, and got, a slate of absurd and in some cases unworkable regulations imposing local content requirements on regional radio stations. It’s unlikely they’ll let two out of three and the reach rule go without demanding more of the same — as the Prime Minister’s chief of staff knows better than anyone, because she had to negotiate with the Nationals in 2006.
All of which makes you wonder — just who benefited from leaking Turnbull’s proposals? Given the opposition, it doesn’t seem Turnbull had much to gain. The man whose job he wants, on the other hand …