Unless an election intervenes, we’re set for another of those periodic eruptions into political debate of media ownership policies.

The government has made clear it’s keen to ditch the 75% television audience reach rule — something no sane person disagrees with — and also the “two out of three” rule, which prohibits ownership of a television, radio and a newspaper in the same radio licence area. Another quantitative requirement, the four/five rule, which requires there to be at least four separate media groups in a regional radio licence area and five in metropolitan areas — is apparently safe for now.

Those with a good memory for such things will recall that “two out of three” was a last-minute addition to the 2006 media ownership package proposed by Peter Costello in order to get the Nationals onside (Barnaby Joyce voted against the laws, but Steve Fielding supported them, so they passed). Some say that Costello’s intervention was at the request of James Packer, who was keen to flog the Nine Network and who had close links with the then-treasurer and prime minister Howard. But that might just be scurrilous speculation.

Coincidentally, all these years later, Costello is the new chairman of Nine Entertainment.

We have these rules around media ownership because we use ownership as a proxy for diversity: the more owners there are, the logic goes, the more diversity there is, the more “voices” there are. It works, up to a point: no one who saw every single one of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers, with one exception, editorialise in favour of the Iraq war can ever forget how ownership and diversity are fundamentally linked. Fundamentally linked — but not the same thing.

Let’s go back a step. Diversity was a serious problem in an analog world. The mass media was made up of TV, radio and newspapers. They attracted mass audiences, and thus their owners wielded serious influence over consumers. The mass media also rewired communities, reducing interactions between individuals and communities and boosting “interaction” controlled by media companies, leading to atomisation, loss of social capital and loss of community.

The mass media created a hub-and-spoke social model, with media companies as the hubs and the rest of us connected to them, though not to each other except through them. That’s OK — media has always rewired communities and even the human brain: we think differently from the way our forebears who relied on oral culture did, we think differently from the way our ancestors who lived before print did, and we’re thinking differently now from how we did in the analog era. We shape our tools, McLuhan said, and thereafter our tools shape us. And, he might have added, whoever controls those tools shape us as well.

That’s been the official basis for broadcasting regulation in Australia for decades. The unofficial basis was always about looking after powerful incumbents. But notionally we’ve regulated broadcasting — there’s no constitutional power to regulate newspapers in the same way — to regulate the way the media influences consumers.

Some have been arguing for years that the internet has obliterated the diversity argument — it no longer matters who controls the mainstream media because consumers have access to a huge variety of online media. Then-communications minister Richard Alston made that argument 15 years ago. The rejoinder then was two-fold: the mainstream media still commanded mass audiences, and in any event the major online media sites were controlled by the mainstream media as well.

Bit by bit, those rejoinders have lost their potency. Newspapers are dying. TV networks are struggling, even though they still command the biggest audiences. More and more Australian news sites are controlled by new entrants — The Guardian, HuffpoBuzzfeed. Social media enables users to completely control what news they see — to the likely detriment of our capacity for meaningful debate. The hub and spoke model is collapsing, replaced with a vast network in which everyone is their own hub and connected to everyone else. The one-time gatekeepers are now reduced to pleading that you #buythepaper and relying on clickbait to fund what’s left of serious journalism. Their voices are still powerful — particularly when they smear and vilify someone — but their future as businesses is unclear.

As the business models of media companies come under threat, the relationship between — but not identity of — ownership and diversity becomes more problematic. The most obvious way is that media companies, despite the history of mergers that delivered poor value for shareholders, look to transactions that will deliver greater scale and lower costs. Such mergers necessarily attract the attention of the competition regulator in relation to their impact on markets like advertising and content areas like sports rights. Despite fanciful discussion of “a marketplace of ideas”, the ACCC has no remit or legislative power to assess media mergers for their impact on diversity. And a decision to preserve competition in a product market like advertising may not necessarily be in the interests of diversity — media outlets like newspapers might close, or radio stations switch formats to cheap content, if a merger is rejected by the ACCC, entirely removing a voice from a market.

Chris Chapman, who finished last Friday as chair of the media regulator ACMA after a 10-year stint dealing with exactly these issues, warns about failing to distinguish between diversity and competition. “I’ve long recognised the clear but nuanced distinctions between diversity of media sources in the context of what we call the ownership and control rules under the Broadcasting Services Act, and the competition aspects thereof,” he told Crikey. “One informs the other but they are clearly different animals and shouldn’t be assumed to be the same … I think it’s always a mistake to talk about diversity as a proxy for competition and vice versa, so I think diversity is a relevant consideration in competition but they’re not the same thing and in competition assessments they’re not the same thing.”

While he’s guarded in his comments, you get the sense Chapman isn’t impressed with the overall quality of our debate around diversity. “I haven’t seen an impressive distillation of what diversity really means, how it’s measured, and what is the policy intent for the very easily-proffered view that you need diversity. That isn’t to say I’m anti-diversity — far from it. But I think that it’s an increasingly complex concept and I think it’s ripe for policy review.”

The kind of review that Chapman suggests is unlikely to happen in the current media reform debate, or what passes for it — especially given the ostensible source of such thinking within government, the Department of Communications, has been dramatically downsized in recent years. The Convergence Review in 2012 grappled with some of these issues, coming down in favour of regulating for influence rather than regulating ownership, but the media landscape has changed significantly even since then and the review sank without trace anyway. But Chapman cautions that diversity protections like “two out of three” (he doesn’t express a view either way on repeal — “it’s a matter for government”, he says) — are creatures of their time, not permanent rules.

But if we accept that diversity is no longer the pressing problem it was in the analog era, or even 15 years ago, the replacement of the hub-and-spoke model with a network model has generated other problems in the way media affects individuals. A communications industry policy — for that is what we must now have, instead of a broadcasting regulatory framework — in which diversity was important must necessarily grapple with other challenges that are arguably as important or even more so.

Tomorrow: the new, and not-so-new, challenges of media regulation.