Crikey readers could be forgiven for thinking the real business of government has jolted to a stop while identity issues like same sex marriage are resolved along with the continuing imbroglio over citizenship of elected representatives.

However, off-stage, behind-the-scenes, in the bureaucracy, and in headquarters of media corporations a lot of scurrying about is taking place.

What is presaged is the biggest media shake-up in the country since Rupert Murdoch took control of The Herald and Weekly Times back in the 1980’s, and one that will have far reaching consequences for how we access news and information.

We shouldn’t kid ourselves the media reforms ushered through the Senate back in September by Communications Minister Mitch Fifield will be limited to a few tremors in a media landscape.

Nothing is less likely to be the case against a background of parallel government inquiries into the ABC’s competitiveness in a digital marketplace, and media dominance of the behemoths Google and Facebook.

In all of this the question might be asked: would you buy a used media policy from Mitchell Peter Fifield, much of whose career has been served in the shadows, before becoming Communications minister since Malcolm Turnbull’s 2015 coup against Tony Abbott?

The short answer is “maybe, but maybe not!’’

Among Fifield’s various behind-the-scenes functions has been that of senior adviser to then Treasurer Peter Costello now chair of Nine Entertainment. In that role and given competitive pressures on struggling free-to-air networks, Costello would have more than a passing interest in the wash-up of the media reforms.

You can be sure Costello and Fifield have tick-tacked on the implications of the minister’s handiwork.

By getting rid of the “two out of three’’ rule preventing proprietors owning a newspaper, television and radio within one radio license area, and scrapping the 75% “reach rule’’ stopping a single proprietor controlling television licenses covering the entire country, opportunities arise for the networks to participate in what is likely to become a consolidation free-for-all. Where all this come to rest is anyone’s guess.

In the past week, we’ve observed fresh speculation about a possible merger between Seven West Media and Fairfax. This would bring together the free-to-air interests of Seven West plus its West Australian newspapers with Fairfax’s mastheads and radio network, including top-rating talk stations in Melbourne and Sydney.

In the disruption that will ensue from the media reforms what is likely is that Rupert Murdoch will seek to be a player. Lachlan Murdoch might have been gazumped by the American CBS network in his attempts to get control of Channel Ten, but as far as News’s ambitions in the cable TV and free-to-air space this will not be the end of the story.

Indeed, the possibility of a Murdoch play for either Seven West or Nine Entertainment can’t be ruled out.

While the connection may not be immediately obvious, the imminent $60 billion plus sale of most of Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox assets to Disney will free up a lot of cash. It’s not a big stretch to imagine some of that cash will be splashed into Australian assets along with his continuing attempts to secure 100% control of Sky News UK.

On the regulatory front, much will be happening over the next months with media inquiries getting under way. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s inquiry into market-power of Google and Facebook may well lead to some sort of government impost on these behemoths to help fund what’s loosely described as public interest journalism.

In remarks on the announcement of the ACCC inquiry its chairman Rod Sims gave the game away a bit when he said: “As the media sector evolves, there are growing concerns that digital platforms are affecting traditional media’s ability to fund the development of content.’’

One service the ACCC could provide is to establish exactly how much of the Australian ad spend is hoovered up by Google and Facebook. Figures provided by the companies to a parliamentary committee earlier year almost certainly way under-state inroads by the two into Australia’s advertising market worth about $15.6 billion in 2016

Given the ACCC inquiry and criticisms of the voraciousness of Google and Facebook, it’s surely not an accident that Google has revealed it will join forces with Fairfax to streamline advertising and develop digital media products.

This significant partnership will allow a portion of day-to-day advertising of Fairfax’s Metro publishing business to be booked using Google’s real-time digital platform for advertisers and media buyers. This allows bookings to be automated by computers with very significant advantages to a traditional media publisher.

Google’s Australian representatives pointed out this was a “first of its kind’’ arrangement in a brave new digital advertising world.

Finally, the ABC is being caught up in the winds of media change with Fifield having agreed to demands for a “competitive neutrality’’ inquiry into the national broadcaster along with an undertaking to legislate a requirement for it to be “fair’’ and “balanced’’.

The ABC Charter enshrines this fairness requirement anyway so the Fifield concession to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation on this matter is no more than a political stunt in return for her support. It’s to be hoped the Senate will not acquiesce.

ABC executives are, however, taking seriously the referral of the organization to the Australian Government Competitive Neutrality Complaints Office (AGCNCO), a separate unit within the Productivity Commission. This referral is a direct response by Fifield to pressure from the ABC’s competitors in the digital space to its successful products.

ABC.net.au ranks behind news.com.au and nine.com.au and ahead of smh.com.au in the Nielsen digital news rankings. Combine the SMH and The Age, and Fairfax digital offerings come out on top. The ABC’s use of taxpayer funds to boost its digital content in competition with the private sector will be addressed by the AGCNCO.

The last such inquiry was conducted into the childcare business back in 2014.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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