Paul Fletcher communications minister
Communications and Arts Minister Paul Fletcher (Image: AAP/Alex Murray)

Congratulations to Paul Fletcher: he will very likely be the last communications minister in anything close to the traditional sense.

His job over the next three years will be to serve as undertaker for traditional media in Australia while streaming video and audio companies do to Foxtel, free-to-air TV and and commercial radio what Facebook and Google did to print media.

The media industry’s fawning reaction to Fletcher’s appointment was best summed up in the statement from Free TV Australia CEO Bridget Fair (a former Seven Network lobbyist) who gushed:

Paul Fletcher is an inspired choice for this portfolio. He is outstandingly well qualified and I warmly congratulate him on his appointment. It is hard to imagine anyone better suited to take on the challenges in the broadcasting and telecommunications sectors at this challenging time of great change. Minister Fletcher’s thoughtful and considered approach to policy development will stand us all in good stead and Free TV looks forward to working closely with him in the years ahead on the important issues facing the broadcasting industry.

Laying it on a bit thick, wasn’t she? The US-controlled Ten Network offered its own fawning statement:

Paul Fletcher is a great choice for the Communications portfolio. He is smart, pragmatic and has a deep understanding of our industry. Paul is definitely the right person to be dealing with the big and complex issues that need to be sorted in this area.

How much “dealing” Fletcher can do is questionable. The most powerful media groups in Australia are beyond his control — the mega-techs led by Facebook, Google and Amazon and the streaming giants Netflix, Disney Now, CBS All Access, HBO, Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon. Locally, there’s only Stan to compete. The government can pass as many new laws as it wants to, it can try and curtail and punish big tech companies but they are beyond its true reach, and business in Australia isn’t that vital to the giants. It’s US and European regulation that keeps Facebook and Google executives up at night, not Australian.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is about to hand down its Digital Platforms report, which is expected to recommend dramatic changes to regulations governing global online services including Google and Facebook. It should also recommend changes that will affect local media groups such as News Corp, Nine/Fairfax and the national broadcasters. These changes could see all media platforms — legacy, digital/social media and others — captured in a new regulatory regime.

The megatechs will not worry. To use an old phrase, they interpret regulation as damage, and route around it accordingly. And streaming business can’t be pushed out of Australia, they can’t be boxed in and regulated. Short of blocking the internet completely, they can’t be stopped from eroding the legacy media companies (except AM radio, which is well-placed to resist the onslaught from outside).

The big decisions for Fletcher will involve the future of the legacy companies — particularly Seven West Media and News Corp’s Foxtel. Foxtel’s financial state is weak. Management have made repeated mistakes that have undermined its financial structure and resources, and it continues to lose subscriber revenue to streaming. Meanwhile, Kerry Stokes may be looking to offload a problematic broadcasting asset that faces a future of declining revenue and ageing audiences.

Then there’s the ABC. Here, Fletcher doesn’t have a lot of work to do: the Coalition has already successfully gutted the broadcaster and cowed its management. It has installed a popular chair to pretend to voters that all is well. Fletcher’s task will be to trim the ABC’s budget further and make sure that management and staff understand what must happen to any journalist who scrutinises the government too closely. 

Otherwise, Fletcher gets the best seat in the house at an extended funeral of the Australian media sector.

Disagree? Let us know what Fletcher can do to get Australian media back on track: send your comments to [email protected].

Correction: this article originally stated the Digital Platforms report was being prepared by ACMA.