rupert murdoch News Corp
Rupert Murdoch

Yesterday, in a move that smacks of deja vu, the Senate voted to hold an inquiry into Australian media ownership and diversity.

It comes in the wake of a parliamentary petition calling for a royal commission into News Corp and its media concentration, set in motion by former prime minister Kevin Rudd, which attracted more than 500,000 signatories.

Inquiries and probes into media concentration, news conglomerates and media moguls date back to the ’70s in a country where media concentration is one of the highest in the world — although none of these inquiries and investigations have done much to break up or dilute ownership.

Crikey takes a look at some of the inquiries through the ages.

1981: Norris Inquiry

An inquiry in Victoria implemented under Liberal state premier Rupert Hamer found there was an increasing concentration of ownership and control of newspapers, and recommended an independent statutory authority to scrutinise proposed newspaper acquisitions.

Its recommendations were ignored.

1988: Bond Media inquiry

Under Labor prime minister Bob Hawke, an inquiry was announced early in 1988 by the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal to investigate entrepreneur Alan Bond’s fitness to hold 18 television and radio licences after he bought Channel Nine from Kerry Packer for $1 billion.

The inquiry found Bond had paid former Queensland premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen a $400,000 “defamation payout”, which the tribunal claimed was “commercial blackmail” for Bond to be allowed to continue business in the state. He had also made threats to AMP Society executive Leigh Hall, collecting dirt and threatening blackmail.

Despite these wrongdoings, the Federal Court pretty much threw out the tribunal’s findings.

1991: Print media inquiry

Shortly after the Bond fiasco, an inquiry was launched into Australia’s print media following concerns about Rupert Murdoch’s influence, and the concentration of ownership. The inquiry came as Kerry Packer was unsuccessfully trying to take control of Fairfax newspapers.

While the committee found the high concentration of ownership meant there was limited coverage on a range of information and ideas, there wasn’t evidence to show reporting had become biased or that there was a lack of news diversity.

The inquiry also found foreign ownership of Australian media outlets should be less than 20% and recommended media mergers be approved by the Trade Practices Commission.

1994: Percentage Players inquiry

After Packer withdrew his Fairfax bid, Canadian publisher Conrad Black stepped in. Despite being a foreign investor, the federal cabinet approved the increase of Black’s ownership to 25%.

The 1994 senate inquiry looked into whether Black’s ownership violated foreign ownership rules in Australia — and whether a “deal” was struck between Black and then prime minister Paul Keating. 

The inquiry recommended changes to foreign ownership laws. It also concluded that Keating had hoped to influence poll coverage by letting Black increase his holdings.

1999: Productivity Commission’s competition inquiry

The Productivity Commission looked into whether current broadcasting laws were anti-competitive under suggestion from John Howard’s Liberal government. It suggested deregulating certain rules, including foreign ownership rules, though warned safeguards would need to be put in place.

2006: ACCC on blogs

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) looked into whether small websites such as blogs carried the same weight and influence media outlets. It came after then communications minister Helen Coonan said the internet had led to an explosion of news diversity. The ACCC found people didn’t rely on blogs for credible news, and the two shouldn’t be considered the same.

2012: Convergence review

Given Australia’s previous regulatory framework was introduced in the 1990s, the government decided it was time a review of our media and communications policy framework was launched.

The review found regulation was needed around media ownership, media content standards and both Australian and local content, and recommended a new body be introduced to replace the Australian Press Council.

2012: Finklestein inquiry

Working adjunct to the Convergence Review, the Finklestein inquiry was launched to review the media’s influence and the case for a free press.

The inquiry found Australia’s newspaper industry is among the most concentrated in the developed world, that there was a crisis of confidence in the news media, and that the self-regulating Australian Press Council wasn’t working as intended. It recommended a government-funded News Media Council be established. It never happened.

2018: Competitive Neutrality of the National Broadcasters

The inquiry looking into whether SBS and ABC were competing fairly with the private sector’s media operators found the national broadcasters weren’t a competitive threat to commercial broadcasters — but recommended there be more transparency around their business activities.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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