SYDNEY — Raising speculation that reform of Australia’s media ownership laws is back on the agenda, Oz media tycoon Kerry Packer strongly endorsed the re-election of John Howard’s conservative government in what could turn out to be a close Oct. 3 federal election.
In his first public appearance since heart surgery in July, Oz’s richest man and owner of the top-rated Nine Network said “of course” the government, elected in 1996 as Oz’s first conservative administration in 13 years, deserved another term, adding, “I don’t think the Labor Party should be in government” and needed “another few years in the wilderness.”
His remarks came as Labor unveiled its communications policy and flagged a tightening of the cross-media ownership rules, which prevent TV barons from controlling newspaper groups and vice-versa. Those rules have prevented Packer from achieving his longheld ambition of taking over Fairfax, a string of influential newspapers, and getting 50% of leading production house Artist Services.
Packer endorsed Howard before the 1996 election after Howard said the outmoded cross-media rules should be abolished. But the conservatives lost the battle on the issue, owing to a hostile Senate and public squabbling between media titans Kerry Stokes (furious at government offers of a one-time concession on foreign and cross media rules to allow U.S. citizen Rupert Murdoch to move on his Seven web), Murdoch (whose newspapers blasted the government’s handling of the issue) and Izzy Asper (whose Canada-based CanWest was ordered to sell one third of its stake in Network Ten).
Both Howard and Packer were terse when asked if the endorsement meant cross-media reform was back on the agenda, with Howard saying, “Oh come off it. All laws like that remain under review and when I was asked to give a categorical guarantee I said I wouldn’t. But I certainly don’t have any desire to revisit that issue and I have not had any recent discussions with Packer or Murdoch or anybody else.”
When asked if he had any new takeover plans for Fairfax, Packer snapped, “Do you really think I would be telling you if there was.”
Packer’s Nine web was a major beneficiary of a March government decision to give webs free access to digital spectrum until 2006, which was roundly condemned as a giveaway of public assets. News Corp. was furious at the giveaway and that the policy banned any new competing TV licenses until 2006, with News Oz topper Lachlan Murdoch condemning the digital policy as “a missed opportunity to really start to make some sense of media policy.”
“It was unthinkable that anyone would have the gall to ask for it and that anyone would have the gall to give it,” Murdoch said of the spectrum giveaway and competition ban. “We were disappointed with how the policy came out.”
Rupert Murdoch, Stokes and Asper have maintained silence throughout the election campaign.