SYDNEY — Despite a decade in office, Prime Minister John Howard’s government is still dragging its heels on updating Australia’s foreign and cross-media ownership laws.
The current laws that allow companies to own properties in two of the three media — TV, radio and print — in each city and cap foreign ownership at 15% of a TV network or 25% of a newspaper are to be scrapped.
Change has been anticipated for years, but myriad meetings and discussion groups later, there is still no firm date from Communications Minister Helen Coonan.
Coonan will say only that a discussion paper is due soon, but whether that happens in a week or a year is anyone’s guess.
The government indicated late last year it favored allowing corporations to own a TV station, two radio stations and a daily newspaper in the same city.
Theoretically, this means Aussie-turned-American Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. could buy the Seven or Ten Network; or the late Kerry Packer’s PBL could buy newspaper group Fairfax, which was Packer’s aim.
But the clock is ticking.
In January, the moratorium will end on issuing new terrestrial TV licenses and licenses to deliver TV over other platforms such as satellite, cable, broadband and digital. This could open the webs up to digital multichanneling, something Ten and Nine oppose, claiming advertising won’t support more channels.
While Howard opposes the current laws, changing them is not top of his list.
“If we can obtain agreement on a fair package, then we will go ahead with it,” he said recently. “I don’t regard changing the existing laws as the most important priority.”
This is an unusual stand for a man who controls both upper and lower houses of parliament and so can force through change. It is even harder to fathom when you consider that two previous attempts to relax the laws failed because the government did not have a sufficient majority in the senate.
But there is a strong public stance against concentration of the media, rallied by the Fairfax-owned newspapers that don’t want to be the subject of a buyout.
However, Murdoch and the Packer family, who are close friends of the conservative government, are keen for change.
This may all be a moot point: Technology is likely to make Coonan’s overdue public paper irrelevant.
The cross-media laws protect diversity in the media, yet the rising influence of the Internet and mobile technology mean that the newspapers and TV webs the laws protect are no longer the most important battleground.
It is possible that media congloms don’t want to go on an acquisitions spree, and that new players will freely enter the arena of mobile or Internet-related services.
Coonan acknowledges these changes, though until the paper appears industryites have no idea if they are addressed.
In a speech to parliament late last year, she quoted Murdoch as saying that he, too, was initially confused as to how to approach the digital question and that he “quietly hoped that this thing called the digital revolution would simply go away.”
Unfortunately for both Murdoch and Coonan, it won’t.