Deregulation a step closer

Media deregulation in Australia is a step closer with most major publishers in support of Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s desire to dispose of the current platform-specific regulatory framework that has locked companies to an era pre-internet.

Currently media companies are restricted by a “two-out-of-three rule”, where proprietors can own only two of the three platforms that existed prior to the digital revolution – newspaper, television or radio – in the same market.

Mr Turnbull wants to dispense with this, leaving the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission as the final arbiter of any merger or takeover. He also wants to abolish the broadcast reach laws, which prohibits a television station reaching more than 75 per cent of the population.

“The arrival of the internet and the additional diversity and avenues for competition that it brings, really says we should have less regulation and more freedom,” he said.

Both Mr Turnbull and Prime Minister Tony Abbott have adopted a cautious approach to any reforms, with the government wanting to be in step with “a broad consensus” of stakeholders. This places more significance on the position of major media companies in regard to the shape of the reform proposals.

Yet despite the momentum for reform, storm clouds are gathering over the passage of any proposed changes through the Senate.

The way forward

The government plans to introduce some non-contentious legislation from its communications review within the next month, with the bigger ticket items likely to be left to later in the year after further discussions.

Shadow Minister for Communications Jason Clare has not committed to a position, despite the Labor Party supporting a proposal to abolish the 75 per cent reach rule when in government. Mr Clare said he would wait to see details of the opposition’s plans.

Meanwhile, the Labor caucus is expressing concerns over the possible impact on regional news services and local content, as well as mounting irrational and outdated arguments over ownership concentration – a point that will resonate with the Greens.

In the event Labor fails to back the measures, the government would need to look to the Palmer United Party, but crossbench support at this stage is shaky to say the least.

The position of the publishers

The two largest publishers, News Corp Australia and Fairfax Media, went public with their arguments for reform on Tuesday, with editorials in the companies’ mastheads strongly in favour of deregulation.

The leader in Fairfax’s The Sydney Morning Herald said Australia needed a level playing field in media regulation if the public was to benefit from continued investment in quality journalism and content. The government should put the case to the public to scrap the so-called two out of three law, it said. “The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission should be left to decide when any proposed consolidation substantially reduces competition. In that case, it can reject mergers and takeovers or apply conditions, as it would in any industry.”

News Corp Australia’s national daily, The Australian, also supported the ACCC as the final arbiter. In terms of the government inclusive, consensus approach, it said in its editorial: “A cautious approach may reflect the political instinct of a recently elected Prime Minister, but it will not suffice. The media industry needs modern regulation and clear signals from government if it is to continue serving the needs of Australian consumers and meeting its important duty in our democracy.”

APN News & Media chief executive Michael Miller said current media reach and ownership restrictions were outdated, and did not take into account digital or social media voices or the arrival of overseas media outlets. “The current rules also do not recognise the fact most media companies now communicate across multiple platforms,’’ he said.

‘‘Media consumers want both choice and quality. A more open media market will provide both of these.’’ He also agreed the ACCC should deal with media mergers, as it did in other industries.

West Australian Newspapers is the odd man out. WAN’s The West Australian has taken the Seven West Media line, arguing against abandoning the 75 per cent broadcast reach rule, which prevents mergers between metropolitan networks and their regional affiliates.  It also argued in favour of maintaining the anti-siphoning list of major sporting events.

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