Time to ditch antiquated media regulations

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, and Media, Telecommunications and IT Unit
The Drum 11th March, 2014

It is incredible to think the Australian government imposes largely the same regulations on media ownership that it did in the 1930s.

Waves of change in Australia's economic system have come and gone in that time. Not to mention technologies.

Indeed, television was in its experimental infancy when the first broadcasting ownership limits were imposed.

Statutory Rule 104 of 1935 allowed no more than one metropolitan broadcasting licence per state, two metropolitan licences in the country, three regional stations per state, and so forth.

How different a world was it? When a joint parliamentary committee examined Australia's broadcasting regulations seven years later, the other big topic was whether to nationalise the commercial broadcasters outright. (The committee was divided on this sensitive issue.)

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull is looking at finally eliminating some of the antiquated rules that limit how much traditional media one company can own.

The two major descendants of Statutory Rule 104 are the 75 per cent rule - which prevents a firm or individual from broadcasting to more than three quarters of the Australian population - and the two-out-of-three rule - which limits a firm or individual to owning only two of three out of television, radio, or newspaper in any given market.

There are a couple of others - and of course all mergers in all industries are subject to general competition law - but it is those two rules that are apparently in Turnbull's sights.

As they should be. It is fundamentally absurd that the same restrictions, based on the very same arguments, are being applied to our media-rich world as were being applied to the media-constrained world of 1935.

The 1942 parliamentary report spoke of "the inherent dangers of allowing the control of commercial broadcasting to become a monopoly or a partial monopoly."

A 2013 parliamentary report into media law changes made the same argument in different words: media ownership restrictions were all about protecting "diversity" in the media sector.

The shift in language is slight, but it's also amusingly wrongheaded. Diversity is the one thing we now have in spades. The head of the press council, Julian Disney, even complains of the "cacophony" of voices on the internet.

Just a few years ago supporters of media ownership restrictions would argue that Australia's narrow media landscape meant that Australians had little choice but to get their news and views from the big corporate media conglomerates.

Of course nobody could seriously make that argument anymore.

So now the argument is that while there might be lots of diversity online, most Australians still consume content produced by the big newspapers and broadcasters. As a consequence, the mainstream media still leads the discussion. The reasoning seems to be something like this: you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink.

The patronising paternalism of this argument should be obvious - as should be the implicit suggestion that the real media diversity problem is that Australians don't want media diversity.

But it is not novel to point out that the internet has made all the old arguments for media ownership restrictions into laughable anachronisms. At Crikey, Bernard Keane and Glenn Dyer are right: It's hard for the Government to claim it's purely motivated by digital libertarianism in media ownership considering it also has plans for a social media censorship scheme and a "three strikes" policy for file sharing.

Broadcasting is one of the most highly protected sectors of the economy. The business is built almost entirely on rent-seeking. You can bet there's a stream of media lobbyists filing in and out of parliament house every day. The media firms know exactly what they hope to get out of the next round of regulatory change. The deals have probably already been made.

None of that has changed since media ownership laws were last seriously revisited under the Howard government in 2006. (Labor tried to change the 75 per cent rule as part of its media regulation package early last year but that was fumbled along with the rest it.)

Then, as now, broadcasters were self-interested. The arrival of new online media firms was slightly more hypothetical eight years ago, but it was pretty obvious which way the wind was blowing.

What has changed since 2006 has been the incredible implosion of the legacy media firms. The slow erosion of newspaper profitability has become rapid disintegration. In 2012, Fairfax announced it was shedding an incredible 1900 staff. News Limited has been a bit more circumspect but the job losses are huge there as well.

Industry consolidation may be the only way to save some of our legacy media outlets.

The loss of classified advertising revenue makes the idea of a free-standing, traditionally-structured, independently-profitable newspaper a thing of the past. There has never been a more important time to ensure that the industry is institutionally flexible - capable of experimenting with ownership structures and capable of forming new alliances if necessary.

As Michelle Grattan puts it, there are big prizes about. And this is a sector that has found few prizes in recent years.

The irony is the 1930s rush by newspapers to buy radio broadcasting licences - the rush that inspired media ownership regulation in the first place - was out of fear that advertising revenue would migrate from print to the airwaves.

In the 1930s and '40s the fear that newspapers would lose their rivers of gold was misplaced.

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