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Government’s media agenda driven by needs of old players, not arrival of new ones

The two out of three rule may be outdated, but maybe not in the black and white way Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull claims. AAP/Daniel Munoz

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull is sending out strong signals that the government is sympathetic to liberalising the cross-media rules, which now say an owner can have only two of TV, radio and print in the one market.

Turnbull recently met with media executives and he indicated again on Sunday, in an interview with Sky, that he believes there is a persuasive case for change.

“The view is put to me by many people in the industry and I think it’s a view that is very cogent … why in an age where the internet has become the super platform, the hyper platform to which everyone has access … and it is increasingly providing more and more and more and more avenues for competition in the media, why do we need to have platform-specific ownership rules dealing with newspapers and radio and television?

“Because this is an increasingly smaller part of the media landscape. And so, the argument goes [on] to say, look, diversity is no longer an issue, competition is greater than it has ever been - and that’s undoubtedly true. Why not just leave … media mergers and ownership issues to the ACCC, to the standard monopoly rules that apply?”

Tony Abbott flagged his thinking when asked about Turnbull’s comments. “We have a deregulationist instinct,” he said.

It can be argued that in the internet age the two out of three rule has become outdated, but not necessarily because the competitive situation has improved in the comprehensive, black and white way Turnbull claims.

Yes, there have been many new players (including The Conversation website). But the old players retain the core power when it comes to setting the daily news agenda.

One reason is that they are the ones with the boots on the ground. They have the manpower to dig out the news, while many of the new sites have limited or no such capacity (or interest) - they are mostly bigger on opinion and analysis than gathering primary data.

Of course this is an evolving situation. Guardian Australia, for example, has had some strong news-breaking stories on the Manus incidents and related matters and it had, in conjunction with the ABC, the Snowden-inspired revelations about Australian spying on Indonesia. Mail Online has big ambitions.

But regardless of exceptions, the general point remains true – and is likely to do so for some time. As Sean Kelly, who worked as press secretary to both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, writes in the latest issue of The Monthly, “Make no mistake, whatever the hype about ‘new media’, the nightly news reports still reign supreme in politics.”

ABC managing director Mark Scott noted the paradox in an interview with the The Saturday Paper at the weekend: “There are more voices, more websites, more commentary, and you’d argue that that leads to a dilution of the impact of traditional mainstream media.

“But so much of that new media is feeding off a narrow news agenda that is still set by a handful of media outlets.

“Perversely, even though they are challenged in terms of their profitability, in terms of their power and impact, they remain very strong. News Corporation has never been more powerful in Australia in a policy sense and an agenda-setting sense.”

Whether new players eventually alter that situation will depend on whether they can make enough money to become fully fledged news gatherers (assuming they want to) and that remains a question mark. Meanwhile we’ve seen rationalisation and increasing concentration of news coverage and opinion in the mainstream media.

Pressure for changing the rules is not so much because of things dramatically altering with the advent of new players, as about what’s happened to the old players.

The traditional commercial media face more difficult financial circumstances, including fragmented advertising markets because of the internet and the decline of newspaper circulations. This is making them desperate for the rules to be freed up.

Matthew Ricketson, professor of journalism at the University of Canberra, applying the “who benefits?” test, observes that it is established players, not the newbies, who are pushing for change.

One factor undermining the rules is that what is “print media” is now fluid. The ABC doesn’t have a print paper, but its online news and commentary could be said to amount to a virtual newspaper. In that sense, it has a three out of three presence in the markets, while the commercial media are limited to two out of three.

If one thinks there should be a level playing field, this does chalk up a point for liberalising the rules governing the commercials (but not for constraining the ABC).

If the two out of three rule is to be changed, let’s just be upfront and acknowledge a couple of key points. Removing it would be primarily driven by the financial needs of the traditional commercial media, not by what’s happened so far with new players, and would lead to more concentration in that “old” media.

Listen to the new Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane here.