Who benefits from media reform? If history is any guide, it’s not the public

Some have criticised the government’s fresh attempt at media reform as benefiting big media companies such as News Corp. AAP/Dan Himbrechts

The “most significant media reform in Australia in a generation”, as unveiled by Communications Minister Mitch Fifield earlier this month, is no reform. It is a capitulation to the interests of licensees, shareholders and rent-seekers in the Australian media industries, painted up in the gaudy raiment of the protection of the public interest.

If the word “reform” implies genuine public benefit, then real reform has been in short supply for all of the 106 years of electronic media regulation in Australia.

First bite

The measured tone of Hansard records the debate of the Wireless Telegraphy Act in 1905. Perhaps it masks parliamentarians’ anxiety at the rapid spread of this ethereal technology, proven just four years earlier by its developer, Guglielmo Marconi.

Ship-to-shore and ship-to-ship communication was its immediate application. The Titanic disaster that demonstrated its value was seven years away, but maritime uptake was rapid.

A decade later, after the first world war, radio broadcasting – much the same as we know it today – was born. Radio amateurs were prominent pioneers and a Catholic priest in the eastern Sydney suburb of Waverley is believed to be the first to broadcast music in Sydney.

But the 1920s was no golden age of radio. It was more a time of regulatory chaos. There were sealed sets, then A- and B-class licences. The latter class was local and funded by advertising. The A class employed a range of financial tactics and had some public service duty.

Both classes struggled financially – especially if they were not allied with existing media outlets, like the local newspaper, or supported by sponsors with deep pockets.

The creation of the ABC

With rare wisdom, and an eye for public benefit, the federal government created a national broadcaster in 1932.

The government perceived that if Australia was to develop a national character, one that would rein in separatist tendencies in Western Australia, shared national experiences through the broadcast media were essential. The new network took over the eight established A-class stations.

In essence and spirit, it is still with Australians today: the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (nee Commission).

Rising, too, was a concern for a public service function for radio for all broadcasters, including commercial enterprises. Like commercial TV today, the business model of commercial wireless was not based on the delivery of entertainment, edification and education to audiences, but on the attraction of demographically sorted audiences with the propensity to spend, and exposing them to the blandishments of advertisers.

The creation of the Federal Communications Commission in the US in 1934 put the wind up the US broadcast industry, which was commercial to its bootstraps. Its response was to incorporate public service broadcasting in the existing broadcast streams, thus heading off Federal Communications Commission intervention.

The decision unleashed on the US audiences new talents like Ed Murrow and Orson Welles, and set the model for broadcasting elsewhere.

The arrival of television

The TV licence applications received by the royal commission on television in 1954 were bathed in abundant promises. Every applicant laid out a vision for Australia television.

There was to be quality education programs, religious broadcasting to embrace all faiths, light entertainment, news to inform the population, and drama to reflect the Australian experience.

By 1960, the industry’s excuse about “just getting on its feet” was wearing out. The stations' profits from screening almost exclusively imported programs were also irritating unsuccessful applicants. Calls for the issue of a third commercial licence, at least in Sydney and Melbourne, were growing.

The postmaster-general, C. W. Davidson, did something unexpected. He set Australian television on the road to mandatory Australian content.

Australian content regulation had at least one unanticipated consequence. Australian crews, shadowing foreign crews shooting commercials for Australian TV, learned the technical skills that, with the renaissance of cinema production in the 1970s, saw Australian films strut the world stage with technical excellence.

Television’s first night in Australia, November 5, 1956.

Hawke, Keating and later

The Hawke government’s changes to media laws were largely a rearguard action. After News Limited’s takeover of the Herald & Weekly Times group, it had unrivalled newspaper reach in all capital cities other than Perth.

Belatedly, Labor realised that its decision not to oppose the takeover would not buy editorial support. So, it moved to restrict foreign ownership, cross-media ownership and to try to guarantee some diversity of news and current affairs voices with the two-out-of-three rule – which is now on the chopping block.

The aggregation of regional licence areas in the 1990s was a last and lost chance to reform Australian television. Instead of issuing new local licences, the government cemented in place the privilege of the existing licence-holders. But it did lead to a greater diversity of programs and editorial voices.

The Howard government’s 2007 reforms were explained in part as meeting the need of Australian networks for foreign capital to grow and prosper. It is sufficient to say that James Packer made a lot of money; private equity took a bath; and Channel Nine came close to bankruptcy.

That nightmare still lurks today. Prime Media’s share price is just one-third of what it was three years ago. Network Ten has recovered 80% of its 2010 price, but it too is trading at one-third of the 2007 peak.

The present day

Many narratives flow from the current set of proposed changes, but the most alarming consequence is the collapse in diversity of news reporting – which is already compromised by regional TV networks closing newsrooms.

If mergers of regional licensees with city affiliates go ahead, the number of Australian commercial TV networks may become as few as three (plus Imparja in Alice Springs).

The proposed changes to the points system, which deals with the number of news stories relating to “local” areas, seeks to support diversity. But like so much government regulation, conscientiously planned by those with little experience of the industry it will affect, it will be easy to meet the target without honouring the purpose.

Story selection, buying in copy, sourcing amateur footage from mobile phones and using uncorroborated eyewitness accounts are among the many ways of covering the surface of events without providing the depth that serious news journalism demands.

The history of television regulation in Australia reveals two key lessons. First, licensee interests outweigh the public interest in the government’s eye, no matter what party is in power.

And if it is Sydney or the bush, bet on Sydney.