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Changing climates

The deregulation agenda for Australian media: what of the public interest?

AAP/Daniel Munoz

On the ABC’s Insiders on Sunday, discussion turned to media reform, and the panellists were in remarkable consensus.

The consensus seemed to be that reform was long overdue: a sense that it is time for change. Australian columnist Niki Savva declared:

1986 was the last time we all went through this [media reform], with our old friend Paul.

The Keating reforms to restrict cross-media ownership (which were actually 1992) were effective at halting the long march of media concentration in Australia. But in 2006 the Coalition introduced substantial regressive changes in the Broadcasting Services Amendment Act. This included the spectacular handing over of digital television spectrum to the existing free-to-air operators, who have since been able to maintain the same audience share to deliver to advertisers.

Viewers, meanwhile, have to put up with endlessly recycled content from their archives, or entire channels devoted to selling us lifestyle images that just happen to be attached to useless commodities.

While audiences might agree that reform is long overdue, the basis on which reform is being called for is entirely misplaced. It is that we are supposed to live in a digital world that has made our laws about media redundant. This is something Australians have been hearing for years now, from successive Labor and Liberal communications ministers.

The latest iteration came from communications minister Malcolm Turnbull last week. Writing in The Australian, Turnbull declared that:

…one of the government’s key priorities is deregulation.

Turnbull opened with the same old mantra, that:

…the media and telecommunications sectors are still fundamentally grounded in a mid-1990s world of relatively stable technologies and business models.

And that:

We now live in a world that has seen the explosion of the internet, the ubiquity of mobile devices, the invention of social media, the rollout of a superfast National Broadband Network, the end of analog television and the rise of cloud computing.

But Turnbull’s article turned to defending the repeal of the rule that no media proprietor is able to operate in more than 75% of the market by arguing that local content would not suffer. Focusing on the issue of local content is mainly aimed at his National Party colleagues, and simply does not address the real consequences of removing the 75% reach rule.

For a start, any moves toward deregulation does not acknowledge that Australia has one of the most concentrated media sectors in the developed world already.

Former communications minister Stephen Conroy did not acknowledge these facts either in the doomed reforms he introduced in March last year. But in Conroy’s case, he thought he could offer a repeal of the 75% reach rule in return for greater regulation over content, which some media proprietors turned into a censorship issue.

But even where content is regulated, which is in terms of local and Australian content provisions, there is no guarantee that the really pressing questions of our time, like climate change, will get press coverage. In the print media, our largest newspaper group has shown ignorance of and hostility towards climate change science and policy in Australia at a time when coverage of climate change worldwide has increased by 30%.

Media scholars around the world have shown time and time again that relaxing media ownership laws leads to greater concentration of ownership, and that only diversity of ownership leads to a diversity of content.

For example, prior to the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which deregulated broadcasting in the US, a single company could not own more than eight radio stations nationally. Today there are just three companies which own and control all radio broadcasting. One firm alone, Clear Channel, owns nearly 1200 stations.

Because local programming is expensive to produce, as Turnbull notes, the US media proprietors stripped local content to the bone. The amount of advertising and commercialism increased, and veteran US industry analyst Robert McChesney has lamented the way in which US commercial radio has been entirely colonised by the far political right. Any possibility of content diversity has also been pretty much pulped.

Even where there are requirements for maintaining minimum local content, there are ways in which local broadcast cultures can change when directed by a conglomerate. Advertising, news values and political commentary can easily morph into a tabloid view of the world, where broadcasting is simply a means of selling audiences to advertisers.

Over a decade ago, McChesney warned against falling for the new media argument. New media platforms have little impact on news agenda setting, for example. Very little new content is produced on social networking sites.

Media and media systems cannot simply be treated as an economic category, which can be sorted out by the “market”. They are also public goods which have crucial social consequences – the transmission of culture, and providing information that is politically relevant and factual. Media also exhibit what economists call “externalities”, which are costs and benefits which accrue to the whole of society not just an individual buyer/seller, producer/consumer, broadcaster/audience.

As McChesney explains:

If the market generates a lousy journalism that keeps citizens poorly informed, the entire society suffers – not just the consumers of particular media – because the resulting political governance will be shoddy. This state of affairs may lead to corruption, even war.

In the case of mass media, according to McChesney, “deregulation” is a misnomer:

…the real issue is not regulation versus free markets, but, to the contrary, regulation in the public interest versus regulation to serve purely private interests. The latter is often called deregulation, but that is not the case. Deregulation is better thought of, in most instances and certainly in the case of media, as a misleading term for unabashed and unacknowledged regulation on behalf of powerful self-interested private parties.

Turnbull has a difficult job in front of him. He is no doubt being pressured by his party to deregulate the media industry on behalf of business interests: an industry that is already one of the most acute oligopolies in the world.

Turnbull says he wants an open discussion, but perhaps the plans for reform are already clear. This Friday, Josh Frydenberg, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, is giving a talk on the “government’s deregulation agenda” at the InterContinental in Melbourne.

Curiously, the talk is free to members of free market thinktank the Institute for Public Affairs, but non-members need to register and pay to hear the talk. It seems that hearing about the government’s real plans about deregulation is highly regulated and any public interest in such policies can be obtained – but on a strictly private basis.

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