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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

media ownership and digital democracy « Previous | |Next »
June 23, 2003

It is pretty clear that Senator Alston's proposed deregulatory reforms are in favour of the big media owners (Murdoch and Packer). The Bill is the Broadcast Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2002. The explanatory notes are here. The background briefing on media ownership in Australia can be found here. Second Reading speeches in the House of Representatives can be found here

It appears that this proposed deregulation is along similar lines to what is happening in the US, where the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided to relax limits on how media companies can merge and grow. That recent decision allowed individual companies to own television stations reaching nearly half the nation's viewers and combinations of newspapers and broadcast stations in the same city. It would appear that the Coalition is opposed to cross media ownership, has a lack of concern with alternatives regimes of regulation and is indifferent to long-term policy solutions. It is all about a quick fix.

And the opposition of Oz webloggers Ken Parish and Tim Dunlop and Senators John Cherry and Brian Harradine to Senator Alston's Media Ownership Bill is to block further deregulation to prevent the further concentration of media ownership in Australia.

What they rightly fear is this dystopian scenario. One company can own a town's local newspaper, TV and radio station. National TV networks can merge their news operations. There is no limit to the size of these media giants. In such a world we will only get one version of the news. Issues that matter can be more easily buried or distorted, and differing viewpoints will not be heard. Hence the defence and protection of localism, diversity and competition in the media.

Of course above scenario is a hypothethical----it is 'a what if'. Though it would never happen across the nation, it does highlight the importance of diversity of media for the healthy functioning of liberal democracy. A diversity of media allows a diversity of voices who can raise a diversity issues that matter to citizens in public. So diversity is a good thing for democracy. The lack of diversity means complacency as Scott Wickstein points out about Adelaide. Despite the new media diversity is lessening, and the cross media ownership rules are all that stand in the way of further media concentration.

The problem that I have with the Parish/Dunlop/Cherry/Harradine position is that it's basically a defence of the mid-1980s Hawke/Keating position. The status quo means that we end up with a de facto defence of hegemony of the old big corporate media regime of free-to-air television and newspapers. Better that than what would come next is the response. However, the defense is too negative. What needs to be asked is: 'What public interest is being served by the current laws?' Like their opponents no alternative regimes are considered and there is no long-term media policy.

We need to look broader because the deregulation of foreign ownership and cross media ownership restrictions is being made at a time of transition from the older media of TV and newspapers to the emerging broadband landscape. Julian Thomas observes that since the mid-1980s:

"...there has been the emergence of a whole new generation of cross-media interests outside the scope of the current rules. Considerable cross-ownership now exists both within new media and between new and old media....The stronger objection to the cross-media rules is that they do not extend to media forms that have emerged since 1987, such as subscription television, and they do not take account of the convergence of telecommunications, broadcasting and the Internet. This is true, and needs to be addressed through some changes to the existing system. So what should replace the cross-media rules, and when?"

There does seem to be a block to the emergence of new players that we could have had with the advent of digital TV and broadband. So why not shift to also thinking about democracy in terms of the newly forming digital landscape?

The Centre for Digital Democracy says that a democratic media policy is one that advocates for the following:

"...dozens of noncommercial, interactive digital cable and satellite channels for each community and the nation; there should be resources available to help harness the creative and civic vitality of nonprofits and others online; and education and community economic development should be in the foreground--not a mere afterthought--in building out digital networks."

This shift to a digital democracy strikes me as the positive way to go. It requires rethinking what we mean by diversity in the media and how to achieve it to ensure the public interest is meet. That requires new modes of new systems of regulatory governance to ensure both increased competition and greater diversity of media content and ownership.


Here's a libertarian suggestion about what to do from Jack Robertson. Jack says:

"I fully support the removal of all media ownership controls in Australia, with the codicils that all defamation laws should also be scrapped and ABC funding significantly increased, the new levels being legislatively 'entrenched' in some way....I say open the floodgates. Let's all tough it out in the ideas marketplace. And may the global information meritocracy prevail."

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 1:17 PM | | Comments (2)



I think you're partly on the right track. If you've read the updates and comment threads to my post on Alston's "reforms", you'll see:
(a) I think abolition of foreign ownership rules but retention of cross-media rules could be a good idea, because it may foster diversity by attracting new investment that would strengthen players like Fairfax and the Seven Network; and
(b) the picture would be less bleak if the government (Liberal or Labor) bit the bullet and issued several more free-to-air TV licences. There is no technlogical reason why that could not be done.

Both options potentially increase choice and diversity, and neither is on any view a defence of the Hawke/Keating positions of the late 1980s. In fact, the Labor government did essentially exactly what Alston is proposing to do now: exactly what Murpack wants. Labor managed the transition to cable, digital TV and Internet broadcasting in ways which precisely mirrored what Murpack wanted: to preserve and enhance their own dominance.

Fostering genuine diversity is the last thing Murpack wants, and the last thing either a Coalition or Labor government is going to propose, because both fear being targeted for political retribution by Murpack. Thus, we can talk about positive policy proposals all we like, but they're not going to see the light of day. All we can really hope to achieve is to persuade the Independent Senators that selling out in exchange for greater funding for the ABC and community broadcasting is still selling out. Hopefully last minute public lobbying can still persuade some of the Independents not to do so.

That will probably mean that this legislation will join all the other double dissolution triggers. However I've reached the poinbt where I think that's an unavoidable scenario. The next election will be make or break for a wide range of core values, including media diversity, industrial democracy and a genuinely universal Medicare. You can't compromise with those who would destroy these things, you just have to fight them.

Why cannot the 4 Independent Senators be persuaded to take the first steps towards a postive media policy that facilitates genuine diversity.

Governments like wins (legislation getting through)as well as acquiring triggers for a double dissolution.

Why does the only political option to diversity have to be no no no no no no no no. Why not try some a regime with deregulation and a public diversity test?

I cannot for the life of me see why its going to be resolved witha federal election when the Labor Party will protect the interests of Murdoch and Packer just like the Coalition.