Despite almost two years of intensive lobbying, the Australian government’s bid to change the country’s media ownership regulations was defeated late last week. Last minute negotiations failed to deliver the votes necessary to pass the bill in the Senate.
The controversial legislation, known as the Broadcasting Services Amendment, would open the Australian commercial media to greater levels of foreign investment and reduce restrictions on cross-media ownership.
Existing regulations divide the industry into the “queens of screen” and the “princes of print.” No company can own more than one type of media organisation — TV, newspaper, or radio — in the same region. Foreign organisations are restricted to a 30 per cent ownership in national or metropolitan newspapers, and a 20 per cent ownership of a television license. There are also special rules governing the ownership of media outlets in regional areas and provisions for maintaining a minimum level of Australian content.
The government says many of these restrictions are anachronistic, encourage mediocrity, and unduly inhibit competition and growth.
“The existing regulatory regime is starting to look like one of those long-buried ordinances that regulate the watering of horses in Little Collins Street but failed to anticipate the arrival of the motor car,” Minister for Communications, Richard Alston told the Melbourne Press Club. “Quite simply, Australia’s media laws were written for another time. And like the ordinance regulating horse watering, our media regulations are not so much unworkable as irrelevant”
In its original form, the Broadcasting Service Amendment would have permitted ownership of all three types of media in the same area provided each maintained separate editorial and content management policies. Foreign ownership limitations would have been determined by government policy rather than specific legal restrictions.
Opposition to these changes from other political parties, free speech advocates, and academics was fierce. Critics argue that media ownership in Australia is already too concentrated, and that changes to the legislation would lead to mergers between the nationâe(TM)s largest media players.
“This legislation is ultimately about the future of Australian democracy,” said Lindsay Tanner, the Labor Party Shadow Minister for Communications. “It is about guaranteeing that we do not end up in the situation where a handful of people control the vast bulk of Australia’s mass media.”
The debate over media ownership has been a hot political issue since the introduction of the current rules in the mid-1980s. Prime Minister John Howard has advocated deregulation of the industry since coming to power in 1996, actively pursuing the policy since the 2001 election.
While acknowledging that restrictions on foreign ownership need modification, the Democrats, Labor, and Greens Senators considered the Broadcasting Services Amendment “a repeal of the cross-media laws rather than a reform, and so should be opposed outright.”
The government entered protracted negotiations earlier this year with the four Independent Senators that control the “swing vote” in the upper house. Indicating they might support the passage of an amended bill, various formulas for determining media concentration were proposed. Their demands also included stricter local content guidelines in regional markets and increased funding for the nation’s two public broadcasters.
Last week, a compromise was reached between the Government and Independents that would restrict a company to owning only two of three possible forms of media in the capital cities and regional areas. Potential mergers would also be blocked unless five independently owned media organisations remained in the capital cities or four in regional areas.
“At the moment we’ve got about five or six major commercial media organisations in this country,” says Labor Shadow Communication Minister Lindsay Tanner. “If this legislation [goes] through in the form the Government wants, that five or six will shrink to three.”
Alston claims the changes would not serve the interests of the “entrenched” media moguls, but help the small to medium sized organisations that need capital and new markets. “We think the protections we have in this country are world’s best practice and we’ve improved those via this legislation.”
The tentative agreement was broken this week when Independent Senator Brian Harradine moved an amendment to restrict any company from owning both a newspaper or television station in the same capital city. Explaining his decision, Harradine said, “I can’t accept that letting the big players make large cross-media purchases to form a combined newspaper-television group is in the interests of the general public.”
“If you look at the amendment, it still allows for a lot of movement from the cross-media ownership point of view,” said Independent Senator Shane Murphy. “It allows people to expand into radio; it allows them to expand into pay TV, and, by removing the foreign ownership controls, it means it allows for new voices. What it doesn’t allow for is for some of the big players to just get bigger.”
The Labor Party, Greens, Democrats, and Independents passed the amended bill on Wednesday. In response, the government used its majority in the House of Representatives to remove Harradine’s amendment before returning it to the Senate for further debate. Despite several last minute attempts at a compromise yesterday, the Senate voted to reject the unamended bill.
“That final amendment is really a dagger through the heart of cross-media reform,” Minister Alston told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “It simply wouldn’t achieve any of the objectives that not only our Government but governments around the world are increasingly recognising as desirable.”
Democrats Senator John Cherry dismisses such criticism. “The Senate’s acting in the interests of the public by preventing further concentration.”
The Government has indicated the bill is likely to be reintroduced when Parliament resumes in August, but acknowledged that it would probably be defeated again.