According to the Sydney Morning Herald (link via Tim Blair), Communications Minister Richard Alston is on the verge of clinching a deal with the 4 Independent Senators which would see the effective abolition of Australia’s current foreign and cross-media ownership laws, albeit with some minor concessions to the Independents which sound on their face to be almost meaningless. Here’s a link to a Parliamentary Library rundown on Australia’s current media ownership laws.
If it’s really true that Alston is close to clinching a deal in the Senate, it’s no exaggeration to say that this represents a devastating blow to the future of democracy in this country. Scrapping of the existing rules would almost certainly mean that all electronic and print media would rapidly become completely dominated by just 2 major players: Packer and Murdoch. Fairfax would certainly cease to exist in any meaningful form, as would any other media group of any significant size. As Murpack already dominates cable TV, the implications should be obvious.
Given that Kerry Packer is already living on borrowed time with a dicky heart, while Murdoch is in his seventies and can’t live forever, it’s highly likely that the overwhelming majority of Australian media will fall into foreign hands in the reasonably foreseeable future. Jamie Packer does a convincing imitation of the village idiot. He’s almost bound to do a “young Warwick Fairfax” at some stage and bet the farm on some hare-brained scheme, or give it all away to Ron Hubbard and the Scientologists.
Not even the US, home of rabid neo-liberalism, has gone anywhere near as far as Alston’s plan to deregulate media ownership almost completely. They retain foreign ownership rules, which is why Rupert Murdoch had to take out American citizenship before he could buy Fox. Moreover, while they’ve just relaxed cross-media ownership rules to an extent, a single owner can still only achieve audience reach of 45% of the American population.
Alston’s plan is a crazy and frightening prospect. Australian Internet news will also necessarily be dominated by Murpack. Any argument that bloggers or independent Internet-based news sources can somehow provide diversity of news and current affairs coverage is either wishful thinking or deliberately misleading propaganda. The cost of media technology and the ability of large media proprietors to achieve economies of scale by leveraging content across a wide range of media formats mean that this is an industry with huge entry barriers and therefore extremely susceptible to monopoly (or duopoly) control.
In this context, the ongoing campaign to abolish or “gut” the ABC by the Tories and their pundit and blogosphere apologists takes on a particularly sinister tone. This situation exposes the neo-liberal “invisible hand” of the market mantra for the pernicious nonsense it is. Does anyone seriously think that an Australia where citizens’ ability to exercise democratic freedom of speech is totally controlled by 2 billionaires (or even worse by 2 foreign mega-corporations) is in the public interest? Australia would then have just about the greatest concentration of media ownership of any western democracy except Italy, where Silvio Berlusconi owns just about everything and overtly runs the joint as well (see OpenDemocracy for lots of articles on these issues). Australia would then have ceased to be a liberal democracy in any meaningful sense. I wonder when the lefties are going to wake up and start focusing on this vital issue instead of carrying on with an interminable and largely pointless carping monologue about Iraq and WMD.
Just to pre-empt the inevitable rightie response, this should not be seen as a left-right issue. Freedom of speech and diversity of viewpoint are core liberal-democratic values irrespective of one’s views on social democracy versus “market forces”. Even Hayek didn’t argue that regulation is never justified. It’s only some of his less thoughtful neo-disciples who take that approach.
Update – Tim Dunlop’s on the case as well. He has contact details for the 4 Independent Senators, so you can write to them and protest/lobby. Wake up! Do it! This is bloody important, for crying out loud.
Update 2 – Gary Sauer-Thompson thinks I’m over-reacting. I think he’s missing the point, as I argue in his comment box. Gary places his faith in an article by Michelle Grattan in today’s Age newspaper. He especially emphasises a supposed safeguard whereby there would be “a prohibition on owning a TV licence, a radio licence and a newspaper in one market.” However, unless there’s more to it than Grattan explains, that would do nothing to stop Packer buying Fairfax and Murdoch buying the Seven Network, thereby both controlling a newspaper and TV station (though not a radio station) in each capital city. Of course, Packer would only have newspapers in Sydney and Melbourne to start with, although there’d be nothing to prevent him from muscling into other markets as well (and Murdoch probably wouldn’t try to stop him as long as they could carve it up between themselves). If that isn’t a duopoly I don’t know what you’d call it.
Update 3 – The comments on Tim Blair’s blog are also worth reading on this issue. One particularly incisive one was from “Mork”, who stressed the importance of decent anti-trust laws (Australia’s are nowhere near as strong as US equivalents). He also pointed out (as did Michael Jennings) that there’s no technological (spectrum) reason why several additional free-to-air TV licences couldn’t be issued. The only plausible reason that hasn’t happened is that it would displease Murpack, who already have disproportionate influence over the two major parties because they already enjoy something not all that far from duopolistic control. Some of my concerns about relaxing regulatory controls would be satisfied if there were more TV licences. As I’ve emphasised, my major concern is to ensure diversity of media voices through having several strong industry participants rather than just two.