From the mid-20th century, there has been substantial international support for plurality of media ownership. Policies designed to limit the number of media outlets owned or controlled by one proprietor have been seen as a precondition for achieving a diverse range of viewpoints.
The assumption has been that concentrated ownership confers undemocratic power on “influential” owners to sway governments and advance their own private interests.
But while the power of major media groups has long been recognised – particularly during elections – ruling political parties increasingly only make significant policy changes with an eye to the impacts on their media allies.
Consistent with other Western nations, Australia’s media ownership rules have become more deregulated since the 1980s. This has meant media ownership in Australia has become increasingly concentrated.
The Australian media policy omelette cannot simply be unscrambled, but forward-thinking diversity rules could help prevent further concentration of ownership. Communications Minister Mitch Fifield recently announced the Turnbull government would once again attempt to tackle media reform. However, the proposed changes are neither future-looking nor future-proofing.
Serious attempts at systemic reform to tackle a changing media landscape were last seen in the Convergence Review in 2012.
But its proposed changes, including the idea of a Content Service Enterprise (where regulation of content was to be applied equally regardless of the platform it was delivered on), were too threatening to incumbent players. The review was binned.
Prior to the cross-media laws being introduced in 1987, limits had applied to the numbers of media-specific outlets within a single sector. This meant media groups such as John Fairfax Holdings and the Herald and Weekly Times had previously been able to accumulate media outlets across platforms like newspapers, TV and radio. But it was considered not to be in the public interest to allow this kind of concentration of influence.
Later, in the deregulatory spirit of the times, successive Coalition governments from 1996 attempted to repeal laws aimed at tackling media concentration. Yet it took until 2006 for this goal to be achieved.
These changes removed the main cross-media ownership restrictions. They allowed TV/newspaper/radio mergers with a “two out of three” media sector limit, and introduced metropolitan and rural/regional voice limits under the so-called “5/4 voices” test. The latter refers to the minimum number of media groups (or “voices”) allowed in metropolitan and regional markets respectively.
In spite of ongoing attempts, and largely due to a lack of industry consensus, conservative governments have been unable to remove the final ownership restrictions. But the Turnbull government says a consensus has now been reached.
The proposed changes to media ownership – axing the two-out-of-three rule and the 75% “reach” rule – are buried under more headline-grabbing measures. These include the removal of licence fees for commercial TV networks, the introduction of gambling ad restrictions on free-to-air licensees, and granting pay TV expanded access to sporting events previously on the anti-siphoning list.
Restricting gambling ads during daytime viewing has a clear community benefit. But the wider voice benefits of diversity that flow from retaining restrictions on the further concentration of ownership are far more consequential for all Australians.
Authors: Tim Dwyer, Associate Professor, Department of Media and Communications, University of Sydney