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Panpa Bulletin : July 2006
6 | PANPA BULLETIN July 2006 NEWS The public call made by Rupert Murdoch for the Aus- tralian government to scrap its plans to overhaul the country's media laws and completely dereg- ulate the $11 billion sector has put Prime Minister John Howard in a tight spot. Murdoch is urging complete de- regulation, which would open up the highly protected television sec- tor to greater competition. Alterna- tively, he wants the government to leave things as they are. To date, the government has been deeply committed to protecting the TV companies. "Tear up everything, and make it an open go for everybody -- other- wise leave it alone" Murdoch told re- porters at the Sydney launch of The Bulletin magazine's list of the 100 most influential Australians. Even before Murdoch's blunt in- tervention, the sweeping foreign and cross-ownership media chang- es included in the reform proposal plan devised by Communications Minister Helen Coonan looked like landing in Prime Minister John Howard's 'too hard' basket because of the fiercely divergent views split- ting the major industry players. This would neatly defer their in- troduction until 2012. As well as his public comments, Murdoch privately urged Howard to provide an open playing field for media operations in Australia over lunch at the Prime Minister's Sydney harbourside residence at Kirribilli. During the lunch, which the chief executive of News Limited, John Hartigan also attended, Murdoch advanced his concerns about the government's anti-siphoning list, which ensures that key sporting events are run on free-to-air televi- sion, is holding back the develop- ment of Foxtel. News Limited, which owns 25 per cent of Foxtel, and Kerry Stokes' Seven Network, had made it clear in their responses to Communications Minister Helen Coonan's call for comments on the reform proposals that her suggested format is totally unacceptable. Coonan'sproposalsaresupported by Packer's PBL group, which con- trols Channel Nine. It would benefit from having the value of its opera- tions protected and, already under pressure because of falling ad reve- nues and increased costs, is desper- ate to see no further competition. Fairfax also favours the ownership changes but wants to see as little regulation as possible on new digital TV, such as data casting. Stressingthat it, too, had long sup- ported the removal on ownership restrictions,NewsLimiteddescribed the proposals as a "model of selec- tive deregulation "that preserves the oligopoly of the free-to-air (FTA) TV sector while threatening the pay-TV industry." "However, we believe that the removal of these restrictions within the framework proposed will pro- vide even stronger protection for the most protected sector of Australia's media industry -- the commercial FTATV broadcasters". News wants more free-to-air TV licences allocated, despite the Howard government having made it clear it considers the market is not big enough to support more broadcasters. News, like Foxtel and some others, also want big cuts to the list of sports events that must be offered first to free-to-air networks before they can be shown on pay TV -- a move that could see viewers forcedtopayto watchtheirfavourite games. Speaking on ABC Radio, News spokesman Greg Baxter reinforced his company's criticism of the re- form plan by accusing the govern- ment of protecting free-to-air TV networks and squandering broad- cast spectrum that could be used for a fourth commercialTV network. "What we see really is the most indolent part of the industry, that is, the free-TV broadcasters, being rewarded for that indolence and the pay-TV industry, in which we have a stake, being in effect punished for its innovation." Although its submission has not been released, Channel Seven is known to support most of the re- forms, but is adamant that the new rules allow multi-channeling, en- abling it to launch a second free-to- air channel. Media commentator Mark Day, writing in The Australian, produced the neatest summary of the govern- ment's dilemma. "The 169 responses to the reform proposals "have a clear winner -- by a country mile," he said. " Self-interest." Another News Limited writer, Matthew Stevens, said Coonan's task is getting harder not easier as times goes on. "That is because there seems to be a newly-urgent defensiveness among the majors. "Maybe it is the product of how the internet is rewriting the rules that has unsettled them. But, there is certainly a sense the industry is now more interested in protecting its ex- isting profit platforms thanin pursu- ing destabilising regulatory reform." Of nearly 170 submissions re- leased, several, including those by Rural Press and APN News & Media, were kept under wraps because of confidentiality requests. Sixty-one came from media companies, in- dustry and public affairs peak bod- ies, academics and politicians. When Cabinet debates the pro- posed reforms, the strong opposi- tion of News Limited and Channel Seven plus the concerns of the Na- tionals about the impact on regional Australia, is widely expected to see the government opting to use a face- saving escape route it shrewdly left open for itself. The discussion paper which Senator Coonan issued in March noted that ownership rules could be retained until analog TV services are shutdown from2012,bywhich time digital TV should have increased di- versity. "The media package always had alternatives as to two time frames, when media changes might be introduced on cross and foreign ownership", the minister told the Senate. Although keen to get her entire package through parliament, the minister made it clear that scrap- ping the cross-media and foreign investment laws were not the "cen- tre-piece" of her plans but "impor- tant adjuncts" to the broader me- dia reforms, aimed at increasing the take-up of digital services. John Howard made it clear last year that he would not "die in a ditch" on cross-media reform. "It's not something that I'm going to dissipate a lot of politi- cal capital on," he said. "If we end up with everyone coming in for a chop and the thing being impos- sible to resolve, we'll just leave it as it is.." That two-time frame escape route must be looking increasingly inviting, especially now that Mur- doch has expressed his personal views so strongly. Murdoch weighs into media reform debate news ltd wants a free for all or no change at all. Could the major players’ differing views scuttle media reform to 2012 asks Jack Beverley? Rupert Murdoch neWSPIx