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Panpa Bulletin : August 2006
10 | PANPA bULLETIN august 2006 Prime Minister John Howard's long-held fears about the political fall-out, if Australia's major media compa- nies failed to agree on the govern- ment's media reform proposals, are being realised. The legislative package, while it was astutely managed through Cabinet by Communications Minister Helen Coonan, has many hurdles to overcome, particularly from opposition by the Nationals in the Senate, before the country's anachronistic ownership laws can he phased out. Former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating, the architect of the old laws, has waded into the debate, throwing some telling punches in a lengthy criticism he released on the sweeping proposals. He has accused the Minister of "simply singing the tune that the free-to-air television networks have composed", of blocking new networks and making it possible for the existing networks to buy dominant print assets in the same markets. Industry leaders remain puzzled over the generally un- expected initial success Coonan scored in pushing through her proposals for meeting the new digital broadcasting age and her confidence that all the complex legislation will be passed. To meet an exacting timetable for achieving the introduction of less onerous foreign and cross ownership rules next year and the full introduction of digital, the legislation requires the drafting, introduction, debating and pass- ing of nine separate Bills. Every media company has reservations about some aspects of the reform package, which includes a safeguard stipulation that at least five independent media groups must operate in the mainland metropolitan areas and four in the regions. But the greatest split has arisen between the two print media heavyweights, News Limited and Fairfax. News, as well as being the biggest newspaper group, owns 25 per cent of pay-TV com- pany Foxtel and 50 per cent of Fox Sports. Miffed by Coonan's rebuff of Rupert Murdoch's plea for a "full reform -- or none at all" approach, News is accusing the government of unfairly protecting the free- to-air television networks and of being biased against pay-TV. Coonan's package will allow the free-to-air commercial stations to broadcastonemulti-channelfrom 2009, with full multi-channeling to come in once the digital switch- over is accomplished (scheduled for between 2010-2012). The unfairness element is one of several aspects of "flawed policy" that is being strongly lobbied against by News Limited chairman and chief executive John Hartigan. As part of its comprehensive cover of the reform issues, the company's flagship, The Australian, ran a story saying News was mounting a political campaign to overturn key ele- ments of the reform package. Hartigan, it said, would be meeting members of the govern- ment in Canberra, including the senators who will determine the final shape of the package. The same-day editorial which commented on the reforms kicked off by likening the Minister to a 15th century mayor trying to protect a guild of scribes against Johannes Gutenberg's printing press. Coonan's proposals received a much friendlier reception from the management of John Fairfax Holdings, publisher of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Australian Financial Review -- not one but two messages of support from its board room. Within minutes of the deregula- tion and digital television policies being released, chairman Ronald Walker released a statement "commending the senator's lead- ership" and thanking the Prime Minister and the government on "this important public policy initiative". "The media industry is the last major industry in Australia to be reformed, and these changes bring the sector into the 21st century," said Walker. "As a growing and increasingly diversified media company, with dynamic assets in print and online, Fairfax is exceptionally well-positioned, in conjunction with these changes to the media landscape, to chart its future for the benefit of our shareholders. "I am very optimistic about Fairfax's prospects and our strate- gic direction." In his message, CEO David Kirk said Fairfax welcomed and sup- ported the government's media and digital television policies and trusted "they will strengthen the media industry and diversity of media services provided to the Australian people". Kirk, who has separately made it clear that his group has no interest in moving into commercial televi- sion operations, said the policies provided clear opportunities for strategic growth for Fairfax and that the company looked forward to seeing the details relating to the new digital TV spectrum. "We hope there will be minimum constraints on the allocation of the new spectrum licenses so as to provide the fullest encouragement to the provision of viable, new digital services." "This is an exciting time for the company, its shareholders and our employees, and the readers, advertisers and audiences we serviced in Australia and New Zealand." While heartened by such effusive support Coonan, who has accused News Limited's editors of "all singing from the same hymn sheet" in support of Murdoch's opposition, would have been much less happy with the out- of-step-with-management views expressed in the well-crafted editorial run in Fairfax's business daily, The Australian Financial Review. Indirectly, the editorial largely endorsed News Limited's argu- ment that the proposed changes will distort the market, reduce diversity and continue the privi- leged and protected position of commercial television. The AFR attacked the "racket" that had "worked splendidly for governments and media com- panies for decades" because fear of offending media barons had paralysed governments and led to policies that short-changed consumers. - "until the digital communications revolution un- leashed the gales of change swirl- ing through the corridors of the 'old media'." The editorial concluded that Coonan's proposals were all too cautious: "Big media companies will have more freedom.There may be mergers, foreign takeovers and new media alliances. "But there is not quite the sense of excitement there might have been 10 or even five years ago. The big newspaper and TV companies that were intended to be protected by cross-media and other rules are instead struggling to fight off the threat from the internet." "The new media policy, like the old one, risks being made redundant by technology -- which may break some monopolies and create new ones -- before it really works." "Like a dutiful consort, the government still walks a respect- ful distance behind the media barons. But they both risk being left behind." Media reforms get mixed reception the government’s new media ownership policy is creating waves among australia’s top publishing conglomerates and it’s not all bad writes Jack Beverley. “Like a dutiful consort, the government still walks a respectful distance behind the media barons. but they both risk being left behind.”