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Panpa Bulletin : November December 2006
34 | PANPA BULLETIN November--December 2006 COVER STORY in their potential to strengthen the hands of already powerful media owners. On the matter of News's stake in Fairfax and its timing, the PM was quick to point out the new laws couldn't be behind the acquisition because they haven't come into operation. "[People] buy and sell shares every day and I just think everyone ought to calm down," he told journalists. Shadow Communication Minister Stephen Conroy begged to differ, arguing that the pending changes do not reflect a deep desire on the government's part to maintain or increase media diversity. "The decision by News Corp is clearly designed as positioning for when the floodgates truly open," he said. Not that Senator Conroy's side of politics has runs aplenty on the board on the media diversity front. As Malcolm Maiden and Matthew Ricketson from The Age men- tioned in the wake of Coonan's announce- ment, regardless of its expressed intention, the Hawke government's 1986 legislation aimed at maintaining diversity of owner- ship resulted in a net reduction in the number of daily and Sunday mastheads in Australia. Five years on, after a stampede of mergers and acquisitions -- and Warwick Fairfax's ill-advised attempt to grab back the family firm -- 19 metro dailies and 13 Sunday papers had become 12 and ten respectively. To date, much of the talk in the com- mon media has been of the incursions the electronic media might make into the print sector. That's because no top- tier newspaper company is talking about moving in on radio or television. With online technologies still somewhere near the base of an exponential growth curve, it doesn't take a Packer to see that free- to-air television is not the place to be right now. Massive bandwidth growth is inevitable, and as that happens, chances are the internet will assume a good deal of free-to-air's duties. It's only a matter of time before it takes moments, not hours, to download a movie. Print media are still too busy discovering the breadth and depth of their own simpatico with the web to give a moment's thought to Wheel of Fortune and Guthy-Renker. In the cities, at least. "If there is to be a flurry of mergers and takeovers as a result of the Coonan reforms," commentator Mark Day wrote in The Australian, "it is most likely to take place among the second level of media players looking to bulk up their scale. Rural Press or APN News & Media may be interested in a regional TV operator, such as Prime, WIN or Southern Cross." At this point, much of this remains futurespeak, however, as the requisite bu- reaucratic requirements reveal themselves in the coming months. The bill raises a raft of regulatory questions and issues likely to take months to resolve. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is pondering its part in protecting the inter- ests of prospective competitors and con- sumers alike (see box story). A legal feast looms as the Australian Communications and Media Authority wonders what to do with two new television channels. It looks as if the earliest the cross-media and foreign ownership changes will take effect is early February, when the new Register of Controlled Media Groups is slated to go live. But such is the complex- ity of the matter that industry sources are saying the register might not be ready until April. On the regulatory front, Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is still mulling over how best to maintain a healthy diversity in the ow of opin- ion and content. But after Senator Coonan s announcement, ACCC Chairman Graham Samuel was quick to make it clear he will be keeping a consumer s-eye view on who moves in on what, and he ll be gauging the value of any such deals through the lens of Section 50 of the Trade Practices Act. That s the section that curbs deals threatening the breadth of competition. And by "value" he means social as much as economic. Diversity of opinion and content can be measured within the con nes of an individual publication or company, or at the level of the industry as a whole, he told an RACV Business Forum in Melbourne. While the ACCC has little in uence over the former, "...in a merger context, if a lessening of diversity brings about a lessening of competition, the ACCC will take this into account..." Samuel: ACCC to use competition law to protect diversity continued from page 33 Five years on from the Hawke government s 1986 legislative changes, after a stampede of acquisitions and mergers, 19 metro dailies and 13 Sunday papers had become 12 and ten respectively Alan Porritt/AAPImage