September 3, 2017 / By Michelle Rowland
There are two kinds of politicians: those who value an evidentiary and principles-based approach to law-making; and those who spurn analysis in favour of short-termism.
Paul Keating was the consummate member of the first category.
The cleansing power of competition. The will to drive unprecedented economic and social transformation. The threshold test of believing in something before committing to it, and then sparing no effort in delivering it.
Australia’s media ownership rules are a case in point.
Mr Keating’s oft-quoted ‘queens of screen or princes of print’ was deeply rooted in the principle of media pluralism and its benefits in a modern liberal democracy.
He understood the importance of constructing a regulatory framework to promote a diversity of voices in the face of concentrated media power. And the only way to achieve that, he said, was through competition.
Malcolm Turnbull falls into the second category.
Dismissing the relevance of a rule which prohibits a person from controlling all three regulated forms of media – commercial radio, commercial TV and associated newspapers – in the one licence area, his sole justification is: time.
The rule is old. It pre-dates the internet. Throw it out.
Mr Turnbull is only too eager to repeal the two out of three cross-media control rule and hand unprecedented power to a privileged few, despite Australia having one of the most concentrated media markets in the world.
He views the two out of three rule as an anti-competitive fetter on industry. Paradoxically, this is the law which does the heavy lifting in fostering competition and diversity in Australian media.
Threat to media diversity
The proposed CBS acquisition of Network Ten demonstrates as much.
After so opportunistically exploiting Ten’s voluntary administration to spruik his case for repeal, Mr Turnbull appeared dismayed when CBS entered the frame.
CBS eclipsed an Australian joint bid that seemed good to go, save for the small matter of it not being permitted under law.
Mr Turnbull even stoked the protectionist fire of CBS being a US entity, despite the fact that he was a minister in the Howard government which abolished foreign ownership media limits.
And Mr Turnbull peddles the furphy that existing competition law is adequate for the task performed by the two out of three rule. The ACCC decision on the Birketu/Illyria bid to acquire Ten confirms that it is not the job of the ACCC to consider pluralism or democracy and that competition laws are no safeguard for diversity.
Chairman Rod Sims was at pains to clarify that, while the transaction would not substantially lessen competition, it would reduce diversity across the Australian media landscape.
After almost four years, the Abbott-Turnbull government has failed to achieve media law reform. Their response – blame Labor – is as predictable as their ineptitude.
Instead of rolling up their sleeves and devising a long-term roadmap for transition in the face of relentless disruption, the Turnbull government rolls out the red carpet for big business, cherry-picking a few measures to benefit select vested interests.
They bemoan the two out of three rule as archaic, but propose no alternative in its place to adapt our laws and preserve pluralism in the new media environment.
All of this undertaken with complete disregard for consumers. An Essential Poll showed 61 per cent of Australians are opposed to repeal of the two out of three rule.
As for the argument that this is about saving jobs, show us the evidence that the “synergies”, “efficiencies” and “scalability” behind mergers creates rather than sheds them.
Mr Turnbull gifts a cool $30 million to Fox Sports but nothing for audio description for the blind. He waives $127 million in licence fees for commercial broadcasters, but cuts a deal with One Nation to undermine our public broadcasters.
The PM who once called for innovation now regards the internet as the reason for junking public interest safeguards – as though the internet appeared overnight or as if traditional media doesn’t already use it to run multi-platform businesses.
He complains Labor isn’t co-operating, yet twice he has voted down Labor’s constructive amendment to save the two out of three rule while letting other measures pass the Parliament – measures industry should already be enjoying.
As Mr Keating said, the idea that convergence is turning all forms of media into one is the most powerful reason for not making it easier to concentrate ownership.
The principles of pluralism and diversity are enduring.
Just as he’s failed engineering and economics on the NBN and sold out his beliefs for power at every turn, Malcolm Turnbull has confirmed he is no Keating.
Michelle Rowland is Labor’s shadow communications spokeswoman.