When Big Media Aren’t the Biggest

Four of Australia’s regional television networks are urging viewers to campaign for changes to Australian media ownership laws which restrict their market penetration and dominance but they won’t come clean with audiences on what the changes could mean.

The networks — Prime, WIN, Imparja and Southern Cross Austereo — feel imperiled by new media players including streaming apps from their commercial partners like Seven West. Their campaign, called Save Our Voices, is trying to convince audiences and politicians that media ownership laws ought to be relaxed.

https://twitter.com/saveourvoices/status/640800433447956480/photo/1

What they want changed

The Commonwealth Broadcasting Services Act 1992 prevents ownership of the following:

commercial television broadcasting licences whose combined licence area populations exceed 75% of the population of Australia. (s.53)

more than one commercial television broadcasting licence in the same licence area. (s.53)

and:

more than 2 commercial radio broadcasting licences in the same licence area (s.54)

There is also a provision referred to as the ‘two out of three rule’ (which the Act calls an “unacceptable 3-way control situation”) that prevents any one entity owning a television station, a radio station and a newspaper in the same licence area, although they can own two of the three.

The Save Our Voices campaign wants each of these rules changed or scrapped.

Why is this important?

The Broadcasting Services Act has a number of objects, including “to promote the role of broadcasting services in developing and reflecting a sense of Australian identity, character and cultural diversity”, and to promote a variety of offerings including local content.

The campaign claims to have similar aims, though they are delivered in more emotive language, arguing: “Local media organisations are a crucial part of the fabric of regional and rural communities” and “vibrant local journalism is essential to ensure regional issues get the attention they deserve and regional voices are heard.”

What could changes mean?

The devil in the detail of this campaign is that there is no guarantee any change would prevent the kinds of job losses that Save Our Voices is predicting.

Prime boss John Hartigan, formerly of News Limited, says updating the laws “will allow mergers and acquisitions that achieve economies of scale.” Such mergers could include the stations being sold to the very metropolitan networks and international business they’re rallying against.

As an editorial in Australian Regional Media newspapers wonders, “Is Nine going to be more committed to your town than a regional broadcaster?” Changes could also see mergers between the TV networks and Fairfax Media, for example, which would conceivably result in newsroom mergers and rationalisation anyway.

It has been reported that News Corp, which owns newspapers and Foxtel, (plus shares in Channel 10 owned by Lachlan Murdoch) opposes the changes, as does Seven West boss Kerry Stokes. This industry-wide division has been described by the ABC’s MediaWatch as “a fierce war … between the national networks and their regional cousins.”

The Save Our Voices campaign argues on it’s website that both Seven and Nine’s current ownership of some regional stations shows they intend to maintain a presence in regional communities.

Where to from here?

It is unlikely that the government will move to change media ownership laws in this term of parliament. Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in June there will not be any changes “without the broad consensus of the industry”. However, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull seems open to proposals.

While Save Our Voices campaigns loudly for change, it is worth remembering that they have not provided any detailed proposal beyond rescinding the current restrictions. They have also not been clear on just which jobs are at risk now, or likely to be saved by any changes. Their arguments are vague and emotive.

I am strongly of the belief that local media is important to local community development and identity, and I recognise that media businesses operate under the same economic conditions as other businesses. Where the Save Our Voices stakeholders let their audiences down is in failing to be clear about their intentions, forcing viewers to read between the lines.