By Antony Scholefield
Published 27/04/2016

There’s never been a more exciting time to fix media ownership laws.

The Turnbull government’s decision to loosen controls on big media companies buying up smaller publishers is the type of innovative, forward-thinking, and technologically-aware move on which it wanted to build its reputation.

Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and communications minister Mitch Fifield want to wind back the long-standing “reach rule” and “two-thirds rules.” The reach rule prevents one big media company from broadcasting to more than 75 per cent of Australians. The two-thirds rule prevents one company from owning a newspaper, TV station, and radio station in the same location.

For example, Channel Seven broadcasts in five major cities plus regional Queensland, reaching 74.5 per cent of the Australian population. Channel Nine broadcasts in the same major cities, plus Darwin and northern New South Wales but not regional Queensland, reaching 74 per cent of the population. It’s unlikely that either channel could reach into a new market, such as Hobart or regional Victoria, without being stifled by the reach rule.

Similarly, Fairfax Media publishes the Sydney Morning Herald and owns several Sydney-based radio stations, but couldn’t buy up a TV station in Sydney due to the two-thirds rule.

While communications minister, Turnbull proposed to prime minister Tony Abbott, the man he would knife about four months later, that the government should remove these restrictions. Turnbull has now handed responsibility to new communications and arts minister Mitch Fifield, one of his key supporters in the September leadership coup.

Media law reforms won’t be the hottest topic in the upcoming election campaign, but any change to media laws is almost always controversial, given the special relationship between the parliament and the news media.

When governments pass laws that interfere with the media’s capacity to do whatever they like, the backlash is loud and swift. Former Labor communications minister Stephen Conroy, now the shadow minister for defence, discovered this under Julia Gillard’s prime ministership.

Conroy’s media reform proposals led to front-page tabloid Photoshop jobs comparing him to Joseph Stalin and other dictators who tried to control the press. It’s no surprise that newspapers like to campaign for press freedom, yet Conroy’s reforms were probably sensible and definitely not dictatorial. It didn’t matter to the tabloids, though.

Turnbull’s proposals have annoyed media companies as well, but for different reasons. They’ve also annoyed independent media advocates, the type who supported Conroy’s ill-fated reforms.

Criticism from two opposite sides usually squeezes the life out of a proposal, making this a less-than-exciting time to be Mitch Fifield. Yet the reforms are still innovative, and even more surprising in politics, sensible.

People like to credit (or blame) the internet for any change in the news media landscape. Think of all the commentary about the internet killing newspapers. Sometimes the internet isn’t actually responsible, but regarding Australian media ownership laws, it’s certainly an important factor.

The internet carries text, video, and audio. This isn’t news to anybody, but when considered in the context of news media, it’s obvious there’s no point stopping a company from holding newspaper, TV, and radio assets in one place. An online media company can provide all three forms, so why use the “two-thirds rule” to arbitrarily stop a traditional media company from doing that?

It’s a similar situation for the “reach rule.” Anybody in Australia can access a news website with audiovisual content, so why restrict the reach of TV news? The argument against is that television or newspapers are inherently more important or influential than web-based news services. Now that would be a less-than-innovative way of looking at modern media.

Surprisingly, big media barons were unhappy with the proposals. Australian-born News Corp founder Rupert Murdoch even tweeted about it negatively from his current office in the US.

Yet his grouch wasn’t the reforms, but the lack of further reforms. News Corp wanted lower license fees and a higher capacity for subscription TV services like Foxtel to show live sporting events such as the AFL or NRL grand finals. (Currently, free-to-air channels have exclusive first rights to these events, which are usually the most-watched programs of the year in Australia.)

News Corp bigwigs were also irritated at Turnbull’s lack of consultation. How dare a politician not “wine and dine” with media barons, seeking their permission to change the law?

The reforms, when passed, could lead to series of big mergers, including a whispered “mega-merger” between Fairfax Media and Channel Nine. Another rumour says News Corp would buy Channel Ten. That’s why some people have criticised the reforms as a favour to Big Media, especially News Corp.

This criticism ignores the fact that regional TV broadcasters mostly support the reforms. If it’s a choice between merging and going broke, of course they’ll merge.

Any argument to keep these rules is usually just general rage against big businesses getting bigger. It’s a valid point of view in some circumstances, but not here. Some critics also dislike the omnipresence of News Corp and especially conservative commentators such as Andrew Bolt, but again, the rules are too outdated to effectively protect media diversity anyway.

Unfortunately, recent election-type developments mean the reforms will probably sit on the backburner until the second half of the year, or even later. Perhaps they’ll never eventuate at all. It’s a shame, because a genuinely innovative and tech-savvy government would’ve implemented the reforms years ago.