Down Under, Big Media Gets (Slightly) Bigger

13 October 2006

CANBERRA: In the face of determined opposition, Australia's centre-right coalition government has been forced to water down its media liberalisation programme.

Two months ago, in the face of certain rejection by the Senate, prime minister John Howard was forced at the eleventh-hour to abandon a proposed bill tightening asylum rules. He now faces a similar challenge with regard to the controversial media proposals.

The overhaul, a central plank in the government's industry deregulation efforts, is intended to relax almost two decades of stringent curbs on media takeovers and overseas ownership. However, there is a strong body of public and political opinion that opposes the move.

In an attempt to compromise with the bill's opponents, the Howard administration has made certain concessions to the proposed legislation, which would have allowed a company to build a presence across the triple platforms of newspapers, TV and radio.

The most important compromise is to limit ownership to just two types of media outlet in any metropolitan or regional market.

Other modifications include a requirement that radio stations broadcast at least four-and-a-half hours weekly of local and live content in regional areas.

Also that one of the two new digital channels the government plans to launch next year will have to comply with special rules guaranteeing diversity of content.

These concessions will bring little joy to Australia's multi-platform media moguls, already gnashing their dentures because one of the two new digital TV licences planned for 2007 will be devoted to mobile television or internet services.

Those with extensive newspaper interests, such as John Fairfax Holdings, argue that this will unfairly benefit television companies by allowing them to control new mobile TV services.

Debate on the reworked legislation began in the Senate late Tuesday. Although the government's concessions should be sufficient to get the law approved, the vote is likely to be tight.

Data sourced from Financial Times Online; additional content by WARC staff