Done by Law: Australia's New Media Ownership Laws: What Do Australia's New Media Ownership Laws Mean to the General Public? Will Debate on the Issues of the Day Be Stifled? Is Our Democracy under Threat?

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IN the biggest media shake-up in twenty years, the federal government's overhaul of the media laws was passed in the Senate last October. The most significant change, the one gaining the most attention and the one the government has been trying to pass for the past decade, was the relaxation of Australia's cross-media ownership laws. The new laws, which came into effect in early April, replace the crossmedia ownership restrictions introduced by Labor in 1987 which prevented ownership of print, radio and television in the same city. Now, any company can own two out of the three traditional media platforms. This means Rupert Murdoch can now, for example, buy a radio or television network to add to his newspaper empire.

The controversial media laws were able to be passed in the upper house because of the support of Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce and Family First Senator Steve Fielding. At the time, Senator Joyce maintained there would have been no point voting against the passage of the Bill, because it had Senator Fielding's support. (1) In an October 2006 press release, Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Helen Coonan said that the old media rules no longer reflected 'the realities of a media industry impacted by technological innovation and changes in consumer habits'. (2)

As soon as the laws passed last year there was frenetic activity in the media marketplace. Murdoch's News Corp, which owns News Limited (Australia's biggest newspaper publisher with seven metropolitan dailies, including The Australian) paid $388 million for 7.5 per cent of Fairfax (although it has since sold that share), and Kerry Stokes' Seven Network acquired less than five per cent. Seven also increased its stake in West Australian Newspapers to 14.9 per cent. In March this year, Murdoch bought the Federal Publishing Company, which publishes community newspapers and magazines such as Vogue Australia and Australian Good Taste.

The deals have not slowed down. Publishing & Broadcasting Ltd (PBL) and the Seven Network each sold significant portions in multi-billion dollar deals with offshore private equity firms; Independent News & Media teamed with two private equity firms to try and buy out minority shareholders in APN News & Media; Macquarie Media Group has set the wheels in motion for a takeover of Southern Cross Broadcasting, the primary commercial news radio network; and Fairfax has merged with Rural Press, the biggest regional newspaper publisher. No doubt there will be more strategic deals to come as media organizations try to take advantage of the new laws, or to try to protect themselves from takeovers.

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The main concern with the new laws is that they will result in less diversity in the media. More media mergers and takeovers will lead to a huge concentration in media ownership. Labor's Senator Stephen Conroy, the Shadow Minister for Communications and Information Technology, believes the laws will not encourage free and open discussion of ideas and opinions, which he believes is the lifeblood of democracy.

A spread of media ownership maximises the likelihood that a diversity of views will be heard on the issues of the day. The owners of the most influential media are in a unique position to influence public debate and even election outcomes by controlling what people see, hear and watch ... The Government's cross media policy has the potential to give even more power to some of the most powerful people in Australia. (3)

David Risstrom, barrister and Greens candidate for the Senate in the last federal election, says the new laws mean that less people can own more media. (Risstrom polled strongly in the primary vote, but lost because the Democrats and the ALP gave their preferences to Family First. It was Family First Senator Fielding's vote which got the Bills through the Senate.) When I spoke to Mr Risstrom he was concerned that we will start hearing the same thing on radio, TV and the newspaper:

You'll have the same people packaging the same story in your paper, your TV and your radio. …