The growing threat to Australia’s media plurality

As we know, Australia has one of the most concentrated media markets of any democracy. When you turn on your free-to-air television, you know that you’re receiving your news from one of only six major companies. Radio broadcasting comes from five major companies and when you open a newspaper, it is even more concentrated, with just four major companies delivering your daily news.

First published at the Guardian

Why then would this government even consider reducing the rules that remain in protecting media diversity in Australia? We know that some media companies have been circling to position themselves in the hope that this government will be a pushover and withdraw those rules that protect what media diversity remains.

And now the fix is well and truly in. In questions I put to government senators this week, only one reason was given to justify deregulating media ownership and increasing the concentration of market power: the internet.

There is no doubt that the internet is a major disrupting factor, and a proliferation of independent online comment, analysis and news services attests to the slow breakup of the strictly broadcast model of news and current affairs.

And yet when you look at the top news and current affairs sites in this country, they are owned by the very same media incumbents that own the largest broadcasters and newspapers. The raucous online diversity held up by those with an interest in blind deregulation only occupies a small fraction of market share, while familiar 20th-century names still control by far the largest proportion of popular online content.

Behind the cover of this digital red herring, the volume is rising to remove protections against further media consolidation. If this all seems somewhat academic, consider the following. Lift the so-called “two out of three rule” governing how many platforms can be owned in a given market, then watch News Corporation acquire control of Channel 10, buy up the rights to AFL broadcasts and use loopholes in the anti-siphoning regime to send the games behind the Foxtel paywall.

Consider another example – the so-called reach rule for broadcasters, which will soon be well and truly overrun by online radio. If we abolish this restriction without also locking in strong local content obligations on regional broadcasters, regional Australians will be the losers. Combined with the Abbott government’s impending cuts on funding for the ABC, which will almost certainly lead to cuts in regional news services, media laws should matter to all of us.

The greatest issue here is not market share for one media proprietor or another, but the health of our democracy. Media organisations and the journalists on their payroll play a crucial role in holding powerful people and institutions to account. Should the media organisations themselves accumulate too much power, there is no-one left with substantial audience reach to watch the watchers. A vibrant, diverse media ecosystem is essential to a functioning democracy, and any threats to water down the laws that keep it that way should be vigorously opposed – no matter what your political views.

First published at the Guardian Online, 24 March 2014