The relationship between media proprietors and politicians, it has been said, has many of the hallmarks to a protection racket: once you start paying, the price goes up, and the best you get in return is nothing – no trouble.
No trouble is what the Hawke Government hoped to buy the last time there was a significant recasting of Australia’s media ownership laws, when in 1987 the current era of limits on cross-ownership was ushered in, limiting proprietors of another medium from owning more than five per cent of a TV station or 15 per cent of a radio station or newspaper in the same market.
While the stated aims of the regime change were no less noble than those now trumpeted by Federal Communications Minister Richard Alston for his own grand scheme, the result bore the grubby fingerprints of a political fix that created clear losers and clear winners. The wash-up did little to further the social-democratic ideal of diversity in ownership (and thereby greater diversity in editorial opinion).
The winners, of course, were Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited and Kerry Packer’s Australian Consolidated Press, who had the benefit of advance warning from the Government’s point man, Paul Keating, while the other two major players – The Herald and Weekly Times (HWT) group and the Fairfax empire – were kept in the dark.
Prior to 1987, these four media organisations controlled all metropolitan and national dailies, as well as much of the regional and suburban press and most of the national magazine market, the commercial television stations in the Sydney and Melbourne markets and substantial radio holdings as well. The emphasis of government regulation of the media industry was not on stopping cross-ownership but on limiting ownership within one broadcast medium.
In radio, ownership was limited to one metropolitan and four regional stations in a state, with a limit nationally of four and eight respectively; television was subject to the “two station” rule. The stated intention was to prevent networking and foster localism, though this did not work out in practice.
In the shake-up that followed the 1987 change in legislative emphasis – with Keating colourfully declaring that media proprietors had to choose between being princes of print or queens of the screen – there were no longer four more or less equal empires.
Thanks to Warwick Fairfax’s vain-glorious attempt to seize control of the Fairfax group, and the decision of the Foreign Investment Review Board to allow Murdoch, by then an American citizen, to take over HWT, there were instead just two.
According to Max Suich, the chief editorial executive of Fairfax’s Sydney newspapers between 1980 and 1987 who went on to found the highly regarded but regrettably short-lived Independent Monthly, the Murdoch and Packer camps were rewarded not because they had been any more disposed to a pro-Labor line but because historically the exact opposite had been the case.
Suich believes the Hawke Government wanted to give Murdoch and Packer enough commercial incentive to not exercise their formidable editorial power against Labor’s re-election prospects. It was the sort of protection HWT and Fairfax, with somewhat less authoritarian journalistic cultures, could never offer.
Keating also had personal grudges to buttress his enthusiasm for regime change: with HWT because of a campaign by the Melbourne Herald against the assets test and rule changes to superannuation; and with Fairfax because of a number of damaging stories in The Times on Sunday and, more pointedly, because The Sydney Morning Herald‘s light-hearted Stay In Touch column had identified his Elizabeth Bay house, which he felt made it untenable for him and his family to ever live there (a man’s home, after all, is his castle).
While it is not obvious that Senator Alston has any personal axe to grind beyond a misplaced belief in the inherent virtue of deregulated markets, it is obvious the upshot of his proposal to wind back cross-ownership rules would be no different to the 1987 fix.
One cannot but help feel that, for all the ideological rhetoric, this government, just like the Hawke government, has at least one beady eye on the political cachet of being able to pick winners. Consider, for example, its half-baked proposal to award “cross-media ownership exemption certificates” so long as acquiring parties provide separate editorial policies and organisational charts to the Australian Broadcasting Authority.
The overseas experience – most notably in Britain – indicates such a guarantees of editorial diversity aren’t worth the paper they are written on.
The further concentration of media ownership in this country that will inevitably follow is a high price to pay for such a tenuated, short-term gain. It is an offer that the non-government majority in the Senate can, and should, continue to refuse.
- Tim Wallace is a freelance journalist – [email protected]