New Media Laws -- Old Media Repackaged

In case you hadn’t noticed, ownership of the Australian media is concentrated in a  few wealthy hands. Any list of the richest capitalists in this country will standardly feature our  home grown media barons in the top five profiteers.  Investing in media in Australia is very good business indeed and for some families it seems to be  national past time.

This concentration has always been a national  embarrassment for those who advocate  media diversity as a democratic adjunct. Despite the many attempts to loosen  the hold so few have over what we read, watch or listen to, such unbridled concentration still remains the norm.

Just two companies, News Corp ( with Rupert Murdoch at its head )  and  John Fairfax Ltd, account for over 80  percent of  the national newspaper market.Three corporations(Seven Network, Channel Seven and PBL) control the majority of capital city and  regional television audiences.

Similar figures apply to other media sectors so that ownership of all media in this country is controlled by fourteen companies with the likes of News Corp  and the Packer’s PBL being the main players.

In 1992 the Hawke Labor Government sought to stifle  the trend towards absolute monopolization by passing laws that limited cross media ownership and market share. But today  with  so many new media options on offer, the main players have been agitating for a rewrite.

This month, Helen Coonan, the Howard government’s Communications Minister, has announced some changes. Under the new plan, the current restrictions on cross-media ownership will be ditched and  the way paved for one company to own a newspaper, television network and radio station in the same market. The current foreign ownership restrictions will also go.

While Coonan’s plan references the requirement that there be five so-called "independent voices" in metropolitan markets and four in regional areas, the new scheme is engineered  around  market potentials rather than sentimental notions about a free press and media diversity, let alone community access. This is a business plan not a formula for  more freedom of speech.

The new laws also loosen   restrictions on  pay per view TV so that it  can compete with free to air for the rights to broadcast sporting events.  This means that to watch the next World Cup Final you may have to subscribe to cable to view it.

Such pandering to the already existing media players  is sweetened by generous use of the rhetoric that is de rigueur  for these ‘new technologies.”

Digital television, for instance, is to be fast tracked under cover of such progress -- despite the fact that even with digital radio the consoles  are so expensive that only the very well off will be able to afford them and digital TV remains a dead duck in most countries it has been tried. But hey, it’s new isn’t it?

This ‘new technology’ mantra also comes to us this time around  with the cover note that we are at the dawn of a new era of pluralism  .As Rupert Murdoch waxed on in March this year ,”A new generation of media consumers has risen demanding content delivered when they want it, how they want it, and very much as they want it...This new audience - and we are talking here of tens of millions of young people around the world - is already using technology, especially the web, to inform, entertain, and above all educate themselves.”
Such fanfare is packaged along with the argument that we can now afford to weaken cross media controls   in order to encourage innovation and efficiency without our own freedoms being undermined.

The argument is one Coonan has  echoed to promote the new media laws.. While the big players may own the TV we watch, and the newspapers we read, or what we listen to -- we are reminded that our views can always  be expressed and  our debates housed in such forums as the internet provides.

While we don’t have  the web to ourselves --Murdoch’s company,for instance, already owns the web’s most popular site, -- it is easy to be conned by these assertions.

 In a discussion paper written by Christian Downie and Andrew Macintosh for the Australian Institute,  the reality that is explored is  a lot different from Coonan’s or Murdoch’s assertions.

 Television, newspapers and radio are still  the main source of domestic news and current affairs for over 95 per cent of the population.  Of the roughly 25 per cent of the population that  access the internet on a reasonably regular basis for domestic news and current affairs, approximately 90 per cent rely on a small collection of websites that have a  close association with traditional media providers.

The authors conclude,”It is estimated that as little as one per cent of Australians rely on an alternative media provider as their main source of news and current affairs. In short, to the extent that internet-based news and current affairs are a source of news and comment, it is little more than the old media repackaged.”

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