Media Diversity Fears Are Absurd And Obsolete

The twin themes of the media debate – new regulation and creative destruction – coexist awkwardly.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy told Channel Ten’s Meet the Press recently that his government’s proposed public interest test for media acquisitions was not aimed at Gina Rinehart’s investment in Fairfax. In fact, the mining magnate would pass the new test.

This revelation will disappoint many of his colleagues. But thank goodness. The Gillard Government is, happily, not so brazen as to write a new law to stop one particular critic from investing in the media. Doing so would be the essence of arbitrary government, and would be clearly in response to Gina Rinehart’s political views.

Not all media reform is a threat to free speech. But motives do matter. The Government’s hostility to News Limited damned the Finkelstein inquiry. Any new ownership regulation inspired by one specific proprietor would also be dodgy. Some in the government have suggested media purchases could be conditional on signing up to a charter of journalistic independence – which just happens to be the matter of dispute between Gina Rinehart and the Fairfax board. A coincidence, I’m sure.

So if the Labor government is backing away from such obviously political media laws, that’s good.

Yet Conroy’s defence on Meet the Press still struck a weird note. He argued that any suggestion the test was aimed at a specific person was false because the ALP has been campaigning for a public interest test for a long time.

That’s true. When the Howard government directed the Productivity Commission to look into media regulation in 1999, the Beazley opposition talked at length about public interest guidelines for ownership.

But that was a long time ago. Compare then and now. We had a very, very different media market in 1999. Google had only eight employees. Its news aggregation service was still three years away. And in the compressed history of the internet, Google is relatively old. MySpace didn’t launch until 2003. Most of what we think of as ‘new media’ didn’t exist. Facebook didn’t exist. YouTube didn’t exist. It wasn’t until mid-2000 that Apple starting thinking about music. The first iPod arrived in late 2001.

And when the Beazley-led opposition was first promoting a public interest test, Fairfax shares were trading at a price nearly 10 times greater than today. Indeed, the turn of the millennium seemed like a great time to get into newspapers.

In politics, consistency is usually admirable. Yet there is consistency and there is stubbornness. It’s bizarre hearing Conroy strike the exact same notes as Beazley did a dozen years ago. Everything has changed. Apparently the ideal policy has not.

For both Conroy and Beazley, the goal of extra media ownership restrictions would be to protect a diverse range of opinions and voices. But it is exactly the enormous choice of opinions and voices on the internet which is uprooting the media landscape.

Put it this way: budding moguls would not be able to buy press assets so easily if the newspaper business hadn’t been undercut by the very diversity Conroy claims is at risk. This is a weird recursive loop. Surely we do not believe the extraordinary growth of voices online is reducing the diversity of voices overall.

Yet that seems to be the logic behind the current push for a public interest test.

Policy proposals have use-by dates. Something that is arguable in one decade can be silly in the next. Press proprietors have never been less powerful than they are today. Newspapers and broadcasters do not have the monopoly on information they enjoyed in the past.

That Conroy’s views on this are about 10 years out of date shouldn’t be a surprise. Australia’s communications ministers are notorious for fighting the last war. They have a track record of either accidentally delaying or actively resisting the implications of technology. With motives good and bad, our ministers have held back the introduction of new radio stations, new television stations, pay television, and FM radio.

The Gillard Government’s Convergence Review was supposed to be a break with the past. Yet even it got caught up trying to impose anachronistic laws on new technologies. Local content requirements are one example of regulations which do not make sense in the internet age; ownership limits are another.

So the major policy outcome of the apparently forward-thinking Convergence and Finkelstein inquiries could be tackling obsolete fears of media moguls.

It is absurd to think that just as the newspaper industry is going through a once-in-a-century upheaval, the Government is devising ways to limit investment in the press. But in media regulation, absurd is not unusual.