Turnbull’s Weak Media Reform Plans Aren’t Fit For The Modern Age

One of the pleasant things about being prime minister, I suppose, would be pursuing your own little hobby horses. Especially when those hobby horses had been cruelly stymied by your predecessor.

And so the Turnbull Government looks to be pushing ahead with the reforms to media ownership and control that had been quashed – or at least shelved – by Tony Abbott when Malcolm Turnbull was communications minister.

Now the communications minister is Mitch Fifield and the Government is talking about a media reform package being announced this month. Perhaps even this week.

Yet it is striking how limited the reforms being publicly discussed actually are.

The Government has floated eliminating the reach rule (which prevents firms from owning commercial television licenses that cover more than 75 per cent of the population), eliminating the two-out-of-three rule (which prevents a firm from owning more than two of a commercial television licence, a radio licence and a newspaper in the same area) and abolishing television broadcast licence fees.

Each of these reforms could have been done by any government in the last 20 or 30 years.

In his recently published diaries, Peter Reith records a Howard cabinet debate about eliminating cross-media ownership rules all the way back in April 1997. (An unhappy Reith, who wanted more comprehensive liberalisation, complains “we are busily contemplating a highly interventionist approach”.)

The media landscape is completely different in 2015. Here’s what the ABC’s page looked like then. Just 13 per cent of Australian households had home internet access in 1998.

Anyway, we all know how much technology has changed over the last decade. But even in a much shorter time-span the media environment has changed dramatically.

The last time I wrote about the prospects for media ownership reform was in March 2014, when Turnbull first floated the idea of regulatory reform. Since then our viewing choices have expanded to the streaming services Stan, Netflix and Presto. We’ve seen the launch of Buzzfeed Australia, Daily Mail Online Australia, and Huffington Post Australia.

Even the way we conceptualise media has shifted. A larger and larger number of media consumers use Facebook as their primary news source. Wikipedia’s page on “binge watching” was only created in September 2013.

All those technological and social changes materially affect the old arguments for media regulation. Populist fearmongering about press barons and broadcast moguls might have been effective in the 20th century, but only fantasists claim the media is monopolised today.

Nothing prevents media consumers voting with their feet. Nothing prevents consumers migrating rapidly onto new services and shifting their allegiance to more interesting news organisations. Consumers do not lack for choice.

These transformative changes make the Turnbull Government’s proposed reforms look embarrassingly modest. Even the Greens support the elimination of the reach rule. The two-out-of-three rule is absurdly anachronistic. There’s something comic about a regulation in 2015 that conceives of the media as divided between print, radio and television.

As to the elimination of television licence fees, this is more fraught. The Government apparently believes broadcast licences are effectively worth zero, and that charging for the use of a valueless asset is unfair.

It’s certainly true that electromagnetic spectrum rights are worth less than they were. But they’re not worth nothing. It’s a big leap from “traditional broadcasting is no longer special” to “traditional broadcasting is worthless”.

Anyway, if the Government really believes that, then where’s the proposal for a fourth free-to-air commercial television network? Or a fifth? The incumbent broadcasters, no longer benefiting from the valuably scarce spectrum, would have no cause to complain.

One “high level spokesman” was quoted in The Australian yesterday saying that “if the Government believes one law needs to go, then they all need to go”. Indeed. The technological changes that make some media reform possible also allow for more dramatic media reform.

For instance, anti-siphoning laws, which regulate the broadcast of sporting events, should be eliminated. The spectrum should be privatised, not licensed at no charge. Local content requirements – those archaic remnants of cultural protectionism – should be removed.

Each of these existing regulatory constructs assume a media world where content is scarce, where production and distribution is expensive, and where consumers are locked into free-to-air broadcasting.

Not a world where we browse Twitter on our iPads while Netflix plays on that screen in our lounge room that we still call a television but is really a computer monitor.

Parliament always lags behind technological and social change. But the Turnbull Government wants to be all about innovation. Boldness, not timidity, in media reform would be a good place to start.