Picture a newspaper group where the vast majority of stories are produced by ‘rounds’ reporters or taken straight from the wire services, with little or no opinion pieces, investigative reporting or coverage of local issues.
Or a television network that is ‘dumbed down’ with minimal news and current affairs, no local information, and an overwhelming emphasis on productions done ‘on the cheap’ or purchased from overseas.
Neither are attractive prospects. Yet the current cross media rules confine traditional media in Australia to their own little boxes, preventing them from pursuing business strategies that reflect new media realities.
If Australia does not modernise its media ownership regime, these companies will stagnate and be forced to resort to the only option available to them in an increasingly competitive information market place, namely cutting costs. Ironically this will, in time, result in the demise of all those attributes that Australians hold so dearly: quality programming, local news and information, diversity of opinion and an emphasis on innovation.
There can be no doubt that, in the absence of any compelling public interest justification, cross media rules constitute an unacceptable restraint of trade. Diversity for diversity’s sake is not enough. Guaranteeing diversity of entertainment options can safely be left to the marketplace.
Indeed digital Pay TV offers the prospect of hundreds of different channels on a variety of competing cable, copper and satellite platforms. The only legitimate public interest lies in maximising the diversity of news and current affairs so that the population can be exposed to a wide range of competing news sources, facts and opinions – the essential pre-requisites for an informed citizenry in a modern democracy.
Before 1987, there were no cross media rules, yet people got their news from a wide variety of sources. Since that time the information world has changed dramatically providing a plethora of new information offerings for increasingly discriminating audiences.
In 1987 there was no Pay TV, let alone the Internet. There were far fewer commercial, community and narrowcast radio stations, and specialised information magazines.
Australia is the only western country with two government-funded national public broadcasters. This ensures that all Australians have independent, high-quality sources of news and information, distinct from the commercial networks’ ratings-driven current affairs programs. Since 1987, ABC NewsRadio has commenced providing in-depth coverage of local, national and international news while SBS television is now widely available outside the capital cities.
Other countries such as the US and the UK are looking to liberalise their cross media rules. Even Paul Keating, the architect of the original regime, recognises the need for change. Strip away the political bluster and he is not dying in a ditch to defend the status quo. Instead he says ‘OK’ if we allow unlimited competition for television licences.
This disingenuously ignores the fact there have always been strict limits on the number of commercial free-to-air licences in exchange for compulsory high levels of Australian content (currently 55 per cent) resulting in probably the best quality free-to-air television in the world.
The media now operates in a highly competitive, global environment driven by consumer demand for content customised to meet specific needs. To succeed in this marketplace, media companies must acquire and produce a much wider array of content than ever before, while benefiting from the economies of scale and scope that increased commercial flexibility would bring.
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