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Let's not throw in the towel on media diversity - it's too important

By Jock Given - posted Thursday, 26 June 2003

As policy-makers have moved in unison to deregulate media markets in the US, the UK and Australia, their children have been indulging in a little synchronicity of their own.

At a minute past midnight on Saturday 21 June Greenwich Mean Time (9.01am in Melbourne), any British, American or Aussie kid who could read and afford the local currency equivalent of A$45, less some aggressive discounting, was standing in a queue to buy the fifth Harry Potter novel. A few minutes later, they were holding their piece of the largest first print run in global publishing history.

Not to be outdone by their Potterised siblings, young adults have, for the last few years, been watching, listening, texting and interacting with local versions of the global reality TV phenomenon, Big Brother.


Australia's biggest TV audiences have come not in the ancient past, but recently - the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony, the biggest audience for an event shown on a single channel, and Princess Diana's funeral, shown across four networks in 1997, which, like her wedding, attracted about four in five Australian TV households.

The policy-making parents of these global media synchronisers, however, have been proclaiming the end of mass media. They've been celebrating the expansion of traditional media outlets, like new radio stations, the arrival of new media like multi-channel pay TV and the Internet, and the alleged decline of the power of the moguls. They've concluded it's high time for some loosening of the rules that restrict how much media any one mogul can control.

Australia's looming contribution to the current global policy group-think is to show that it too is big enough to tolerate some ownership consolidation.

It's not entirely clear why.

The domestic restrictions which are supposed to have cramped the global ambitions of Australia's restless mini-moguls don't seem to have kept Rupert Murdoch at home, or Britain's Daily Mail Group (which owns around a third of the country's commercial radio stations) or Singapore's Singtel (which controls Optus) away.

Cross-media limits do not seem to have stopped Big Brother integrating elements of television, radio, print, mobile telephony, and the Web, or Fairfax incorporating audio and video into its online activities. Activities and services can be creatively converged without also converging ownership.


The Internet has greatly increased access to different viewpoints - a fact strikingly demonstrated during the Iraq war. But that is a positive and exciting thing, long overdue in Australia's already concentrated media market place, not a reason to throw in the towel on diversity of control of the still most-used media forms.

What is truly bewildering is that Australia's four independent senators, whose votes would be enough to get the new laws over the line, appear to be considering deals on the issue.

Of course, media proprietors are persuasive people. But we need to be cautious about believing everything they tell us, even about what will serve their own interests - much less the public interest. The last time Australia had a big change in its media ownership rules, when the cross-media rules were passed in 1987 and just about every media asset in the country changed hands at absurd prices, the television and radio industries were plunged into debt-ridden catastrophe.

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Article edited by John Carrigan.
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This article first appeared in The Age on 24 June 2003.

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About the Author

Jock Given is the author of Turning off the Television: Broadcasting’s Uncertain Future and America’s Pie: Trade and Culture after 9/11 and Professor of Media and Communications at Swinburne University’s Institute for Social Research. He was previously Director of the Communications Law Centre, Policy Advisor at the Australian Film Commission and Director Legislation and Industry Economics at the Department of Transport and Communications. In 2003–04, he received the C.H. Currey Fellowship at the State Library of NSW for a project about early wireless entrepreneur Ernest Fisk.

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