The Federal Government's new media laws came into effect last week - and the sky didn't fall in. Australians haven't been reduced to having only one newspaper to buy, and one television station to watch. In all likelihood, the practical changes produced by the laws will be minimal.
Even if eventually there is a further concentration of ownership in the traditional media, we should not be concerned. The Internet ensures that consumers now have an almost infinite choice of news and entertainment sources.
It's not the business of government to determine whether a city has one, 10, or 100 local newspapers.
The idea that politicians should regulate the media to ensure "diversity" is like saying that there should be censorship to encourage free speech. The political reality is that the definition of "diversity" has been invented and re-invented successively by the Liberal and Labor parties to appease the commercial interests of media proprietors.
If booksellers were regulated the same way as is the electronic media, there would be outrage. Consider the reaction if every bookshop in the country was required by law to ensure that one-quarter of its stock was by an Australian author. But when it comes to television and radio, we happily accept such interference from government.
The test of the health of Australia's media sector is not whether there is diversity. Diversity is entirely in the eye of the beholder. Because diversity is so subjective, governments should not attempt to legislate to provide it.
The only test that should apply to Australia's media is whether providers of information and entertainment are free to meet the demands of consumers. What consumers demand is a matter for consumers, not for government.
The traditional justification for the regulation of the media is that because they are so powerful, they must be regulated. And it is true that the media are powerful. And it is also true that the media have enormous influence over public opinion. But these are arguments for less government regulation, not more. The ability to determine how the media operates is too great a power to allow a government to exercise. It is too great a power to give to anyone. The only solution is to allow the consumers of the media themselves to decide what they want to read, watch, and listen to.
According to our present media laws, if every media outlet in the country was owned by a different proprietor, our media would be "diverse". Yet there wouldn't be much diversity if every one of those outlets expressed exactly the same viewpoint.
If every television current affairs program had a position that was hostile to Australia's continued involvement in the Iraq war, would we expect taxpayers to fund programs that supported the Iraq war?
If every owner of a radio station suddenly decided that Kevin Rudd should be the next prime minister, should the government establish a new radio station to broadcast stories favourable to John Howard?
Such suggestions are preposterous. But the ABC operates on exactly this basis. The claim is that because the commercial media are "conservative" and "right-wing", the national broadcaster should be "radical" and "left-wing".
Last week on this page, Robert Manne convincingly argued that these days when the ABC tries to be balanced it usually only succeeds in being boring. He said that, instead, the ABC should not be afraid to air strong opinions, especially if those opinions ran counter to prevailing public opinion.
Whether the ABC fulfils its self-appointed role is debatable. For example, man-made climate change is now as good as an accepted fact. The community and all political parties believe that dramatic reductions in emissions are necessary to combat the threat of a warming planet. There would be few better issues than this on which the ABC could contest the prevailing orthodoxy. In relation to climate change, though, this is unlikely to happen. The point is that the ABC picks and chooses the issues on which it will challenge public opinion.
Any government genuinely interested in media diversity should stop deciding what consumers can read and watch. Instead it should start by questioning just how diverse its own taxpayer-funded ABC is.
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