23 June 2003

Senate may still rebuff media changes

Senator Alston said Australia would be left in the "information stone age" unless the Government's plans were adopted.

"You want a dynamic and expanding sector, to provide more media opportunities, not less. I think you will see new companies coming in from offshore and a much healthier environment as a result."

According to Senator Alston, it was not Rupert Murdoch or Kerry Packer who was leading the charge for change.

"Murdoch and Packer are already very well entrenched. They are doing very nicely, thank you," he said. "It is pretty much the rest of the industry who are out there saying, 'We need these changes'."

The Government's plans received a blow on Friday when independent Senator Brian Harradine said he would amend the bill to prevent mergers of major TV stations and newspapers in capital cities.

Labor, the Democrats and the Greens oppose the changes, as do many community groups. A spokesman for Friends of Fairfax, Alan Kennedy, said they would reduce diversity and hurt consumers.

"It's an extraordinary example of a mates-helping-mates decision on the media," he said. "It will mean fewer media proprietors and fewer media outlets."

Senator Meg Lees has linked her support for the changes to increased funding for the ABC, but Senator Alston was non-committal on this issue yesterday.

"We'll continue to explore all the possibilities," he said.

Senator Alston has actually declared victory over deregulating the media on a number of occasions and he has not enacted anything yet. The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2003 would:

* remove controls on the foreign ownership of television
* provide for exemptions to the cross-media rules in certain circumstances, and
* ensure that local news services are maintained in regional areas subject to exemptions
from the cross-media rules.

I suggest that each of those of changes would be bad for the diversity of views and bad for Australia. The new media argument raised by Senator Alston is fairly silly. 11% of the community get their information from new media. That is only a marginal impact and in any case new media content is dominated by the ABC, News Ltd, PBL and Fairfax - all traditional news providers. If the senator really wants to get us out of the stone age he might have a look at repealing his net censorship laws.

My guess is that Senator Lees and Senator Harradine will both bolt and the bill will fail.

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