Media laws, sports rights shake up

The Australian Financial Review | Dominic White | 28 September 2015

The number of sporting events guaranteed for free-to-air television will be re-examined by the new Communications Minister, Senator Mitch Fifield, who said he will seek a "broad consensus" rather than "unanimity" from moguls about abolishing outdated media ownership laws.

Senator Fifield, who succeeded now Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in the portfolio a week ago, said it was a case of when, not if, media regulations would change and agreed with his predecessor that the Keating-era laws resemble "horse-and-buggy legislation in the 21st century".

In an interview with Fairfax Media, Senator Fifield signalled the government could abolish ownership strictures - which limit further industry consolidation - without full consensus from media moguls, which he said "may not be possible". He would not commit to a reform timetable, or to making changes before the next election.

"In terms of the media laws, it's a bit like when people were talking in years gone by about how we can change railway gauges to better improve long-distance transport at a time when planes are starting to fly overhead," said Senator Fifield in his first comments on the matter since taking the new role. "That is sort of the environment we are in at the moment."

Mr Turnbull upset Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation and its pay-television joint venture Foxtel in March by proposing a cherrypicked media reform policy that would have helped incumbents better compete with overseas digital players, such as Google and Netflix, but which exposed an ongoing rift in the local industry.

Mr Turnbull's recommendations were welcomed by most leading media players, including WIN Corp owner Bruce Gordon and Greg Hywood, the chief executive of Fairfax Media.

But then Prime Minister Tony Abbott stymied the proposals after fierce lobbying from Kerry Stokes' Seven West Media and News Corp, which was angry that Mr Turnbull had denied Foxtel's request to show more sports events at the expense of free-to-air TV.

Mr Fifield has pledged to look again at the anti-siphoning list that dictates the events free-to-air networks have first rights to bid for.

"We do have a commitment that there are some national events that are of such significance that the Australian public would have an expectation that they'd appear on free-to-air," said the minister.

"It's not something I've taken a close look at yet, but I will be."

He said he was "not flagging a change at this stage", adding: "Various media players sometimes seek to connect issues that are not necessarily connected."

View the article on the Australian Financial Review.