Media reform a must on Malcolm Turnbull’s to-do list

The Australian | Mark Day | 21 September 2015

Malcolm Turnbull’s ascension to the nation’s top job means that media reform is now a certainty. It may not happen overnight, but it will happen because it is sorely needed and because Turnbull has prepared the ground. 

Yesterday, we found out Turnbull wants Mitch Fifield to fill his old shoes as his Communications Minister. But Fifield will not face the upward problem Turnbull was unable to deal with.

Tony Abbott as PM decided he did not want to risk sorely lacking political capital on waging a war over media reform and knocked back Turnbull’s plans earlier this year to relax two key elements of the 1992 legislation that governs the media sector.

When these reforms are again presented to cabinet by Fifield, I have no doubt the Prime Minister will wave them through. As he should. The case for reform has been made umpteen times over the past decade.

Simply, it is this: the media operates in a regime that regulates ownership and content of broadcast material designed and debated in the late 1980s. It was Paul Keating who led the charge for the separation of media, saying owners had to decide between being “princes of print or queens of the screen”. He might have added ­rajahs of radio because radio, like television, uses scarce publicly-owned spectrum and was ­therefore considered worthy of controls relating to the broadcasting of children’s programs, news services, advertising limits, offensive language and the like.

In the old days there was a case for this because there were limits to the amount of public spectrum available and the number of choices available to the public.

The Hawke-Keating laws came into effect in 1992, before the internet and well before the disruption it caused took effect. Then, the case to separate print and screen was arguable. Now, as we have infinite choices online that converge, confuse and confound old borders and old definitions, that case is in unarguable tatters. Yet we have laws that prevent newspaper and television companies from merging and ownership limits that impede the development of strong cross-platform services.

The current law also stipulates that TV network owners may not reach more than 75 per cent of the public — an arbitrary figure set to demonstrate that the law protected diversity in media.

The owners got around this by networking through affiliation agreements. The same signal broadcast by different owners delivered a 100 per cent national footprint: the law has been circumvented and has been nothing other than a corporate impediment for years while the number of voices has grown exponentially. Google, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and others have come into our market from overseas unencumbered by the rules that apply to local businesses. Content regulations and the reach rule must be abolished.

Full reform of the media sector must go beyond the operating provisions of a new Broadcasting Services Act. The tax situation of the international companies mentioned above is now being addressed, but there is much more to be done to ensure all media companies operate on a level playing field.

Turnbull knows all this and it provided the logical force behind his proposals put to cabinet in June. But Abbott wouldn’t have a bar of it because there was not “substantial agreement” among proprietors for reform.
But just as Abbott kyboshed Turnbull’s ambitions, Turnbull is now in a position to call the shots and it is possible he will pay little heed to the views of Fifield, at least in the immediate term.

It is perhaps a forlorn hope that common sense and intellectual rigour will win the day. Politics are played hard at this level and everything Turnbull does will be weighed and decided on its political outcomes.

Turnbull has settled for a less than perfect NBN, for reasons that can at least be understood, if not endorsed. In opposition, he berated Labor’s NBN plan as too costly, lacking an economic justification and too ambitious in its goal of 100Mbps speeds. He argued we did not need the superfast connections promised by fibre.

In office, he had to be seen to attack those issues and follow through with a modified plan. He has done that through his multi-technology mix of systems which will deliver adequate, but much slower, services at a cost estimated to be much greater than he proposed. But then, that’s normal in projects such as these.

I wish Turnbull well as he meets his destiny. I have known him since his reporting days on The Bulletin and worked with him for nine years on the Australian Republican Movement’s national committee in the 90s. We had our run-ins and he has been sensitive to some criticisms in this space in recent times, but I am of the view that he has a great intellect and a positive vision for this nation.

Sometimes, distance provides perspective. When the Turnbull putsch happened so suddenly last Monday I was in Prague, in the Czech Republic, yet I was able to follow every minute of the build-up and vote live by streaming Sky News through The Australian’s website.

Through the week I followed all the commentary online as I have researched a book based on the events of World War II in central Europe, which prompts this thought: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Turnbull could bring about a political reboot — a change of the mindset that sees politics as war — a winner-takes-all game for warriors.

I fully accept that politics is governed by the rules of arithmetic, but in order to get the numbers you first have to get your intellectual arguments right. There has been too much tearing down in the past half decade. Now is the time to build.

View the article on The Australian.