Kicking at the cornerstone of democracy The State of Press Freedom in Australia 2012
MEDIA OWNERSHIP Media pluralism is a necessary condition for freedom of speech and contributes to the development of informed societies where different voices can be heard Council of Europe, Commissioner for Human Rights
It’s The Sun wot won it The Sun newspaper, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News International, April 199282
Background Australia has one of the highest concentrations of media ownership in the world, particularly in the newspaper sector, where 98 per cent of the circulation is controlled by the top three companies.83 Changes to media ownership laws have tended to increase this concentration – when the Howard government relaxed ownership regulations in 2006, a direct consequence was the merger between Fairfax and Rural Press which created the largest newspaper group in the country in terms of its market capitalisation of $9 billion.84 Worryingly, for those who argue that a plurality of voices is essential for a healthy democracy, the rapid development of digital media in Australia has not had a discernible effect – according to a 2011 paper by the Centre for Policy Development, all but one of the top 12 news sites in Australia are owned by major existing news outlets. As existing news companies have expanded into the digital space, there is also a great deal of evidence of re-use of material across titles and platforms in each media group. And as revenues to news organisations have dropped there has been a significant loss of editorial staff, especially in the print sector.85
Current media ownership rules Minimum number of voices (4/5 rule) Governs newspapers, radio and television: there must be no less than five (5) independent and separately controlled media operators or groups in a metropolitan commercial radio licence area and four (4) in a regional area.
The “2 out of 3 rule” Governs newspapers, radio and television: a person cannot control more than two (2) out of three (3) specified media platforms – commercial television, commercial radio or an associated newspaper – in a commercial radio licence area.86
Convergence review On December 14, 2010, the minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Stephen Conroy, released draft terms of reference for a comprehensive review of Australia’s communications and media regulation. The aim was to modernise existing frameworks to take into account the rapid technological change in the production and consumption of media. A significant part of this review would be an examination of Australia’s media ownership and diversity rules. On September 19, 2011, the communications department released a suite of detailed discussion papers, including an examination of media diversity, competition and market structure. The paper questioned if Australia’s media ownership regulations were effective, given the changing landscape of production, distribution and consumption.87 “The cross-media rules have limited scope and do not apply to subscription television, national newspapers, telecommunications companies or online media services. This narrow definition means the rules may not adequately reflect the degree of influence of all mediums or the diversity of voices (or lack thereof) available to consumers. “The rules are also limited because they are associated with radio licence areas and may not be appropriate for emerging services that are often national in reach, or otherwise transcend licence area borders.” In December 2011, the Convergence Review panel released its interim report which recommended sweeping changes to ownership rules, which it judged were still “necessary to promote a diverse and pluralistic media environment”88. The interim report canvassed the following changes: For local markets, it is recommended that a revised number of voices rule apply to changes in control involving Content Service Enterprises. This new rule will cover entities such as national newspapers, subscription television and online providers where they qualify as a Content Service Enterprise. Content Service Enterprises may be granted an exemption by the regulator from this rule where there is public benefit in a specific market.