Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull: wants change, needs consensus.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull: wants change, needs consensus. Photo: Glenn Hunt

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said “a higher level of consensus” is needed between media owners before the government can repeal cross-media ownership rules that are stuck in a “pre 1990s world.”

Speaking at the newspaper industry’s Future Forum in Sydney Mr Turnbull’s comments confirmed a report on Financial Review Sunday and subsequently in The Australian Financial Review that the potential reform package is likely to be mothballed.

Mr Turnbull, a former lawyer, told an audience that included News Corp Australia chief executive Julian Clarke and Greg Hywood, CEOof Fairfax Media: “The media is generally in board agreement that a lot of change is needed and the laws are outdated but I should know, I first represented a company in a regulatory enquiry in 1977, that in the media consensus ends where self interest kicks in.”

Mr Turnbull said he was meeting CEOs to test their willingness to agree on reforms but stressed that his office had a “very big agenda” which also included the NBN, reform of public broadcasters and the Post Office.

“Changes to media ownership regulations are important but we do need to come to higher level of consensus before we can confidently achieve change,” said Mr Turnbull.

In private meetings with media chief executives last week Communications Mr  Turnbull stressed that without a broad consensus on key areas no package of reforms will be put to Parliament. He is meeting more CEOs this week.

Mr Turnbull is understood to have told CEOs the government would like to abolish the “two out of three rule”, which prevents any one company from owning two of a newspaper, TV station and radio licence in the same market, and the “reach rule”, which prevents the Nine, Ten and Seven television networks from merging with their regional affiliates, WIN, Southern Cross and Prime.

National Senators have expressed concerns that any repeal of the reach rule or two-out-of-three rule could affect the provision of local news. However, Mr Turnbull told the PANPA conference: “Any changes would not affect local content requirements that are part of a radio or TV licence. We are very concerned that local news reporting remains vibrant.”

Mr Turnbull has said he would also like to reach agreement on trimming the anti-siphoning list of sports guaranteed for free-to-air TV, and on changes that would mean pay-TV provider Foxtel had to seek consent from free-to-air networks to re-transmit their channels.

However, Seven West Media, controlled by Perth billionaire Kerry Stokes, has not supported the abolition of either cross-media ownership role and seems determined not to give any ground on anti-siphoning.

Seven is understood to have lobbied hard in Canberra for no change, including via considerable direct lobbying with the office of Tony Abbott. The Prime Minister has made clear he does not want a fight with powerful media companies.

Meanwhile, Foxtel and its 50 per cent owner, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, have told the government that they will not support reform unless Foxtel gets significantly more access to sports rights.

Foxtel also will not support any changes to the re-transmission scheme as this could allow TV networks to charge it to show their content.

The News Corp Australia CEO and Foxtel CEO Richard Freudenstein were among those CEOs to have met with Mr Turnbull last week, it is understood.

Prime Media’s Ian Audsley and Fairfax Media’s Greg Hywood are also understood to have met Mr Turnbull, with Nine Entertainment Co’s David Gyngell also on the list and Ten Network’s Hamish McLennan due to meet the minister this week.

NO FIRM PROPOSALS

Nine is understood to be open to the US Masters golf and the FA Cup Final coming off the anti-siphoning list in return for the scrapping of the reach rule and the two out of three rule.

Ten’s Mr McLennan has said he is “happy to look at any reform which helps build the industry” and that he believes urgent reform is necessary, in particular removal of the reach rule and two out of three test.

However, Mr Turnbull has not put any firm proposals to CEOs or given any time frames on when legislation could be put to Parliament.

Government sources say media reform is low down the government’s priority list, with the budget and the National Broadband Network more pressing concerns.

If no reforms are forthcoming it will frustrate any attempts by Nine Entertainment Co to revive its efforts to win Southern Cross Media and add radio assets to its media portfolio. It would also prevent speculated mergers such as between Nine and Fairfax Media and would make it harder for News Corp to acquire Ten Network. News Corp has denied any interest in acquiring Ten.