Federal Politics

Save
Print
License article

Turnbull government moves quickly on media ownership laws

Communications Minister Mitch Fifield has instructed his department to draft options for an overhaul of media ownership laws he can present to cabinet before Christmas, signalling the government will move quickly to deregulate the sector.

Scrapping existing cross-media ownership laws would likely spark a new round of mergers between the country's biggest media companies and set off a new debate about media diversity.

Momentum for change is growing within the government, with Nationals leader Warren Truss throwing his support behind reform. But Nationals MPs are pushing back by demanding any relaxation of ownership laws is accompanied by greater requirements for broadcasters to air local content.

"We are not so concerned about who owns the stations as we are that they retain their local identity including providing genuine local content especially news services," Mr Truss said.

Fairfax Media understands bureaucrats in the Department of Communications have been working on a series of options for Senator Fifield, including scrapping the so-called "reach" and "two out of three" rules as well as reducing broadcasting licensing fees.

The "reach" rule restricts television networks from broadcasting to more than 75 per cent of the population while the "two out of three" rule outlaws media companies from owning a television station, radio station and newspaper in the same market.

Advertisement

The issue is expected to come to cabinet for discussion within weeks, paving the way for a decision by the end of the year.

"There's been a recognition, because it's hard to deny, that our media laws do not reflect the world that we live in," Senator Fifield said on Friday. "That they were crafted in a pre-digital age, for a pre-digital age. Regional TV operators in particular want to have the freedom to configure their businesses in the way that can make them most viable."

Prime chairman John Hartigan said: "Our position is the sooner these laws go the better and I get the impression that's where the minister is heading."

The Nine Network this week announced it would stream all its programs online from next year, legally circumventing the 75 per cent reach rule. Those in favour of change say it demonstrates how outdated the current rules are.

Moving quickly on reform would allow the government to avoid a potential stoush with powerful media moguls during an election year.

Malcolm Turnbull completed extensive work on the various policy options during his time as Communications Minister. But he was blocked by former prime minister Tony Abbott, who had been lobbied heavily against change by Kerry Stokes' Seven West Media.

Senator Fifield is weighing up whether to proceed only with scrapping the "reach" rule - a relatively modest change - or pushing ahead with a more ambitious plan to also remove the "two out of three" rule.

Abolishing the "two out of three rule" would allow the Nine Network to merge with Fairfax Media, for example.

News Corporation, which co-owns Foxtel, has been pushing for changes to the anti-siphoning list for sporting broadcasts to be part of the mix.

Nationals MP Andrew Broad said he supports scrapping the reach and "two out of three" rules but this was conditional on new protections for local content.

"With opportunity comes obligation," Mr Broad said. "The owners are not coming to this with pure motives. If they want to be given the opportunity to be more competitive and viable they should have to protect local content."

Mr Broad said he was concerned about protecting the future of local news coverage as well as ensuring small businesses can advertise to their local markets.

Follow us on Twitter