Media Monopoly: Let the Games Begin

Well, here we go again!

Malcolm Turnbull is acting more like an investment banker and less like a responsible national leader.

I recall criticizing him for taking the same gung-ho approach as Communications Minister, and, now as the ‘Head Honcho’, he’s back to his old tricks of trying to run the country like a business.

Seems our new leader has decided to pander to his old media pals at the top end of town, and allow what little diversity of ownership still remains in today’s traditional media to be completely swallowed up in the name of free enterprise.

With changes to the media laws apparently having been given the ‘green light’, and, a big tick by Malcolm himself, the boards at the largest radio and television networks in this country will be rubbing their hands together wondering just how many hotels they’ll be able to fit on ‘Mayfair’ when the game of Media Monopoly begins in earnest.

Oh yes, for these dealmakers, it may well be a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year indeed!

But, let’s get back to reality.

Does anybody, other than the corporate wannabees, really think that the consolidation, that will inevitably follow the relaxation of the country’s media laws, is going to be good for our industry?

I certainly doubt it, but I’m sure it will make some very rich people, a whole lot richer, or, a whole lot more influential, depending on whether they’re buyers or sellers.

It’ll be just like the last lot of media reforms in 2007.

The big boys will win out, the smaller players will get screwed, and, Malcolm, well, he’ll be slapped on the back by media barons when they next meet at Kirribilli House to crack a bottle of bubbly.

This proposed freeing up of the current media ownership laws is all based on a false premise; that the profits of traditional media are under threat from new media unless the barriers to consolidating radio, television and newspapers under one owner are removed.

Recent research in the US shows that traditional radio and television is still by far the dominant force amongst audiences by a margin that’s almost too great to quantify.

New media is still just playing around the edges.

In Australia, with far fewer radio and TV licences per capita than the US, there’s even more built-in protection against the rise of would-be challengers.

The reality is this lobbying has been all about money and influence.

It’s a crying shame that so many people have forgotten that the industry we work in is far more than just a business.

Sure, a lot of high-level players will probably scoff at the perceived naivety of that remark, but this industry has a history that the financial boys would rather see ignored.

We’re an industry that exists thanks to a single sheet of paper – a commercial radiolicence.

Founding CEO of Austereo and DMG/Nova networks, Paul Thompson, recently said to me “you never own a radio licence, you just hold it ‘in trust’ for a period of time and then it moves on to the next operator and you’re forgotten”.

Until then, I hadn’t really thought about it that way, but Paul’s right, of course; it was the ‘voice of experience’ speaking.

Yet, try to convince today’s profit-driven network managers that the primary purpose of the licences they hold is anything other than ‘a licence to print money’.

Good luck with that!

I’ve always believed that radio and television licences should bring with them an inherent responsibility to entertain and inform their audiences at a quality level.

I guess that puts me at odds with many of the new breed executives.

Licences should not be regarded as a gift from the ‘government of the day’ to make a windfall profit at the expense of the real needs of their audiences.

Just look at the degradation in the quality of television shows over the past five to ten years, swamping the unsuspecting public with mass-produced cheap game shows and turgid reality programs in the name of greater profits.

Those expensive high-quality dramas, that networks used to make, have all but gone to help push up the bottom line and drive the share price.

Pretty much the same thing in radio, where we’re seeing Sydney-based talent being networked across the country on the premise that “everyone in Australia wants to know what is going on in Sydney”.

Amortising program costs appears to be the driving force behind those executives, who will be making a grab for, or wanting to divest, the nation’s most-prized media assets, the day the laws are changed.

Frankly, most of them couldn’t care less what programming goes ‘up the stick’; they’re only interested in what goes to the bottom line and how attractive an acquisition that will make them.

If the Prime Minister is truly intent on throwing media diversity to the wind, then I believe it’s time the National Party showed some backbone by ensuring genuine safeguards are put in place within this legislation, particularly for rural areas, so the interests of listeners are protected.

The Nats were more than happy to protect their own self-interests in 2007 by imposing draconian obligations on regional broadcasting, when it suited them.

Now, with the very real prospect that today’s current handful of media owners will be reduced to just three or four conglomerates controlling the entire media landscape, surely some alarm bells must be ringing for them, even if it’s only in the distance.

We have already seen the creation of a nationwide monopoly on commercial talk radio, save for John Laws.

This year’s MRN/ Fairfax merger or consolidation means there is no commercial avenue for ‘the dissenting voice’ on Australia’s capital city airwaves, if someone upsets the powers-that-be at Macquarie Media.

Another concerning spin-off from a potential general consolidation of media is the possibility of allowing every commercial radio station within a city to take their news coverage from a single newsroom.

If this occurs, commercial listeners will only ever hear one perspective on a story and any diversity of commercial news coverage will be wiped out forever.

This is an issue of great concern, on which the National Party should be taking a principled stand to get its coalition colleagues on board and ensure there are real safeguards in place.

Unfortunately, I believe the fallout from relaxing Australia’s media laws will quickly become apparent through a loss of diversity of opinion and expression.

It will also result in a concentration of media power and influence to a level we have never seen before.

These are the very high prices our society must now pay for encouraging unchecked self-regulation and permitting a wholesale flow of traditional media assets into the hands of an ever-diminishing number of owners, many of whose eyes are firmly focused on profit alone.

It’s a dangerous premise, but we can’t say we haven’t been warned by history.

About The Author:

Brad SMART has been a journalist, consultant, author, broadcaster, film director and was the former owner of the Smart Radio Network throughout Queensland. Brad can be contacted on email here.


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