Media ownership in Australia, timeline of developments: 1991-2006










Pre-1996 election

• Opposition Leader John Howard is rumoured to have reached an understanding with Kerry Packer to remove the cross-media ownership restrictions that mean he is prevented from buying Fairfax.
• Packer appears on his Nine Network to endorse John Howard for Prime Minister.
• The Coalition promises a full public review of cross-media rules.



• Communications Minister Richard Alston scraps the promised review and instead calls for private submissions to be sent directly to the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA) for analysis by Alston’s advisors.



• Howard says he believes the cross-media rules should be scrapped, but favours retaining limits on foreign ownership.
• The Coalition backbench says it is worried about media ownership and wants a role in formulating policy.
• Howard meets with Murdoch and Packer.
• Network Seven owner Kerry Stokes accuses Howard of doing a deal with Packer over Fairfax.


• Howard says he won’t consider relaxing foreign ownership limits, claiming that "70-80 per cent of the newspapers of this country are owned by foreign interests".

• Liberal MP Gary Hardgraves, deputy chair of the Coalition backbench communications committee, writes to Howard: "I have been contacted by several colleagues requesting no public announcement of any changes in cross-media ownership provisions be made until the committee has been afforded a full briefing with opportunity to comment. As a committee we are very concerned matters will be decided before we are consulted." (The Age, 6/5/97)

• James Packer appears on the Nine Network and announces that he wants Fairfax for Christmas.

• The Coalition backbench tells Howard it will not back change without partial relaxation of foreign ownership limits to keep the industry competitive. Hardgrave explains that "There was no one here who could take on Packer, so it had to be a foreigner. We went for diversity over xenophobia."

• Howard again refuses to consider abolishing limits on foreign media ownership but, under pressure from his backbench, offers Murdoch a lift in foreign ownership limits from 15 percent to 25 percent.

• Cabinet considers Richard Alston’s plan and advises him to consult the backbench.


• James Packer lobbies backbenchers for relaxation of cross-media ownership restrictions.

• ABC Television hosts a debate on media policy. No one from the Murdoch or Packer companies participates.


• Murdoch says no to Howard’s offer, and threatens to fight any attempt to give Fairfax to Packer without the abolition of foreign ownership restrictions at the same time.

• Howard dumps the plan.


• Howard tells Cabinet he’s dropped the issue after the backbench committee announces "MPs would not accept any policy that allowed the Packers or Rupert Murdoch to own more of the Australian media".

• Alston tells Parliament that Cabinet bailed out "because they well understood that the Australian public was interested in the real issues".


Pre-election, 2001

• The Government announces it will review media ownership laws after the election.

• Howard meets Rupert Murdoch in the United States just before the September 11 attacks. Insiders assume a deal was done whereby the Murdoch press would support Howard in the election campaign, and in return Howard would alter legislation to allow Murdoch to expand his media interests in Australia by buying a television network.



• Richard Alston meets Rupert Murdoch in New York to discuss possible changes to media ownership laws.

• Alston dumps his promise of a review, and instead holds private talks with media players, obtaining majority agreement for his plan.


• Cabinet approves the Alston-Howard plan to abolish cross-media and foreign ownership restrictions on the media, which would allow Packer to buy Fairfax and Murdoch to buy a television network.

March 19

• Alston presents proposed legislation to the Coalition party-room meeting as a done deal.

• At least ten backbenchers protest, saying Alston hasn’t explained what the legislation means and demanding more time to consider it. Critics include National Party MPs Paul Neville, De-Anne Kelly and Ron Boswell, Victorian Liberal MPs Bruce Billson, Petro Georgiou and Sophie Panopoulos and NSW Liberals Bruce Baird, Bronwyn Bishop and Marise Payne.

• The Sydney Morning Herald reports: "They are concerned at the impact such a liberal regime would have on media diversity in the bush and the centralising of ownership that would result from a relaxation of the cross-media laws. A few backbenchers … fear that in the absence of a strong cross-media regime foreign investors could buy up as many local media outlets as they liked."

• Major media players arrive in Canberra to begin lobbying politicians to support the Alston plan. Critics claim that this is proof that they all knew the detail of the plan before the Coalition’s own backbench.

March 20

• A hastily formed new communications backbench committee agrees to the original plans after meeting with Alston. No committee members will reveal the reasons behind their about-face.

March 21

• The coalition party room approves the Alston-Howard plan and Alston introduces it into the House of Representatives.


• A Senate Committee inquiry rejects the Alston plan, but Western Australian Liberal Senator Alan Eggleston, Tasmanian Liberal Senator Paul Calvert and Victorian Liberal Senator Tsebin Tchen back it with two provisos:

1. Any company could own only two of the three media – TV, radio and newspapers – in any one region;

2. A media group should be required to disclose its ownership of another media group when it is reporting on the latter.



• Alston agrees to these changes and starts negotiating with the four independent / minor party Senators whose support he needs to pass the bill: South Australian ex-Democrat Meg Lees, Tasmanian ex-Labor Senator Shayne Murphy, Queensland One Nation Senator Len Harris and Tasmanian independent Senator Brian Harradine.


June 22

• Alston announces a new offer to the independents, including cash to extend the reach of ABC news radio to the regions.

June 25

• The Senate passes Alston’s bill with Brian Harradine’s amendment, which bans a company owning a newspaper and a television station in the same capital city market.

June 26

• The House of Representatives rejects the Senate compromise and re-passes Alston’s legislation.

June 27

• The House of Representatives lays the bill aside.

• Alston announces he’ll demand the Senate pass his original legislation in October, and ensures that all the preconditions are met to make the bill part of a double dissolution election trigger.


• Alston starts negotiations with the Democrats to pass the legislation.

November 5

• The Bill is reintroduced into the House of Representatives.

December 1

• The house passes the Bill, in the same form as that introduced on 15 October 2002, with the addition of amendments passed by the Senate and agreed to by the House.

December 2

• The Bill is reintroduced into the Senate; the second reading debate adjourned.


• The Bill lapses following the calling of the 2004 Federal election.
• The Howard Government includes a commitment to “reform” media ownership laws in its election platform.


• The Government commences consultations with stakeholders on possible approaches to media ownership reform.


14 March 2006

• After months of unexplained delays, Communications Minister Senator Helen Coonan releases a discussion paper on media ”reform”, entitled Meeting the digital challenge: reforming Australia’s media in the digital age. The paper is open for public discussion and submissions for one month, until the 18th of April.

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