Media Ownership on the agenda?

After ten years in office, and more than a year with full control of the senate, most of the Howard Government's long-held ambitions have been achieved. Changes to media ownership laws, however, remain on the agenda. After years of rumours and months of anticipation, it looks increasingly likely that Communications Minister Helen Coonan will soon announce a series of legislative amendments that are widely expected to remove, or significantly reduce, existing restrictions on either foreign or cross-media ownership, or both.

The battle for further deregulation has been waged by Australia's influential media proprietors, especially the late Kerry Packer and the world's most powerful mogul, Rupert Murdoch, since Prime Minister Paul Keating's partial deregulation in 1992. The Howard Government, which many believe has been prejudicially supported by both the Murdoch press and Packer's Nine Network throughout its ten years in office, has long flirted with the notion of further deregulation to allow current media owners to expand their interests and to encourage new players to enter the game.

Conventional wisdom has it that any reduction in the number of media proprietors can only be harmful to democracy, as a variety of voices and opinions in the media is essential to protecting the role of the fourth estate. While no concerned citizen wants to see a marked reduction in the plurality of voices available, there is some debate about how diversity can best be served. As conventional media is an expensive business, deregulation alone is not enough to bring genuinely new players in to the market, and, in Australia, domestic interests with the capacity to play the game are few and far between. Many observers believe that opening the Australian market to foreign ownership is the only way to ensure a diversity of voices; others argue passionately that Australian media must be kept in Australian hands.

With an announcement surely pending, The Centre for Policy Development wants to hear from you on this issue. Over the next few weeks, articles and analysis from leading media academics and commentators will appear on the site. We're inviting submissions from anyone with an interest in the issue, and hope to present a variety of opinions and different arguments. What are the real implications for Australian society if our current media ownership laws are changed? Does cross-media ownership — the control of a newspaper and a television station, for example, in the same market — pose the threat it once did in this multimedia age? How does the internet and the globalisation of communications technology affect the impact of foreign ownership? How soon and to what extent should Australia allow multi-channelling and the full exploitation of digital technology? With a population of only 20 million people, how can we ensure that our access to, and production of, media content remains internationally competitive and allows Australians to enjoy the full benefit of technological developments?

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This week, Melbourne-based economist Joshua Gans raises some questions about the tensions between cross-media ownership restrictions and diversity in the media landscape.

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