01 November 2016
by Katharine Murphy

Cross-media ownership: Xenophon bloc likely to support scrapping diversity rules

News Corp boss Rupert Murdoch. Labor’s argument against bulldozing Australia’s cross-media ownership regime, which would allow moguls such as Murdoch to own assets in the same market, is that Australia already has one of the most concentrated media markets in the developed world.

Coalition wants to dump regulations that prevent moguls such as Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Stokes owning TV, newspaper and radio assets in the same market

The Turnbull government appears poised to win the Xenophon Senate bloc’s support for changes that would allow media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch or Kerry Stokes to own television, radio and newspaper assets in the same market.

With media reform set to return to the political agenda when parliament resumes next week, the NXT senator Stirling Griff, who has carriage of the issue for the Xenophon party, told Guardian Australia he was personally supportive of the government’s proposal, and he believed his colleagues would have a similar disposition.

The government is proposing to dump the media regulations known as the 75% reach rule and the two-out-of-three rule.

The reach rule now prevents Nine Entertainment, Seven West Media and the Ten Network from owning their regional affiliates. The two-out-of-three rule restricts cross-media ownership, preventing moguls from controlling a free-to-air TV station, newspapers and radio stations in the same market.

Labor is supportive of scrapping the reach rule but has thus far resisted entreaties from the government to bulldoze the cross-media ownership regime out of concern that Australia already has one of the most concentrated media markets in the developed world.

Given Labor has dug in resisting changes to the ownership regime, on current indications, the government will have to look to the crossbench to steer the media package through the parliament.

The Xenophon Senate bloc will therefore be critical to the government securing the parliamentary numbers to proceed. Griff said on Monday the NXT was yet to take a formal position but he believed the Senate group would back the changes on the basis that the Australian media landscape was now radically altered.

“The real power now is with the web, with social media, with Facebook, and Google,” Griff said. “I think we’ve got great diversity now.”

The NXT senator said there was a legitimate question in his mind about whether a comprehensive review of the media landscape was in order before a final parliamentary vote on the government’s proposal.

The shadow communications minister, Michelle Rowland, in an interview with Guardian Australia in August, urged the government to have an independent review of media ownership in Australia to establish the basic facts before moving to scrap regulations that have the specific purpose of maintaining diversity in media ownership.

The government has been reluctant to agree to that caveat, saying there have been a number of reviews of media ownership in recent years.

Media reform will be back squarely on the political agenda when federal parliament resumes next week. The Senate’s environment and communications legislation committee will present a report into the government’s media legislation after a short inquiry.

The Nine Network used its submission to the Senate inquiry into the package to argue the government’s overhaul should not proceed unless Canberra is prepared to give further ground on licence fees.

Nine’s chief executive, Hugh Marks, warned in the company’s submission: “Changing any ownership rules before addressing onerous and unfair licence fees has the potential to distort the market and have unintended consequences.”

Nine’s hardline stance is a reversal from the network’s previous support for the government’s media reform package.

The government has signalled it is prepared to give ground on this point, and would likely win a parliamentary majority for a further cut in licence fees, pleasing both Nine, and the Seven Network boss, Kerry Stokes.

Labor would likely back that proposal.