The ACCC’s green light for the proposed Murdoch-Gordon takeover of Network Ten is premature, meddlesome and dithering. Worst of all, it is oblivious to the potential ramifications.
On Thursday, the competition watchdog announced it “will not oppose” the acquisition of the beleaguered network by media moguls Lachlan Murdoch and Bruce Gordon. This is despite current federal media laws prohibiting such a bid.
The Turnbull government’s media reform bill continues to languish in the Senate, which means legislators have yet to decide on the future shape of Australia’s media industry. The ACCC has taken it upon itself to second-guess Parliament with a clumsily-argued case for the Murdoch-Gordon bid.
ACCC chairman Rod Sims says the deal is “unlikely to result in a substantial lessening of competition in any relevant market” but conversely agrees it will result in “lessening competition via a greater alignment of Mr Murdoch’s, Mr Gordon’s and Ten’s interests”.
The two-bob-each-way reasoning doesn’t stop there.
Mr Sims admits “Murdoch interests” already have “a significant influence in newspapers, Foxtel, radio and television production”, but he is untroubled by the further expansion of Murdoch family influence in the Australian media.
“The ACCC is not oblivious to the fact that significant influence can be exerted through partial shareholdings and family connections, however the ACCC did take into consideration that this is a proposed 50 per cent acquisition by [Murdoch’s investment vehicle] Illyria,” Mr Sims says.
The regulator also acknowledges “some reduction in diversity” and the risk that “incentives to compete may be weakened” if the proposed acquisition proceeds. Ultimately, however, the ACCC concludes that the Ten takeover would not “substantially” lessen competition.
This vacillating assessment is not only dithering but ill-premised. Whatever plans the Murdoch-Gordon joint venture has for Ten, it will owe little to the media market as we know it.
The moguls know there is no future in running Ten as an also-ran free-to-air channel. Ten long ago outlived its usefulness as one of Australia’s three national commercial TV networks.
Given the involvement of notorious cost-cutter Mr Gordon, it is hard to imagine a business model that necessitates deep pockets.
One option floated by industry observers is that Ten will become a dedicated sports channel. Some of Ten’s sports deals have been in conjunction with New Corp’s Fox Sports; more such joint bids may be possible in a revamped Ten, although it’s hard to imagine whether such synergies would be enough to provide the impetus for Ten to become a resurgent broadcaster. It’s also worth recalling that Ten’s expensive sports contracts were part of its undoing.
A more disturbing possibility is that Ten becomes a Fox News-style channel. Rupert Murdoch’s uber-successful, ultra-conservative US cable network owes more to bombast than journalism. As such, a few expensive talking heads aside, it would be a relatively affordable undertaking.
In the current feverish political environment, in which the rabid right has become increasingly assertive, an over-the-top right-wing television station would have a ready audience. The News Corp-owned Sky News Australia has been moving into this space, at some cost to its journalistic reputation. A version of Fox News on Ten would enable Sky to re-balance its content in favour of more nuanced journalism.
The last thing Australia’s tinderbox political environment needs is a 24-hour forum on free-to-air television for unplugged bile and hatred. We have seen with the same-sex marriage “debate” the hatreds that have been given licence in recent years.
The very possibility alone that a Murdoch-Gordon joint venture would turn Ten into a Fox News Down Under is reason enough to wish ill for its Ten bid.
The ACCC has looked at the Murdoch-Gordon takeover bid through its rose-coloured competition glasses. But “competition” does not always spell good news for the consumer (the other half of the ACCC’s remit). As deregulation of the energy market has demonstrated, competition is not necessarily the consumer’s friend.
Lachlan Murdoch is not his father, that is true, but he is deeply enmeshed in his father’s media empire, which must raise questions that should not be as readily dismissed as they have been by the ACCC.
Allowing Mr Murdoch to take control of Ten should be considered an unacceptable risk to Australian democracy and to Australian journalism.