The Turnbull government has introduced new laws to parliament that seek to loosen restrictions on media ownership, prompting warnings that media diversity could be at risk.
If passed, the legislation would remove rules that ensure one company cannot own more than two of three radio, television and newspapers in an area, and the rule which prohibits one TV licence reaching more than 75 per cent of the population.
Dennis Muller, University of Melbourne senior research fellow at the Centre for Advancing Journalism, told The New Daily that the television industry in particular is looking to engage in mergers and consolidations.
He cited the prospect of a merger between television station Channel Nine and newspaper group Fairfax as the sort of development that would be enabled by the new reforms.
“Let’s say those two merge, there will be consequences on editorial operations,” he said.
“There will be cuts, but who will have the power – the TV or the newspapers – because that will have a big bearing on the news?
“To put it crudely, are we going to have current affairs journalism about things in the public interest, or are we going have current affairs journalism about the latest weight loss formula?”
He acknowledges that the current laws are out-of-date, but wants more detail on how regional populations will continue to enjoy locally-produced news and what measures will be in place to ensure the media landscape is not dominated by one or two voices.
He dismisses the idea that diversity will be guaranteed thanks to the internet, at least in the short term, because: “At this point the overwhelming number of people go to the big news websites.”
Communications Minister Mitch Fifield rejected the idea that the proposed reforms would reduce media diversity in Australia, arguing numerous television stations, radio stations, newspapers and online platforms would continue to exist.
“I’m particularly untroubled by people who say they’re concerned about a potential lack of diversity,” he said.
The Turnbull government has responded to the concerns regarding regional areas by implementing safeguards to protect local programming via the strengthening of a points system that will come into force six months after an unspecified “trigger event”.
Rather than meeting 720 points over six weeks, regional broadcasters will have to meet 900 points with an incentive for local news to be filmed in a local area.
Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce said digital media had made much of the debate about regional media irrelevant.
He said regional journalists wanted changes to protect their jobs.
When in government, Labor also proposed scrapping the reach rule three years ago, but is keeping an “open mind” on the two-out-of-three provision.
“There are strong arguments to say that we should get rid of it if you want to create big, scalable media businesses in the internet age,” opposition communications spokesman Jason Clare said.
“But equally there are good arguments which say we should keep it if we want to make sure we’ve got as much diversity.”
Southern Cross Austereo boss Grant Blackley has welcomed the package, saying it will secure local services in regional Australia.