Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd is poised for a slam dunk through the Turnbull government’s media reforms.
Having recently acquired APN regional daily and non-daily newspapers and websites for a bargain $37 million and with Network Ten’s free-to-air TV licences in administration and up for grabs, the American tycoon and his associates can consolidate media power if, as now seems likely, the 1980s ownership rules are abolished.
While Communications Minister Mitch Fifield asserts his abolition of Paul Keating’s ‘two-out-of-three’ market constraint and audience reach rules are supported by the entire Australian media industry, it has become apparent that News Ltd will emerge with many market monopolies.
The company already dominates metropolitan print and online news markets in NSW, Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania and South Australia
Mr Murdoch acquired APN, which includes 12 regional dailies and 60 non-dailies and their websites last year in what appeared to market observers as a move in anticipation of the ownership reforms.
News Ltd, part owner with Telstra of subscription television monopoly, Foxtel, could also acquire Telstra’s share of Foxtel if the price is right.
The sports anti-siphoning rules which pointedly prohibit pay TV’s exclusive control of live popular sports may no longer be an obstacle if News Ltd and its subsidiary Fox Sports can also control Ten, a free-to-air licensee.
News Corp and Telstra and Fox Sports are currently in talks to float a new company on the stock market, if the competition regulator approves.
The Nine Network’s dominance of State of Origin rugby league and cricket and the Seven Network’s rights to AFL may also soon be in play.
Fifield’s whatever-it-takes moment
The Ten network is now in administration after its consortium investors, including Lachlan Murdoch, declined to guarantee a line of operating credit.
Lachlan Murdoch and consortium partner Bruce Gordon are sweating on the ownership reforms so they can beat US hedge funds to the network.
So frenzied has the media industry and individual corporate lobby been in Canberra this week that Senator Fifield has brokered a reprisal deal with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation to get his reforms through the Senate.
The reprisals are directed at the ABC and SBS with moves to get the public broadcasters out of online news websites and video streaming (iView and SBS On Demand).
New ABC chairman Justin Milne, also in Canberra this week, told an audience of MPs that the ABC would fight to defend its right to partner with digital search engines to enhance its website audiences.
“And while I am sympathetic to the concerns of the commercial sector as it seeks new business models in a severely disrupted media landscape, criticising the ABC is not the solution to their problems,” he said.
The ABC is the third most-read online news sites in the current Australian rankings with News Ltd on top and Nine second.
Fairfax − whose SMH and The Age sites are ranked fourth and 11th − is about to separate its lucrative Domain real estate sales website business from Fairfax digital and print media to enhance its share price and position it for further acquisition or merger, possibly with the Nine Network.
Nick Xenophon’s NXT intervention
Also in play is the still unexplained $30 million taxpayer subsidy to News Ltd/ Foxtel said to be for minority (women’s) sports coverage. The Communications Department has been unable to produce documentation justifying the cash contribution.
Senator Fifield has yet to fully explain the deal to the public.
With three senators and decisive leverage in the horse trading against One Nation, NXT leader Senator Nick Xenophon has indicated he may support the ownership reforms if he can secure a tax concession or incentive for public interest journalism.
Details of NXT’s demands are yet to be released publicly but Senator Fifield is considering them. The media reform bill is due back in the Senate in a fortnight.
A 40 per cent tax write-off for media companies with $25 million annual turnover, who employ regional or start-up public interest journalists, is said to be an affordable rescue package for Australian journalism.
Many jobs are disappearing because Google and Facebook are taking domestic advertising revenues.
If the tax write-off also goes to existing regional media companies employing local journalists the concession may also become an operating cash windfall for News Ltd.
Quentin Dempster is a Walkley Award-winning journalist, author and broadcaster with decades of experience. He is a veteran of the ABC newsroom and has worked with a number of print titles including the Sydney Morning Herald. He was awarded an Order of Australia in 1992 for services to journalism.