Thursday, July 28, 2005

2,000 Hits, and Time to Step Up.

Posted by AmishThrasher at 11:35 am
Kerry Packer:
He wants to own all our media.
This week, the AmishThrasher crosses another milestone, having gotten 2,000 hits. But, as we celebrate this amazing achievement, there are stormclouds on the horizon. On the table are drastic plans to shake up Australia's media industry and dramatically limit the number of voices setting the agenda. These plans have been criticised both by commentators in the independent media, like Crikey, and by the opposition. The time is coming for Australia's indepedent media - including those of us in the blogosphere - to step up to the plate; our national discourse is under threat.As it stands, 1,979 people have logged on to the AmishThrasher since the site began; and perhaps before the next chance I get to update that number will tick over to 2,000. I would like to personally thank those who have checked out the AmishThrasher and helped us reach that amazing milestone. For everyone reading this, thankyou: we could never have done it without you!

But all is not sweetness and light in the media.

In fact, for the past decade, Australia's media policy has been badly mangled and mutilated. And the man most to blame is the former Communications Minister, Richard Alston. Alston, a former Senator, became infamous for his belief that the Internet - one of the most important social, economic, and technological revelations of the past decade - was useful only for pornograhy and games. And beyond fumbling broadband internet, Alston also stumbled when it came to digital TV.

Beyond the internet, digital TV represents perhaps one of the greatest opportunities to broaden the number of voices in the media in Australia. The reason for this is that digital TV signals take up a lot less bandwidth than a traditional analogue signal - in fact, you can do 'multichanneling', where you have 6 standard definition digital signals in the same bandwidth it takes for one standard definition (PAL) analogue signal. There is also the potential for 'datacasting', where digital signals are used for world wide web-style interactive multimedia; including streaming audio and video. Implimenting these technologies with responsible legislative controls could potentially mean an exciting array of new media choices and services for consumers, while at the same time reducing cross media ownership restrictions.

Alston instead chose to sell out these opportunities to big money, old media interests. Instead of getting 6 new digital channels for every current analogue channel, we got one HD-TV and one standard definition channel clogging up the possible bandwidth (one HD-TV station taking up the same bandwidth as about 5 or 6 standard definition channel). The door was bolted shut on new media players by a ban on anyone (bar the ABC and SBS) multichanneling, underfunding of the multichanneling efforts of the ABC and SBS, and an outright ban on new players starting up new channels until 2007. Oh, and the HDTV bandwidth was given away free to the existing TV channels. Hideous limits were placed on the Datacasters - no news, no sport, and no entertainment - and the auction for the channel failed when no-one showed up. Foxtel and the old media owners (like Kerry packer) got everything on their christmas wishlists. Even Rupert Murdoch was outraged about the restrictions on datacasting - of which News Corp had an interest in investing in.

The big problem with High Definition is that, unless you have a high definition home theater system, the difference makes little difference - yet it takes up significantly more of our precious bandwidth than Standard Definition. And those who have the money to splash out on high definition home theater systems would undoubtedly also get Foxtel Digital to get the best value out of it anyway. A better arrangement would be to make Foxtel Digital the exclusive preserve of high definition, while freeing up the free-to-air bandwidth for as many standard definition channels as possible. However, instead of more variety, a mix of big media and big government largesse won out; though the vast majority of the Australian public was sold out in the process. The resulting policy is a pathetic joke.

And it is against this background that the debate over media reform is happening. Where we could, in a more competitive media environment, be able to weaken controls on cross media and foreign ownership while still preserving - or even enjoring a greater diversity of - media voices than today, Alston's fumbling has made sure that without severe reforms to our digital TV regulations, deregulation will ensure that even more power is concentrated in a much smaller number of hands.

The future of our national discourse, and the diversity of our media, rests in the hands of the new Communications Minister, Helen Coonan.

According to
Page one of Tuesday's Financial Review is dominated by a story under the heading "New TV channels in media plan," which outlines the fullest details yet of the government's blueprint to change the country's media laws.

The plan is presented as a bold "shake-up of the $12 billion media industry," that will "allow" TV networks to offer viewers multiple digital channels and "give" pay TV the right to broadcast more major sporting events.

And the good news doesn't end there. According to The Fin, Communications Minister Helen Coonan intends to introduce a "diversity" rule that "would ensure there were five large media companies in each capital city."

Yet Crikey is critical about the changes that have been outlined, writing:
there are currently nine large media companies operating in the two cities that really matter, Sydney and Melbourne. Count 'em:

* Newspapers: News Limited, Fairfax (2)

* TV: Nine, Seven Ten (3)

* Radio: Southern Cross, Austereo, Australian Radio Network, DMG (4)

According to The Fin, the five-company diversity rule will be the only cross-media restriction under the government's new plan – which means that companies could own newspapers AND television AND radio in one city (subject, of course, to ACCC approval).

And you don't need to be a mathematics professor to work out the answer to this primary school arithmetic test:

Question: If there are nine companies in the market now, and only five must remain after Mr Howard's new rules are introduced, how many companies can disappear to still ensure "diversity"?
Answer: Four.

Under the government's proposed "diversity" test, four major media companies in the country's major cities could be taken over by, or merged with, the remaining companies.

This is a media reform recipe that will bury Australian democracy. It will leave the country's key markets – where all the major commentary, analysis and media influence resides – with a handful of the most powerful media owners anywhere in the world.
SOURCE: ibid.

Kim Beazley has also been critical, according to the ABC:
Federal Opposition Leader Kim Beazley says the Government's planned overhaul of media laws is another example of its extreme activities now that it has control of the Senate.

Communications Minister Helen Coonan is considering a raft of changes, including scrapping restrictions on foreign ownership and allowing companies to control more than one form of media in the same metropolitan market.

Senator Coonan has also reportedly proposed a forum of media executives be formed to allow them to discuss the changes.

Mr Beazley says the moves will simply harm diversity in the media.

"An essential part of democracy is diversity in the media and the media laws that were put in place by the previous government at least guaranteed a certain diversity," he said.

"It seems to me that what Senator Coonan proposes to do is to move away from that. That's not good for democracy here."

The time has come for us, in the independent media, to step up to the plate. We need to both be a watchdog on these policy changes to make sure that they are implimented in a manner benefitting the Australian public, and also to fill the need for new voices (especially if our media laws are mangled in favour of big media interests). For those of us who take up the challenge, there are unique opportunities in the months and years ahead. And by independent media, I mean across the spectrum: from independent and community TV, to the street press, and especially online, and in the blogosphere. And it is a duty: the consequences of inaction on civic life in an Australia with few alternative voices means a concentration in the agenda setting power of the media; and we will all suffer as a result of this.

And the message to the Coallition needs to be simple: we are watching. The Australian people have entrusted you with a double majority (even though I personally don't think you deserve it). And we are watching Ministers, like Helen Coonan, closely. And if you abuse your power to reduce the number of agenda setting voices in the media and weaken our democracy, or abuse your power in other ways, we will make sure you are never entrusted with such power again.