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No guts, no vision: the politics of media diversity in Australia

By Peter Coroneos - posted Tuesday, 27 June 2000

Legislation before the Senate this month represents the kiss of death for the development of a multi-billion dollar datacasting industry in Australia, and heralds a widening of the information divide between the city and the bush.

Australians are entitled to ask by what mandate the government can use spectrum that belongs to all of us to favour the commercial interests of the free-to-air broadcasters (FTAs) at the expense of everyone else.

Senator Alston relies on a fairly spurious argument that the FTAs have an obligation to broadcast Australian content, so somehow we are protecting content creators by protecting the FTA cartel. On close examination this argument fails. First, the obligation exists only in relation to content for which there is market failure eg. drama and children's programming, not all content. Second, any content creator who wants to produce for television these days has to find overseas distribution backing before they even embark on production, because the ever-diminishing license fees that our local FTAs are paying will not cover the investment. Third, datacasters would probably be quite happy to agree to minimum-content rules provided they could compete with the networks on an equal footing. So too would any fourth commercial TV broadcaster. The fact is, opening up the airwaves to competition is the best opportunity for stimulating the production of Australian content that we could ever have.


Of course, the more modes of content delivery there are, the less control governments have over what the public sees. This has not been lost on Asian observers who see Howard's agenda in more sinister terms, if not from our perspective, certainly from theirs. As Lim Say Boon of the South China Morning Post wrote on 24 June:

...[t]his is Mr. More-Liberal-Than-Thou who not that long ago deigned to let his crisis-hit Asian neighbours in on the virtues of an open, competitive modern economy. This time around, there is little Mr. Howard can teach his neighbours about transiting to a New Economy that they couldn't learn from Beijing - circa 1989. Worse, Mr. More-Liberal-Than-Thou is sending a frightening message to his Asian neighbours - with copies to every politically thin-skinned government in the region - about how even a liberal democracy like Australia can justify Internet censorship for commercial purposes, let alone for social and political reasons.

IIA members are outraged and in total disbelief at the cynicism underlying the policy. "Convergence" has taken on a whole new meaning. It describes the government's vision of the future and the opportunity for competition in the new media. Both are now narrowing to the size of a small dot on a screen once the power is switched off.

Everything this government has said about its commitment to an
information economy is now open to question. This was the single biggest hope for reinventing Australia as a new economy - we could have leap-frogged the US in both penetration and advanced deployment of broadband services. We could have had almost the entire Australian population on line within three years. That possibility is now about to evaporate.

The legislation will send a negative signal to the international investment community. Pity the Aussie dollar and the effect on interest rates. This government had a choice - and it chose the old economy over the new. The only winners here are the old-economy television broadcasters.

The losers will be Australians in regional areas who have struggled with slow and expensive access. There is a widening gap between the information-rich in the city and the information- poor in the regions. People in the bush have every right to be very, very angry over what is about to happen. Datacasting could have provided alternatives to the closure of bank branches and the loss of other services in the bush. While technically they can still receive these, the business case for fast rollout of the enhanced technologies is now dead in the water. Now they will just have to wait.


The battlers in the metropolitan areas will also be losers. For the foreseeable future, it is mainly the children of the rich who will get to use the Net for homework. Anyone sitting on the other side of the information divide in Australia will probably never realise how close they came to sharing in the benefits of the online revolution. They too will just have to wait.

In one fell swoop, this legislation turns the idea of ubiquitous, cheap Internet access from a very real prospect into a failed dream. We had the chance to provide every Australian family with a television set with fast Internet access. Now they will just get TV - with a few more bells and whistles maybe - but still only TV. Data is the killer application of digital TV - this legislation kills the killer app.

A more open policy would have provided Australia with sufficient critical mass of online users to kick-start an e-commerce explosion that might otherwise take years to occur. Indeed, there was a strong commercial case for giving set-top boxes away just to get more of the market on line. This legislation torpedoes the business case for such a play and condemns the majority of Australians to a slow and arduous climb up the data slope to the 21st century economy.

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About the Author

Peter Coroneos is Chief Executive of the Internet Industry Association.

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