With the Senate due to debate the government's media ownership bills today, the debate needs to focus on the importance of diversity of viewpoints in Australian
media. Diversity, and fairness and accuracy in news reporting is essential for our democracy to be effective and viable.
There are limits to which this can be achieved through law alone. Many of the issues are cultural and commercial. In Australia, the United States and Britain,
the current debate has focused on how important a diversity of ownership is to diversity of opinion.
Journalists, academics and consumer groups have argued that media proprietors too often intervene in news reporting to push a particular line. Media proprietors
have argued that they have little interest in day-to-day editorial decisions, and that it is the editors and the journalists who make these decisions. Well,
maybe it is time to test them on that proposition.
The government's media ownership bill to be debated next week, seeks to remove the current restrictions on a proprietor owning both a television station and
a newspaper in the same market. The bill does insist on "editorial separation", that is, the maintenance of separate newsrooms in the television station and the
The Parliament could consider taking this further, and requiring not just editorially separate newsrooms, but also that editorial control of one of the newsrooms be
separated from the owner.
This could be done by interposing an editorial board between the owner and the television newsroom. The board would make all editorial decisions (including
the appointment of staff) subject to the commercial and financial constraints set by the owner. A typical board might have three members, one appointed by the
owner, one by the journalists and an independent chair. This would thus enshrine in law what the proprietors say happens in practice - non-interference in editorial decisions.
The reviews of media laws in Australia, the United States and Britain recognise that diversity of viewpoints is served by some continuing restrictions on concentration
of media ownership. How much is too much is the key question.
In Australia, the government proposes to maintain limits on the number of television stations (one) and radio stations (two) that can be owned in each market, plus
a "five voices" test guaranteeing a minimum of five commercial operators in metropolitan markets.
In Britain, the Blair government proposes a "three voice" rule, restrictions on merging of dominant newspaper and television groups and continuing to fund
the BBC at nine times the rate of the ABC.
In the United States, the Bush Administration proposes new rules looking at the special circumstances of each market, developed using a "diversity index".
The index weighs each media outlet (television, radio, newspapers, pay TV, internet) by the extent to which people rely on them for news and current affairs, and then
matching that against ownership.
Because television is the most used medium, the index rates markets with three or fewer television stations as "highly concentrated" with further takeovers
prohibited, and markets with 4-8 television stations as "moderately concentrated"
where approval of takeovers depend on the impact on viewpoint diversity. Only in markets with nine or more television station would there be no diversity issues
Most Australians markets fall into the middle category. With the exception of Sydney and Melbourne (which have two daily newspapers and around 10 commercial
radio stations), all Australian markets would shift into the highly concentrated category with a television-newspaper combination under the diversity index. Even
in Sydney and Melbourne, certain combinations would fail the diversity test.
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