Over the past two decades the Australian government has undertaken a task of economic liberalisation through a process of deregulation and privatisation. Deregulation of the media industry is now on the agenda. On the 13 July 2006 Senator Coonan, Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts announced a government framework for progressive deregulation of the media industry (Coonan 2006a). Contained within the deregulation framework is a proposal to relax the current media ownership regulation (Coonan 2006a). This paper will briefly outline the current media regulations and discuss the reasons for such regulation. This will be followed by an analysis of the different arguments for and against deregulation. Arguments for deregulation include economic arguments such as “free market theory” and profit maximization. Arguments against deregulation are societal based arguments such as the potential of undue power and influence of media owners, and reduction in diversity of views and information. From this analysis it will then be argued that the media ownership regulations should not be relaxed. This argument will be made on the basis that there is no evidence that deregulation will not be detrimental to society and reversal will be difficult.
Media ownership and concentration has been an important policy issue for many governments around the world. This is due to the special role that media plays politically, socially and culturally (Doyle 2000, p. 1, Horwitz 2005, p. 181). The current regulations relating to cross-media ownership in Australia as laid out in the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 stipulates that a company or a company director can only control a license for one form of media (television, radio or newspaper) in any given license area (Commonwealth Consolidated Acts n.d). An example of this may be if a company has a television license in a certain area, they would not be entitled to obtain a radio or newspaper license within that same license area. These regulations were established in an attempt to discourage concentration and support competition in the media industry. This in turn was an attempt to ensure that democracy could properly function and that society at large can have access to a range of relevant, fairly presented views and information (Jackson, 2006, The Australian Communications and Media Authority n.d).
It has been widely accepted that for a democracy to function there must be diverse and free exchange of information, ideas and viewpoints (Champlin & Knoedler 2006, p. 136, Horwitz 2005, p.182, Copps 2003, p. 475, McChesney 2003, p.126, Chadwick 1998, p.155). Many countries around the world have shared the view that regulations should be implemented to control the ownership and concentration of the media in order to maintain the diverse flow of information and ideas (Doyle 2000, p. 1, Horwitz 2005, p. 181). This view is changing. Due to agendas of economic liberalisation, technological advances, commercialisation and pressure from growing media companies, governments have started to deregulate the industry (McChesney 2003, p.125, Moog & Sluyter-Beltrao 2001, p. Doyle 2000 p. 1). However, there appears to be few studies that explore the societal impact of concentration of the media industry. Will society benefit from greater concentration of the media industry?
Senator Coonan (2006b) argues that with the large amount of media sources available to the public, particularly the internet, there will continue to be a diverse variety of news and information from which the public can draw. However figures show that, in Australia, television, radio and newspaper remain the most common source of news and current affairs; only 11% of people use the internet and 10% use cable television as their source of news and current affairs. Moreover, many internet and cable television news services are owned by traditional media owners (Jackson 2006). Furthermore, Senator Coonan (2006a) argues that this is a mere relaxation of the media laws and that safeguards to ensure diversity will be instilled, these safeguards being a minimum of five voices in metropolitan markets and four in urban markets. Despite these safeguards, relaxation of the current regulations will provide opportunity for consolidation and further concentration of an already concentrated industry (Jackson 2006). The two largest media players in Australia both have access to over 50% of their respective markets (Jackson 2006). Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating (Lateline 2006) suggests that the safeguards are inadequate as relatively small and insignificant voices will be counted in the five required voices in an area. The question, however, remains: Will further concentration of the industry be detrimental or beneficial to society?
Further consolidation will be beneficial to the media proprietors, and in turn society as companies will be able to realise economies of scale and scope (Doyle 2000, p.22). Doyle (2002, p. 175) however argues that cross-media ownership across traditional platforms of media does not give rise to significant efficiencies and cost savings gains. In relation to public interest, it has been argued that the market forces of supply and demand is the best way to regulate the media i.e; those that serve the public interest will be profitable whereas those that do not will have to change or will not survive (Croteau & Hoynes 2001, p. 67). Weinstein (2004, pp 161-164) argues that regulated markets may actually be less diverse than an unregulated market. He argues that, in the name of profits, a single owner of different media platforms will attract a greater audience by producing a diverse variety of products than it could by producing homogenous products in each media form. This argument is intuitively appealing; however, McChesney (2003, p. 130) argues that advertising revenue is the biggest concern for a commercial media proprietor and in this sense proprietors will only offer what people want when it is a valuable market. Furthermore, there are concerns that to attract audiences proprietors will encourage sensationalism and entertainment (Chomsky 2006, p.2), making news a saleable product rather than a public service (Champlin & Knoedler 2006, p. 139).
A further issue is the possible power that accompanies ownership control over what news is broadcast or printed. It is said that mass media now has the capacity to make or break politicians, even entire governments (Newton, 2001 p. 151). No longer does media simply carry the news, they also have the power to shape public opinion and influence public policy (Newton, 2001 p. 151). Paul Keating asserts (Lateline, 2006) that given the extra power and control that the media proprietors will have, one must be sure not to get on the wrong side of them. Weinstein (2004, p. 171) suggests that owners will be unlikely to assert control over the content that is produced unless they are willing to trade profits for their goals. This begs the question, what would happen if influencing the content were financially beneficial to the company? It has been found that there is a general acceptance that the commercial interests of the owner will influence production content (Jackson 2006). McChesney (2003, pp 126-127) points out; that after deregulation the large media companies will wield considerable influence in politics and policy making. They will also be able to stifle a robust community debate. Due to this power, once deregulation has occurred reversing the scenario will be much more difficult. Chomsky (2006, pp 1-18) in his study on the New York Times also found that owners of media can and have used a certain level of control of content. He also found that these practices could be very difficult to monitor or prove. Furthermore, it has been found that reporters are able to recognize and perform to the owner’s preferences without having to be explicitly told what to do (Chomsky 2006, p. 15)
The ownership of the media will continue to be a contentious issue; despite the level of contention surrounding media ownership governments around the world are pursuing agendas of deregulating the media industry. There are economic arguments that have been put forward such as the laws of supply and demand (Croteau & Hoynes 2001, p. 67), economies of scale and scope (Doyle 2000, p.22) along with Weinstein’s (2004, pp 161-164) argument of diversity due to audience maximization and profit goals. However these arguments appear to benefit the industry but are unable to unequivocally show the benefits to society and the public interest. It appears that under the laws of supply and demand there will be a decrease in the quality of the news and information provided and it will be targeted toward the most profitable audiences (Champlin & Knoedler 2006, p. 139, Chomsky 2006, p.2, McChesney 2003, p. 130). They fail to address why media owners are not going to abuse the increase in power afforded to them through further consolidation both in political influence and influence of content. Finally the five voices safeguards that senator Coonan (2006a) is proposing does allow for further industry concentration and are weak as it will allow a media proprietor to control the major media platforms in a market provided there are other proprietors still in the market. As there is no comprehensive evidence to prove that relaxation of the media ownership regulations will not be detrimental to society the regulations should remain as they are. As Kim Jackson (2006) put it “ownership is easily monitored and regulated whereas concepts such as diversity of views’ are much more difficult to regulate”. Can our democratic society afford for deregulation proponents to be wrong? Once the industry is deregulated it will be very difficult to return (McChesney 2003, pp. 126-127)
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