Peter Coleman: Media reform clouded by self-interest

Clamour for media reform - expected to be on the Australian Senate's agenda next week - appears to make for strange bedfellows.

You wouldn't think that News Corp and maverick politician Pauline Hanson had too much in common, but they are on the same side in believing their collective pet-hate, national broadcaster the ABC should have its wings clipped.

One Nation leader Hanson isn't exactly in favour of the reach of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp being extended - with the withdrawal of the "two-thirds" ownership rule - but that's another matter.

The priorities of a poorly-formed media reform package, built on political compromise, have also put News and rival Fairfax Media on the same side.

And there's more: Seven West Media - which owns the West Australian newspaper as well as the Seven free-to-air TV network - Nine Entertainment and Foxtel (part owned by News) want the government to review the operations of the ABC and SBS and either restate or clarify the boundaries in which each operates.

News Corp Australasia executive chairman Michael Miller says it is "a real issue that as the commercial sector painfully waits for a political decision, the ABC and SBS are becoming more and more aggressive commercial competitors", and his Fairfax oppo, Greg Hywood accuses the ABC and SBS of "using taxpayer dollars to distort the content market".

To modify the Mandy Rice-Davies quote from the famous UK trial, "They would say that, wouldn't they" - or as legal beagles apparently like to put it, MRDA (Mandy Rice-Davies applies).

Of course News wants a weaker ABC and SBS, just as it wants all its competitors - Fairfax included - to be subservient or nonexistent, and I've nothing against a bit of healthy self-interest. It's just that it's not the government's role to support them in that objective against the public interest, even allowing for the fact that it could need a leg up at the next general election... and News can be a powerful opponent.

So August looks like being an interesting month, with this and the sale of the collapsed (or imploded) Ten Network, where even Fairfax has put up its hand to look at the books.

Personally, I hope Hanson holds her position on reach, and doesn't get her way on cutting back the two national broadcasters, who between them are responsible for commissioning and broadcasting some of the world's best content.

Ahead of all this, media shares rose yesterday, ahead of what was described this morning - in a summary of a report in News Corp's The Australian - "the bill aimed at protecting journalists' jobs". Politicians' and media chiefs' jobs, more like.

Peter Coleman

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