Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Australian Cross-Media Ownership Laws

I'll readily admit it. I'm on the mailing list. This means that every now and then I get emails asking me to sign online petitions, championing progressive causes such as fighting the recent Industrial Relations laws, looking after asylum detainee's rights and asking for a much needed budget increase for the A.B.C.

Regular readers of King Leonard - The Weblog will know that three weeks ago Communications Minister Helen Coonan released her intentions to reform the Australian Media landscape. Now, a lot has been spoken about the implications of what's in this package, and no doubt much more will be written as the major media players submit their opinions by Tuesday next week (what a stupid date, the day after Easter long weekend).

(From the "Meeting the Digital Challenge" media release)

Key Proposals


The cross-media rules would be amended to allow cross-media transactions to proceed, subject to there remaining a minimum number of commercial media groups in the relevant market (four in regional markets, five in mainland state capitals).

And so it is that Get Up! has decided to enter the political fray, with a particular bent on the proposed changes to cross-media ownership laws.

"Media diversity is essential to our democracy.
It means we get to hear more than one side of the story. It helps us hold leaders accountable and prevents large corporations from wielding undue influence."

A valid point. In our changing media world the fact remains that the most massive consumption is still through television, radio and print. When one person or company holds multiple voices, with no obvious connection between them, it does mean differences of opinion can be efffectively shut down; not a good thing in a free and democratic society.

However, that view, to my mind, doesn't take into account the ever increasing impact of the internet, both in the existing media's ability to diversify and the public's ability to have their opinion heard (or, more recently, seen). For over a decade now we've had TV and radio stations delivering stories in print. Now we have newspapers and radio stations creating video content. And I have to tell you, I think it's great to see. The more media companies realise their key product is "information" or "stories" rather than "TV" or "Movies" or "Radio" or "Magazines", the easier it will be to get them to start facing the future and create content to suit. Of course, even newspapers with video cameras have their down side (an interesting outcome. Interested to see where this one takes us).

Then there's the ever growing base of user-generated content, citizen journalism and other recent buzzwords relating to regular people being given the ability to create and distribute their content online, not to mention a solidifying number of "Web 2.0" companies giving their audience the ability to pick and choose news sources quickly and easily. Despite the dire warnings of some, it is to my mind an activity of social responsibility worth pursuing. To this end, the more important discussion in this country is not whether Packer wants to buy out Fairfax (why would they now? All they wanted was the classified dollars. They've got that with their recently purchased classifieds websites. Why bother with a newspaper when you've got to create all that annoying filler. You know, content!) but rather whether creative people in this country will have access to distribute and download content easily and fairly, and that is a discussion relating to a slightly different, but increasingly connected, section of Australian telecommunications.

"Telstra and the ACCC are negotiating the regulation of the company's proposed $3 billion fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) network, using a mixture of private horse-trading and public bluster.

(Telstra CEO, Sol) Trujillo has declared that if Telstra gets shafted on wholesale pricing of the existing wire network (unconditioned local loop or ULL pricing) the FTTN network won't get built, and it might not get built anyway if he doesn't get "regulatory certainty"."

"Without that, this country will be stuck in the dark ages with massive broadband inequality. The 20 per cent of the population who happen to live within 1.5 kilometres of a telephone exchange would be able to get quite fast broadband speeds (up to 24 megabits per second - a quarter of the speed they're now getting in Korea and Japan); everybody else would be stuck with the misnamed broadband we now have (256 kilobits, which is not broadband at all)."

"This, it seems to me, should be a clear aim of national policy, and it should be the Minister's job to see that it happens. The trouble is that the debate has gone up the blind alley of ADSL.

ULL/ADSL and FTTN are entirely different things but they are being lumped together simply because the ACCC is coincidentally deciding on the regulation of both at the same time and Telstra is trying to use ULL leverage to get a good outcome on FTTN."

I don't even want to go into my thoughts on Testra at the moment, and in the danger of allowing a single organisation or closely aligned monopoly to own the future media infrastructure (issues the U.S. are dealing with now) but I see the ongoing issue of true broadband connectivity as a more important issue than media ownership laws, especially ones that hold provisions for "a minimum number of commercial media groups in the relevant market".

So basically, I guess I'd like to see a Get Up! petition campaign that sounds a little something like this.

"At no time have regular Australians had such a potential to voice their opinions on the issues that matter the most to them. The advent of affordable and easy to use publishing of text, audio and video via high speed internet access, far from merely being an avenue for illegal file sharing or MMORPG's, has the ability to create a democratic forum unheard of in human history.

However, bickering by the country's major telecommunications company, Telstra, still predominantly owned by the Australian people, with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), itself a government owned institution, has halted the much needed rollout of FTN (Fibre-To-Node) infrastructure to ensure equality of access to this resource to all Australians.

We urge the Minister for Communications, Senator Helen Coonan, who has noted that unless broad steps are taken to resolve issues of digital communications Australia faces a genuine risk of becoming "a dinosaur of the analogue age", to find a way to break this impasse and push forward with this essential service to all Australians."

Yeah, it's kind of wordy (and a little tongue-in-cheek) but I think it gets the point across.

As always, any random visitor who drops by on their way somewhere more interesting is encouraged to have their say. Kind of the point, really.

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