A TEST of public interest, enforced by a new, tougher umpire is the federal government's great hope for protecting the country's media from being taken over by too few voices.
While the government's convergence review is not set to report until next month, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said yesterday the review would include a strong recommendation for a public-interest test to ensure diversity of ownership.
Senator Conroy, who has publicly argued in favour of a public-interest test, said the review had already made a draft recommendation for a test on diversity. However, there has been no decision on how a public-interest test would be decided and enforced.
The review was set up to overhaul media regulation in view of the fast rise of digital media, such as online news sites and digital TV. The final report will also take into account findings from the Independent Media Inquiry (the so-called Finkelstein inquiry) and the Australian Law Reform Commission's review of the National Classification Scheme.
Since the review was announced, there has been intense speculation that it will lead to a weakening of the media ownership rules, freeing up News Ltd, Gina Rinehart and others to acquire bigger stakes in diverse media companies. But the review's chairman, Glen Boreham, rejected this.
Releasing his interim report in December, Mr Boreham said there would still be a maximum number of media entities that anyone was allowed to own in each market. He said change was needed because the current cross-media rules were becoming less effective as new platforms emerged.
"Internet delivery means many of these entities operate across a range of platforms and wider geographical areas than their licence allows," he said. "The 'two-out-of-three rule' does not take into account a range of outlets, such as national newspapers, internet platforms, IPTV or subscription TV. Far from removing media diversity rules, the review wants to update regulation to recognise the full range of media entities now relevant to diversity."
The interim report also recommended a new independent regulator for communications, with tougher powers than the present watchdog, the Australian Communications and Media Authority.
Under current rules, Mrs Rinehart cannot own more than 15 per cent of Fairfax and Ten Network, the two companies in which she already has a stake.
THE BIG PLAYERS
Fairfax Media 14% (Includes The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, Australian Financial Review, Canberra Times, 3AW, Magic 1278, 2UE, RSVP, regional and
suburban newspapers and media in New Zealand and the United States)
Ten Network 10%
Holdings 50% (includes interests in Fox Sports and Seven Group Holdings)
Ten Network 9%
News Corporation 39.7%*
(Includes News Ltd, FPC Magazines, community newspapers and interests in AAP and Fox Sports)
Ten Network 9%
Nova/Vega radio 50%
Prime Media Group 9%
Australian Capital Equity
Seven Group 68% (Includes West Australian Newspapers, Pacific Magazines, Channel Seven, Yahoo!7)
WIN Television 100%
Ten Network 10%