THE DISTILLERY: Press gang-up

Jotters fume over the federal government's media reforms, with one saying Conroy's ultimatum approach just might push them through.

As we’ve discovered at The Distillery, one of the best ways to get the media pumping is to start talking media regulation. This morning’s edition is packed with reactions to Communication Minister Stephen Conroy’s proposed reforms, his manoeuvrings around one particular issue and a history of past attempts to regulate the industry.

Fairfax’s Malcolm Maiden explains how this is always a troublesome area of reform.

“Media regulation is always a minefield and the minefield is most dangerous in an election year. By putting the recommendation to scrap the 75 per cent reach rule out to a committee, declaring that his main media reform package will be dropped if it is not rushed through parliament by the end of next week and announcing that a 50 per cent reduction in commercial broadcast television licence fees will be separately locked in, Conroy may have found a way to walk through it.”

You know why it’s a minefield? Because the media is the government’s main prism through which it communicates with its constituents. By definition, media reform challenges the power structure of those channels.

The Herald Sun’s Terry McCrann, an industry veteran, was big when Paul Keating introduced his ‘princes of print and queens of the screen’. McCrann similarly consoles the audience that previous attempts to regulate the industry have gone poorly.

“That was a clear example of politicians and bureaucrats thinking they could not only see the future, but pre-regulate it. More than a decade later, John Howard would demonstrate that hubris and stupidity were entirely bipartisan, with his government’s two-out-of-three so-called reform. Yes, it got rid of the mindless separation between print and electronic. Yes, it enabled some necessary and productive rationalisation. But it also destroyed the viability of true regional media – rendering all regional FTA TV mere clones of the capital city networks. When what was needed for a truly vibrant regional media was enabling sustainable cross-media businesses in specific locations. Then later Howard’s version of Conroy, then Communications Minister Helen Coonan, played the mother-of-all Santa Clauses, by changing the rules in a way that enabled James Packer and Kerry Stokes to cash in their FTA TV networks for billions.”

And in this episode, the frustration is palpable. The Australian Financial Review’s media reporter Ben Holgate is absolutely filthy.

“It beggars belief that 10 months after the Convergence Review handed down its 176-page final report on how to overhaul the media sector in the digital age, the best the Communications Minister can come up with is a one-and-a-half-page press release supposedly outlining his media reform package.”

The Australian’s John Durie, one of this country’s most respected business columnists, absolutely blows his stack at the Gillard government and Conroy.

“On the evidence of the past few days, the quicker an election comes the better it will be for the national interest. On one level, Conroy’s national broadband network policy was a landmark reform. He opened the door to media diversity by breaking the Telstra bottleneck in fixed-line communications networks. Then, yesterday, this same man put that diversity in the hands of one government-appointed person who will decide whether a media merger is ‘in the public interest’. Just what ‘public interest’ means is clearly a wide-open issue. The decision is plainly absurd, even before you start examining the impact the change will have on the institutions already empowered to make such decisions, such as the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission and the Australian Communications and Media Authority.”

Business Spectator’s Stephen Bartholomeusz also focuses on the role of the ACMA, with Conroy planning to refer to a committee the matter of whether the authority should examine supply arrangements for news and current affairs programs.

“That would appear to be a direct shot at News Ltd (the owner of Business Spectator) and, to a lesser degree, Ten Network. Ten has effectively outsourced its Meet the Press program to News, causing some consternation within the government despite the reality that there has been increasing cooperation and cost- and talent-sharing between most of the major media organisations (public and commercial) as the industry settings have become both tougher and more of a multi-media environment than the siloed media forms of the pre-digital age.”

The Australian Financial Review’s Laura Tingle agrees that News has been the “overshadowing factor” of the review to media regulations, but also has an eye on part of the story that other business commentators don’t.

“…There was already a complex debate going on about the structure of broadcasting, driven both by changing media markets and by the prospect that, if harnessed properly, these very changes could produce a revenue bonanza from the government through the sale of spectrum previously used by the broadcasters.”

Meanwhile, Fairfax’s Adele Ferguson says mining giant Gina Rinehart has scored a “personal victory” after her estranged daughter Hope officially withdrew her claim against the family matriarch.

Rinehart, Fairfax’s largest shareholder, has now taken legal action against Ferguson in what looks to be an attempt to force her to reveal her sources for her unauthorised biography of the mining billionaire.

Just what questions might be put to Rinehart ally Jack Cowin at the next Fairfax board meeting make the mind boggle.

Carrying on in some way from yesterday’s Ferguson column, The Australian Financial Review’s Chanticleer columnist Tony Boyd explains how infrastructure funding is at a seven-year low.

Meanwhile, The Australian’s Glenda Korporaal discovers something interesting in the results from ASX-listed natural health company Blackmores. The floods in Thailand during 2011 were obviously damaging, but they also caused an increase in the sale of the company’s vitamin C products because the Thais are very educated when it comes to their health.

The Australian’s Bryan Frith speculates that the Chinese could have found a new dastardly way to invest in Australia – win approval from the Foreign Investment Review Board with a private company, then restructure a deal to bring in a state-owned financier.

Elsewhere, The Australian Financial Review’s economics editor Alan Mitchell says the unions are killing the Australian Labor Party. That’s a line that’s been used many a time, but by golly Mitchell has a sensationally incisive way of explaining it.

And just as an aside, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg has been doing the media rounds to promote her new book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.

As readers of The Distillery will know, periodically the subject of boardroom quotas comes up as the proportion of women in senior positions continues to flounder.

Both sides of the argument have been represented with varying degrees of skill in the Australian press. But if you want an authority on the subject check our Sandberg’s book; if you’re a little time-pressured, look at her utterly convincing 2010 TED Address.