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The Australian government Tuesday indicated that it was likely to amend its planned overhaul of the country’s media ownership rules to ensure support from lawmakers concerned about media diversity in regional areas.
Helen Coonan, the communications minister, said she would “consider” any “worthwhile” amendments proposed by parliamentarians to help overcome their concerns, which she said were not “insurmountable”.
The media legislation, a central plank in the government’s industry deregulation efforts, is being reviewed by an inquiry committee of the Senate, the upper house, which will soon submit its recommendations ahead of a parliamentary vote.
The centre-right coalition government has a majority in both parliamentary houses, but of only one seat in the Senate, where two coalition senators from the National party have threatened to cross the floor and block the legislation.
In August, John Howard, the prime minister, was forced into an 11th-hour withdrawal of a legislative proposal to tighten asylum rules that was certain to be rejected by the Senate.
Under the government’s proposals, limits restricting overseas investors from owning more than 25 per cent of a metropolitan newspaper publisher and a 15 per cent stake in a television network would be abolished. One company would also be able to own three forms of media – newspapers, television and radio – in each major city, from the current limit of one.
Concerns have centred on whether the looser ownership rules would allow media companies to create regional monopolies. Some members of the pivotal National party want the legislation to ensure a company cannot own more than two of the three main media in key regions.
At the same time, some of Australia’s largest media groups, which stand to benefit from the overhaul as it would make it easier for them to snap up smaller rivals, have attacked other aspects of the government’s plans during the Senate hearings, notably the proposed award of two new digital television licences.
The government recently said it would auction the two licences next year, with one of them devoted to mobile TV or internet services.
Last week John Fairfax, which owns some of Australia’s leading newspapers, advised the Senate committee to block the legislation as it would unfairly benefit TV companies by allowing them to control new mobile TV services. Meanwhile, Seven Network, the TV company controlled by Kerry Stokes, the media tycoon, said it was favourable to the National party’s push for regional power curbs.
Even the country’s competition regulator has recently embarrassed the government by refuting its argument that media diversity would be guaranteed by the spread of the internet. Graeme Samuel, chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, said the internet should be considered as “simply a distribution channel”.
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