Communications Minister Stephen Conroy yesterday revealed proposed new laws which aim to reform the media sector. The reforms include three major changes: a strengthened press council, new content rules and a public interest test for media owners. In presenting the government’s reforms Senator Conroy stated that the government wanted to ensure that there was no further reduction in media diversity and no change to existing media standards.

Currently, media mergers must comply with objective rules such as the ‘two out of three’ test. This rule prevents a media company from having an interest in any more than two of the print, radio or TV media platforms in a given market. Included in the new reforms is a more subjective public interest test, set up to prevent ‘significant’ media outlets from concentrating their influence. ‘Significant’ media outlets are to be determined based on audience numbers. An independent ‘Public Interest Media Advocate’ will be given powers to determine whether media acquisitions and mergers meet the public interest test.

The reforms also strengthen the power of the press council, a self regulating body set up to monitor newspaper standards, particularly in the areas of print and online news media. Commercial television licence fees will also be reduced by 50 per cent under the reforms if television networks increase their Australian content by 1,490 hours by 2015. Further changes included:

  • the establishment of a parliamentary committee to investigate the abolition of the ‘75 per cent reach’ rule, particularly in relation to regional and local news, which prevent media outlets from broadcasting to more than 75 per cent of the Australian population;
  • requiring television and radio stations to report any breach of the broadcasting rules on air;
  • the drafting of an updated charter for the ABC and the SBS networks; and
  • the referral of a potential privacy tort to the Australian Law Reform Commission.

These changes still need the support of five crossbenchers. However, Senator Conroy has reported that if the bills are not passed by parliament by the end of next week the government will halt progress till after the upcoming election. While the detail of the proposed laws is yet to be provided, a public interest test on media mergers has the potential to impose a significant level of political influence as well as uncertainty for media transactions.