Media reforms that should have been delivered 10 years ago

Senator Mitch Fifield has announced a media reforms policy that should have been delivered 10 years ago.


And I am by no means criticising the senator. To the contrary.

The senator has fought long and hard to get a comprehensive package up and within reach of passage through a reluctant and out-of-touch Parliament.

The very fact it has taken 10 years for politics to catch up demonstrates what a gulf now divides the worlds of media and public policy-making.

Where media companies without exception grapple with structural changes that threaten their very existence, our policy makers seem to have little sense of the changing world.

The Fifield reform package simply acknowledges what everyone in the media has been fighting for years.

New Zealand, a generally well-governed country, is still to read the memo as demonstrated by the fresh decision by the New Zealand Commerce Commission to reject the merger of the country’s two major publishers Fairfax NZ and NZME.

Looking at Fifield’s list of reforms – two out of three, the reach rule, licence fee relief and so on – you can see their greatest relevance was five, even 10 years ago.

That was the time the industry should have been allowed a level playing field so it could prepare for the big global players.

It is a much tougher world now. Google and Facebook hoover up the lions share of advertising in the Australian market, create no local content and pay little in taxes. By futzing??? around with notions of “diversity” that were made irrelevant by the emergence of the internet in the 1990s our policy makers across all parties have threatened the depth and breadth of local news, information and entertainment in the years ahead.

Where at least the Turnbull government recognises the issues, the NZCC stands condemned as a regulator totally out of touch.

By denying Fairfax and NZME the ability to take back end, non-content costs out of a merged business it will force both companies into reviewing their editorial workforce and number of publications.

We wish it were not so. Media companies want to produce more content not less, employ more journalists, developers, producers, actors, artists, not fewer.

But look at our universe. Last year Morgan Stanley estimated Google and Facebook extracted $4 billion to $5 billion of ad revenue from Australia. That is a 35 per cent to 40 per cent market share. And their share is growing faster than the overall market.

Companies such as Fairfax, which spotted the trends early and acted – reducing legacy costs and building new businesses like Domain – cannot only survive, but thrive in the new world.

Because Fairfax Media has taken the tough but necessary decisions to ensure its survival, its market capitalisation of $2.4 billion is greater than the three free-to-air TV companies – Seven, Nine and Ten – combined.

But if our policy makers want strong local voices, they need to stay tuned to the media and never again get caught so far behind the real world.

Greg Hywood is Fairfax Media chief executive.