Concern about extending Rupert Murdoch’s dominance of the Australian media market is fuelling debate within Labor about whether to back the Turnbull government’s relaxation of media ownership laws.
Communications Minister Mitch Fifield is expected to present a broad package to the cabinet next week that includes abolishing the “two out of three rule” that restricts media companies from owning a TV network, newspaper and radio station in the same market.
This will be coupled with abolishing the “reach rule”, which bans TV networks from broadcasting to more than 75 per cent of the population.
The government is also said to be willing to make some changes to the sports anti-siphoning list, as well as reducing TV licensing fees.
Senator Fifield has been convinced that a comprehensive set of reforms is needed, rather than “cherry-picked” measures that would advantage some commercial players.
Removing the cross-media ownership laws could trigger a new round of media mergers, allowing Fairfax Media to merge with the Nine Network, for example.
Winning Labor’s support would allow the government to avoid protracted horse-trading with the eight Senate crossbenchers.
Labor will back the abolition of the reach rule, but removing the two-out-of-three rule is seen as more controversial within the party.
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Fairfax Media understands Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and communications spokesman Jason Clare are willing to support scrapping the two-out-of-three rule and are open to negotiating a deal with the government. Lobbyists from the major media players have made a persuasive case in Canberra that the laws are outdated in the digital age.
An industry source said significant momentum had grown within Labor over recent weeks in support of change.
But Labor powerbrokers such as former communications minister Stephen Conroy, industry spokesman Kim Carr and former treasurer Wayne Swan are said to have concerns about any move that could advantage Mr Murdoch’s News Corp Australia, which publishes The Australian, The Daily Telegraph other newspapers, and co-owns Foxtel.
During the Gillard era, Senator Conroy led a failed push to regulate the print media, which was widely seen as payback for alleged bias at News Corp.
“A lot of people are saying, ‘We hate News Corp; why would we help them?” a Labor source said.
Fairfax Media and the Nine Network have, in fact, been the strongest advocates of scrapping “two out of three”, while News Corp has prioritised the watering down of the anti-siphoning list.
Left-wing Labor MPs are also concerned that scrapping cross-media ownership laws would lead to a weakening of media diversity and job losses as companies consolidate their operations.
The Hawke government’s relaxation of cross-media ownership laws in the 1980s paved the way for Mr Murdoch to control most of the nation’s newspapers, a move many in Labor regret.
A spokesman for Mr Clare said Labor would consider the issue when the government finalises its proposals.
As communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull proposed scrapping both the two-out-of-three and reach rules but was blocked by then prime minister Tony Abbott. Kerry Stokes’ Seven West Media had lobbied strongly against reform.