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Question time covers media takeover talks.

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Wednesday 18 October 2006

Question time covers media takeover talks


MARK COLVIN: Australia is feeling the first tremors of what may become a media earthquake today. 


With the Federal Govern
ment's communications laws now through the Parliament, the media barons have got moving. 


The laws won't actually come into force until next year, but companies with media assets are already freeing up cash and opening the way for ownership changes. 


The Opposition says talk of takeovers and sales proves already that the new media laws will see a massive concentration in media ownership.  


The Government has accused Labor of taking "a visionary leap backwards".  


Chief political correspondent Chris Uhlmann reports. 


CHRIS UHLMANN: Once the Government's media bill passed the Senate, its journey back through the House of Representatives was a formality. That didn't stop Labor's Stephen Smith from making one last appeal. 


STEPHEN SMITH: This is the Parliament's last chance to prevent a massive concentration of media ownership in Australia, to prevent a massive concentration of media information, opinion and view, the last chance to prevent a substantial and dangerous weakening of the diversity of opinion in Australian society. 


CHRIS UHLMANN: Obviously, that is not the way the Government sees the changes. Communications Minister, Senator Helen Coonan: 


HELEN COONAN: What I'm about here is putting in place some media rules for this country that's going to benefit consumers, that's going to take us into the 21st century, that's going to give us an opportunity to take advantage of new technology, new opportunities, that's going to allow companies to invest so that consumers can get the benefit of what you can get in other parts of the world.  


CHRIS UHLMANN: The Government makes the point that the flurry of activity by Australia's media barons over the last 48 hours is happening under existing media laws.  


It has also put no date on when its laws will come into force.  


But it defies logic to accept that the passage of the bill and the dramatic announcements of the last few days are unrelated. Australia's largest media buyer, Harold Mitchell has no doubt what is driving the media barons. 


HAROLD MITCHELL: Yes, the media laws have brought all of this around. Added to the fact that there, that the business world is awash with money and funds looking for a home, and there's a very safe home in the Australian media. 


CHRIS UHLMANN: Senator Coonan says that what we are hearing so far is not talk of media mergers. 


HELEN COONAN: Well, in fact if you look at it, there's been two sets of speculations, and an announcement of an intended transaction, that appears to be all about quarantining media assets, rather than a lunge for extra ones. 


The PBL transaction, so far as I understand it from the statement is has made today, is all about quarantining the media assets in one company and freeing up and having some flexibility for investment in international gaming assets. That appears to be one transaction, which doesn’t seem to have much to do with any media merger. 


The second thing is what Mr Stokes has announced - he can do that under the current law. In fact I've asked the regulator to check whether or not what's been announced complies with the current law. 


CHRIS UHLMANN: Labor says that the mooted sales and takeovers are just the start of changes that will alter the media landscape for the worse and forever. Opposition Communications spokesman Senator Stephen Conroy: 


STEPHEN CONROY: Today is a black day for democracy. We've seen the Government ram through legislation which will already, as you've seen in the markets, lead to a greater concentration of media ownership in this country.  


We've already seen overnight Kerry Stokes - the owner of the most popular TV station in Perth - buying or making a bid for the main daily in Western Australia. 


So you're already seeing the contraction that Labor predicted, and this is going to only increase. We have a complete media frenzy at the moment, and it is a black day for democracy. 


CHRIS UHLMANN: Labor's wary of committing itself to the legally fraught path of saying it will force owners to divest should it win government next year.  


So what is happening now in the boardrooms of Australia? Harold Mitchell: 


HAROLD MITCHELL: I would think every boardroom in Australia has a big file on the left of companies that they want to buy, and a bigger file on the left of companies that they think might try and buy them. 


I would say there is full-time meeting and watching, and where it finishes, no one would really know.  


MARK COLVIN: Harold Mitchell, Australia's largest media buyer ending that report by Chris Uhlmann.