Australia Relaxes Media Ownership Restrictions

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The Australian government on Tuesday agreed to curb media takeovers in proposed legislation to relax the law and allow more foreign investment in the sector, a government spokesman said.

Some lawmakers had threatened to scuttle the first proposed amendments to media ownership laws in 20 years for fear they could enable a single owner to control television, radio and newspapers in their rural electoral districts, reducing the diversity of opinions.

The change on Tuesday headed off a revolt.

A meeting of coalition government lawmakers agreed to vote for the legislative package with added amendments preventing any one investor buying all three media in any market, Communications Minister Helen Coonan said in a statement.

The amendments were introduced to the Senate a few hours later. It was not clear when they would be voted on.

“To respond to concerns that the package may lead to an increase in concentration of ownership in the media industry, the government will impose a two-out-of-three rule in all markets,” Coonan said, referring to the ban on owning the three media.

The new amendments would also mandate minimum levels of locally produced content and news in the regional media as “additional safeguards to protect local content and diversity,” she said.

All government lawmakers agreed to support the package, assuring its passage through Parliament, a spokesman for the meeting told reporters on condition of anonymity citing government policy. Prime Minister John Howard’s government holds majorities in Parliament’s two chambers.

Current media laws bar foreign companies from controlling more than 15 percent of a television company and more than 25 percent of a newspaper publisher.

Under the bills introduced last month, those restrictions would be eliminated, although foreign investment in the media sector would require government approval.

More industry mergers would also be made possible by a relaxation of cross media ownership laws that prohibit newspaper, radio and television companies in the same city from holding more than 15 percent of each other.

However the scope of mergers will now be restricted to two of the three media in a market.

A government regulator would also ensure that each capital city market was left with at least five media owners and each regional market at least four.

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