Malcolm Turnbull might believe in media reform, but not before the next election

Alex HayesMalcolm Turnbull has signalled he wants to make digital disruption “our friend”, but Alex Hayes argues a year from an election he is unlikely to take on the thorny issue of media reform.

Tonight Malcolm Turnbull addressed press for the first time as Prime Minister designate and pledged to make Australia a “nation that is agile, that is innovative that is creative”.

The majority of Australia’s ‘traditional’ media company owners will be hoping that means the former Communications Minister will scrap a series of antiquated media laws. I’m not so sure.

Prime Minister designate Malcolm Turnbull

Prime Minister designate Malcolm Turnbull

The big issue everyone in the industry is looking at is media reform, and Turnbull has been at the front of holding that at bay, although it’s clear it is not his personal opinion.

In a nutshell most of the industry wants to see the back of the two out of three rule – stopping media owners controlling more than two newspapers, radio and TV stations in the same geography – and the reach rule – stopping media owners with TV, newspaper and radio licences reaching more than 75 per cent of the population across the country – opening the door to a number of mergers and acquisitions. (See a great explanation of these laws here.)

Most, that is, except Seven West Media controlled by Kerry Stokes (and where Turnbull’s former law firm partner Bruce McWilliam is commercial director) and News Corp, controlled by Rupert Murdoch, two of the most powerful media barons ever to come out of Australia, and owners of the biggest free-to-air TV network and newspapers respectively.

While it’s widely thought Turnbull is open to those changes being made, a year ago he signalled it could not happen without “consensus”.

But in that same speech he also said: “We cannot be like Canute who wants to turn back the waves, we’ve got to be like a great surfer who takes advantage of them and rides them. All of that is an opportunity, but it demands of us enormous nimbleness.”

That sentiment was echoed in his speech tonight to the press, in which he said:

“This will be a thoroughly liberal government committed to freedom, the individual and the market. It will be focussed on ensuring that in the years ahead as the world becomes more and more competitive and greater opportunities arise we are able to take advantage of that.

“The Australia of the future has to become a nation that is agile, that is innovative that is creative. We cannot be defensive, we cannot futureproof ourselves, we have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology, the volatility and change, is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it.

“There has never been a more exciting time to be alive than today, and there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian. We will ensure that all Australians understand that their government recognises the opportunities of the future and is putting in place the policies and the plans to take advantage of it.”

Those sound like encouraging words for the reformers. After all, these laws are seen as being a boon for international players like Google and Facebook which are unencumbered by them, as they only apply to offline media.

News Corp co-chairman Rupert Murdoch

News Corp co-chairman Rupert Murdoch

But before they get too excited there is one real looming spectre in their path, and that is Rupert Murdoch – the man credited with the power to get Presidents and the Prime Ministers elected in the US, UK and of course his native Australia.

But the News Corp supremo’s reaction to the news on Twitter tonight can be seen as lukewarm at best:

A more cynical man than me could read that as a very public warning from Murdoch he doesn’t have his unconditional backing, so he’d better sit on his hands over the issue of media reform. The pair have history of course. Most recently Turnbull was forced to come out and defend comments he made  about a “demented plutocrat” as not being directed at the News Corp co-chairman. In a speech to launch The Saturday Paper 18-months ago he lavished praise on its founder Morry Schwartz and his contribution to Australia’s “intellectual life”, before saying (apparently ad libbed): “You are not some demented plutocrat pouring more and more money into a loss making venture that is just going to peddle your opinions.” That had followed a series of jibes which appeared to be aimed at Murdoch and his flagship paper The Australian. And looking at the early front pages from News Corp’s tabloids, traditionally Murdoch’s attack dogs, it’s clear Turnbull or ‘Turncoat’ as he is dubbed is not the favoured candidate. Melbourne’s Herald Sun’s early front page: herald sun turnbull splash   Although it later moderated it’s splash to this: herald sun second splash Brisbane’s Courier Mail was the first to release its splash after the spill was confirmed (note the turncoat in the yellow box): Courier Mail front page   And the Daily Telegraph described him as ‘Turnstile’: daily telegraph turnbull splash spill What we’ll most likely see is a more effective communications coming from Turnbull’s office. Especially as it took just a few minutes last night to get his Wikipedia page updated to be described as ‘Prime Minister designate’:

Turnbull is media savvy, he was the first government minister to go on Q&A when the recent ban was lifted, and he signalled a change in the communications policy of the government when he spoke after the spill saying it would be “seeking to persuade rather than seeking to lecture”.

So when will we find out Turnbull’s plans for the media? Well by serendipitous timing Commercial Radio Australia named him as its opening speaker at their conference next month just today.

It’s not all that likely it will be him speaking now, and we’ll probably see whoever he puts into the Communications Minister role instead – we’ve got to wait a few days to find out who that will be.

But stranger things have happened. And if he does make the trip to the Gold Coast, we can expect to hear what his intentions are for the media.

When all is said and done Turnbull styles himself as a media and tech savvy politician who gets the issues the industry is facing. But we’re at most a year out from the next election, and political necessity dictates he can’t afford to alienate Seven and News Corp while he’s trying to govern without a mandate from the electorate.

I wouldn’t be putting money on him pushing through media reforms in the next 12 months.

  • Alex Hayes is editor of Mumbrella

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