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Rupert Murdoch slams Oz communication minister’s media ownership reforms

MUMBAI: Media mogul Rupert Murdoch has slammed the Australian communication minister Malcolm Turnbull for his proposal to deregulate media ownership rules while preserving the free-to-air networks’ exclusive rights to top-tier sport.

The News Corp head believes that Turnbull’s proposals do not go far enough and the anti-siphoning list is outdated.

Murdoch tweeted, “Turnbull’s plans to scrap certain rules suit buddies at Nine. Can’t oppose dumping all regs but not this. Nice to see how MT plays.”

Turnbull is seeking to abolish the population-reach rule and the two-out-of-three rule, in what would be the biggest shake-up of media laws for three decades. However, the proposed reforms would preserve the anti-siphoning regime that fences top-tier sports rights for the main commercial broadcasters, preventing subscription TV operator Foxtel from bidding.

Reports state that Murdoch’s criticism reflects concerns within his media group that the government is picking changes while failing to reform the ‘anti-siphoning list’, which gives free-to-air broadcasters first rights to major sporting events.

The minister has also proposed scrapping the ‘two out of three’ rule that prohibits a person controlling a commercial television licence, a commercial radio licence, and a newspaper in the same area. Moreover, he is interested in abolishing the ‘reach’ rule that ensures that a single owner cannot control commercial television licences reaching more than 75 per cent of the Australian population.

In retort, Turnbull has hit back at Murdoch, saying his move was designed to protect ‘ordinary Australians’, and that access to sport on free television was something that distinguished Australia from other nations.

“This is a very Australian arrangement. In many countries, pay TV has been able to secure the rights to major sporting codes thus requiring sports fans to pay for a subscription,” he told Fairfax media.

Under the current arrangements of Australia’s anti-siphoning laws, a list of 1,300 sporting events are offered to free-to-air networks before pay TV providers such as Foxtel.

He added, “The policy question for government is simply whether we want to continue with a free-to-air television system where ordinary Australians, who may not be able afford a Foxtel subscription, can nonetheless watch their favourite sport on free-to-air TV?”

Turnbull has not flagged any changes to the anti-siphoning list, but News Corp Australia has made it clear that it would not support reforms that excluded such changes.

News Corp, which owns Fox Sports and a 50 per cent stake in pay television brand Foxtel, objects to the ‘outdated’ list, arguing it contains too many events and should be cut back.

News Corp Australia maintained that ‘dramatic’ changes to the media landscape required the government to amend ‘all media policy settings’, not just ‘two out of three’ rules and the ‘reach’ rule.

The company’s CEO Julian Clarke said in a statement, “It is critical that any package of reform includes severely reducing the length of the outdated anti-siphoning list – which is the longest such list in the world, covering over 1,300 sporting events, and has the effect of reducing the public’s access to sporting events.”

Clarke also spoke out against the possibility of Foxtel being required to pay retransmission fees to carry FTA channels via Foxtel services.

He said the company was ‘totally opposed’ to such a move and that pay TV providers should not be charged “for the public’s convenience of accessing free-to-air television via their Foxtel connection, when all free-to-air channels are freely available via an antenna. It is in the public’s interest to leave access to free-to-air channels exactly as it is.”

Reports suggest that the proposed policy could trigger a run of mergers and rationalisations in the Australian media sector, which is among the most concentrated in terms of ownership in the developed world.

Turnbull is seeking formal policy approval from the PM Tony Abbott, to put a submission to Cabinet, which would argue in favour of abolishing Australia’s platform-specific ownership rules regulating newspapers and radio and television.