The Nation Reviewed – The Monthly – December- January 2006
COMMENT by Margaret Simons
THE DOORMEN at the Canberra Hyatt have a silly uniform. They wear pinstripe trousers cut off at the calf
and tucked into long, black socks. They wear waistcoats with false watch chains, and cloth caps.
THE Hyatt is an historic hotel, or what passes for one in this young city, and the front of the building is
heritage-listed so the doormen have to fit in. The uniforms are a gesture to some idea of what a servant might
have worn back in the 192os, when power first came to settle in Canberra, the sort of gesture that only the rich
and powerful can afford to make.
In early November, the long-socked, cloth-capped ones at the Canberra Hyatt were busy sweeping the rich and
powerful out of taxis and Commonwealth cars. The occasion was the inaugural conference of the Australian
Communications and Media Authority, the government body formed by merging the old Australian
Broadcasting Authority (of David Flint and cash-for-comment fame) with the more technically preoccupied
Australian Communications Authority. ACMA has the job of managing that sweetest, most fearsome and most
contested of public assets - the useable spectrum of electromagnetic radiation, otherwise known as
So this conference was about power, and about the future. Ian Alwill, the man from Nestle, built like a bull in a
brown suit, used his turn on the platform to remind everyone that his company was the country's third or fourth
biggest advertiser. So you had all better listen. He wanted measurable results for his dollar. TV was still, he
said, a medium like no other for delivering emotion. But he wanted more - to move the consumer, as fast as
possible, along the line from being aware of a product to deciding to buy it. He wanted to deliver not only
emotion but "functionality" - that is, information about his products, something which digital TV with its extra
channels and datacasting, makes possible.
The catch is, the networks don't want multi-channelling, and so far they have successfully persuaded the
government to prohibit it. Lots of channels mean lots of audiences, and the Mr Nestles of the world might not
spend so much if the only audiences they can reach are small ones. Meanwhile the number of people watching
free-to-air TV is dropping in any case. People, particularly young people, are doing other things. Largely, they
are on the internet. "The networks," said Mr Nestle, "can't keep asking more and more for less and less."
Here was the frisson at the conference, the fear. None of the present media empires can be confident that their
business models will survive the next decade. They are struggling to catapult themselves into the future, and
they are also trying to hold back the waves. Bridget Godwin, manager for regulatory and business affairs at
Channel Seven, put it best when she said it was true that TV was a dinosaur industry - but "the dinosaurs were
around for hundreds of thousands of years". New media, she said, was not the meteor. But many people think it
is at least the coming of the ice age.
For those of us struggling to remember what we learned at primary school about the way broadcasting works,
the issues discussed at the ACMA conference could easily bamboozle. In normal conversation, people would
throw off sentences containing terms like DVB and DVBH, IPTV and WiMAX, all butting up against each
other. Research released during the conference shows many Australians haven't a clue what any of this means,
or even what digital TV might be. This is a worry. It means that the meteor, or the ice age, might hit without
most of us understanding what is happening, leaving the dinosaurs to either evolve or die.
The initials translate as follows. DVB is digital video broadcasting, or digital TV, as distinct from the old
analogue system most of us presently use. DVBH refers to hand-held digital TV, delivered on a mobile phone,
a development everyone agreed was inevitable. Digital signals are more robust, less prone to interference.
Hence better picture quality. And because they can be greatly compressed, more than one program can be
broadcast on the same bandwidth. Hence multi-channelling. Channel Nine could, in theory, simultaneously
broadcast 60 Minutes and a dissertation on the wonders of Nesquik. The audience could watch either of them,
or both of them, or none of them. They might go online to download a podcast or read a blog instead.
IPTV stands for Internet Protocol Television - the delivery of TV over broadband internet lines, avoiding the
need to use the broadcasting spectrum. But who owns the content? Will it be the same person who owns the
wires? And what might the machinations of Telstra be? If Telstra owns the wires and controls the content, it is
likely to become a media power that will make News Limited look puny.
WiMAX, on the other hand, is wireless broadband - a yet-to-be-fully-established technology that enables
internet, radio and TV to be delivered on the airwaves, a more far-reaching version of the technology that
already allows wireless internet in the home, in Qantas Club lounges and at certain five-star hotels. If you don't
need the wires, you don't need Telstra. Which means the meteor might be coming for Telstra too, and that's
why Sol Trujillo is moving so fast. There is a lot of fear about.
Page 1of 3
In this new world, where will Mr Nestle spend his dollar? Will he spend it at all? And if the audience is
everywhere, and never or very rarely massing, why would the politicians still listen to Kerry Packer and Rupert
Murdoch? For now, the politicians are listening very hard indeed, which is why multi-casting is not allowed.
The politicians will not take on the power of the moguls. The future is being held back.
On the first morning the conference-goers lined up to hear Communications Minister Helen Coonan's keynote
address. She told them that sooner or later the analogue TV signals would be turned off. But how would the
government force people to make the switch, to buy new digital TVs or set-top boxes? Her speech, like all her
speeches on this issue lately, was full of maybes and ifs. She did not say: "Maybe you will have to make fresh
programs so people have a reason to make the switch. Prepare, dinosaurs, for the meteor. Let us have multi-
channelling. Let us throw open this public asset, the broadcasting spectrum. Let it be public space. Let a
thousand flowers bloom."
There is a new cliche in the media world: "Content is King." Everyone says it. Content is now a means of
selling "connectivity", of persuading media consumers to buy a package - telephone, internet and TV, perhaps -
from one supplier. Or as Graeme Samuel, head of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, put
it, if you can't control the arteries that bring media into the home, then you can try to control the blood.
And yet nobody at the conference really talked about content. Content is King, they say, but the old media
companies refer and defer to this monarch without ever behaving as though content truly matters. There was no
talk of investment in content, of new and brave ideas. No discussion of new drama. There was no discussion of
how journalism or drama could be redefined for the new age, so that politics and social commentary might
seem relevant, might actually touch people's lives. There was no discussion of the junction between journalism
and reality TV and drama. (Convergence does not apply only to technology.) And there was only one mention
of the word "citizen". Most of the time, Australians were referred to as "consumers".
Robert Antulov represented Fairfax, owners of THE AGE and SYDNEY MORNING HERALD newspapers
and hence tagged a "content creator". Antulov, though, talked only of "platforms" - TV, magazines,
newspapers, internet - and not of what goes into them. Antulov's title is "director of strategy" and his biography
said he was "supporting acquisition growth aspirations, while also guiding business unit strategy and organic
growth initiatives". He used to work for Coca-Cola.
I asked him how Fairfax could claim that its "premium content" was the key to its future when it had just
announced redundancies for large numbers of journalists. How was Fairfax going to invest in new content? He
didn't really answer the question, but neither did his colleagues from Rupert Murdoch's News Limited or Kerry
Off the record, the people at the top of various media companies pointed out that "quality journalism" had
never paid its way. It has always had to be subsidised - by the tax-payer at the ABC, by the benevolence of
Murdoch at THE AUSTRALIAN and Packer at THE BULLETIN, and at Fairfax by the streams of classified
advertising. In the new world, the connection between the ads and the journalism had been broken. One could
go online to buy a car without any need to encounter Michelle Grattan. Kerry Packer no longer runs a media
company. He runs a gaming company with a media arm. Fairfax's broadsheets now account for only a minority
of its income.
"That kind of journalism is still important," one of these people said. "It is a symbol, really, of journalistic
values. Of where the company came from. But it is a niche product." And so journalists may become like the
porters at the Canberra Hyatt - a symbolic gesture to the past. Or, in the case of THE AUSTRALIAN and THE
BULLETIN or Channel Nine's SUNDAY program, an indulgence of rich men.
At the conference dinner Laurence O'Neill, classification regulatory manager at Channel Ten, sat next to
Sharon Trotter, ACMA's manager of content assessment. O'Neill is young, fresh-faced, intelligent and
charming. He has the appearance of great frankness, or perhaps great naivety, and he and Trotter were clearly
good friends. This struck me as strange, because only weeks earlier Trotter had helped write the report on the
notorious BIG BROTHER UNCUT complaint about a housemate, Michael, who massaged a female
housemate's shoulders while his penis was exposed. ACMA's report ultimately concluded that the scene did
"debase" the woman, and Channel Ten subsequently announced that in future two classifiers would assess each
episode prior to broadcast. Yet here were O'Neill and Trotter, taking pictures of each other on their mobile
"How come you two are so friendly?" I asked O'Neill.
"Oh I don't blame her for the stupid reports she has to write," he said. It was all political, after all. Government
backbenchers had complained. He understood how the game worked, and he and Trotter had been drinking pals
Page 2of 3
O'Neill told me he favoured total freedom of speech. All this regulation was bullshit. Paedophiles should be
able to advocate paedophilia. That way, at least we know who they are.
But his job requires him to be a censor. How did he square his beliefs with his work?
"Oh I can do an honest job. I apply the rules. I don't have to believe in it."
O'Neill has studied philosophy. He particularly liked studying free will and determinism, liked reading Sartre's
BEING AND NOTHINGNESS, liked the argument that we were completely free. Nasty content on TV,
O'Neill told me, didn't really have a bad effect. In films about serial killers, the detective always wins. How
could that be encouraging serial killers? How could BIG BROTHER be breaching community standards, he
argued, when it was one of the most popular shows on TV? If the massage incident had happened on SBS the
lefties would have been queuing up to defend it; but then SBS was a fake anyway, an ethnic TV station
watched only by white members of the chattering classes. "The ethnics are all on Channel Ten watching Big
1 started to argue with him. If the media had no effect, why did advertisers bother spending money to appear
during BIG BROTHER? And if we acknowledged it had some effect, then surely that brought with it some
At this point, O'Neill's boss got angry. It was bloody bullshit, she said, to suggest that TV was responsible for
society's problems. One could not program around the fact that there might be wackos in the community.
Wackos would get turned on by Target underwear ads. She threw down her napkin and flounced off.
I switched to using my own work as an example. If what I write has an effect, however minimal, do I not carry
some responsibility? What is my responsibility?
O'Neill stopped and thought. He said: "Your responsibility is to write the truth as you see it, and to research and
observe and write it with integrity. That's the end of it. If it has an effect, it is the responsibility of the people it
has an effect on."
Hello Laurence O'Neill. I hope you still agree with yourself.
You see, content does matter. It really matters. It is the end, not the means. Only those who have never been
affected by content, who have never recognised themselves or been touched by it, can possibly forget its
importance. Content - the stories we tell, the patterns we make - is the thing that matters most. I think the future
will belong to the people who best understand this. There weren't many of them at the Canberra Hyatt.
Page 3of 3