Major shake-up for Australia media

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Major shake-up for Australia media

Sydney (AFP) - Controversial changes to Australia's media laws passed the upper house Thursday, paving the way for a significant concentration of ownership, in a move welcomed by the industry.

Under legislation introduced in the 1980s to protect diversity, media companies are blocked from owning television, radio and newspaper assets in the same city, while metropolitan and regional broadcasters are barred from merging.

Major players in the market have long pressed for change, arguing the rules are outdated and do not account for digital media platforms and new publishers like Google and Facebook and video streaming giants such as Netflix.

"These changes bring Australia's outdated media laws into the 21st century," Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in a statement late Thursday after the upper house Senate passed the bill.

"They now finally recognise the enormous disruption that has been caused by the Internet. Australian media companies will now be better placed to compete with the big online media companies from overseas."

Canberra unveiled plans for a revamp 18 months ago and a final deal was struck in the Senate, where the government needs the support of independents, including the right-wing One Nation party, to pass new laws.

The legislation is expected to be passed by the lower House of Representatives, where the government has a one-seat majority, when parliament resumes in mid-October.

Seven West Media -- which owns broadcaster Channel Seven, magazines and The West Australian newspaper -- welcomed the reforms, saying they would provide a "better future for local news and Australian stories".

"These historic changes will give Australian media companies a real opportunity to compete with unregulated global players," Seven West Media chairman Kerry Stokes said in a statement to national broadcaster ABC.

- Levelling the playing field -

Under the changes, a company would be allowed to own a TV station, newspaper and radio station in a single market.

The "reach rule", which prevented a single TV broadcaster from reaching more than 75 percent of the population, would be repealed.

The opposition Labor party and the Greens were against the "two out of three" rule being scrapped, arguing it will lead to a higher concentration of media ownership, notably in the hands of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation.

To reach agreement with the independents, the government had to make concessions, including establishing a Aus$60.4 million (US$48 million) fund for regional and small publishers and more training for journalists.

New laws would also be introduced later this year to set up a public register of foreign-owned media assets and increase the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's focus on regional and rural issues.

Independent Senator Nick Xenophon, whose support was crucial, earlier said he had also secured a deal for an inquiry into the impact of platforms like Google and Facebook, which he said were making billions in advertising revenue in Australia, but paying little tax.

"It will be a world-first inquiry into the power of Google and Facebook and other social media platforms, the impact on the media, issues of copyright and market domination, how do we level the playing field for media organisations?," said Xenophon.

No details about the inquiry were released by the government.

Like other international media organisations, those in Australia have suffered from declining advertising revenues and circulation, with many slashing staff levels and costs.