Australia to shake-up media ownership laws, mergers tipped

Sydney - The Australian government Tuesday unveiled plans to significantly change media ownership laws, which could trigger a rush of mergers and acquisitions as ailing news organisations battle to stay afloat in the digital age.

Under Canberra's current laws introduced in the 1980s to protect diversity, proprietors are blocked from owning television, radio and newspaper assets in the same city. Metropolitan and regional broadcasters are barred from merging.

Major players, including newspaper owner Fairfax Media and commercial television broadcasters, have called for the government to scrap the rules saying they are outdated and do not account for digital media platforms and new publishers like Internet titan Google.

But critics fear the changes, described by Communications Minister Mitch Fifield as the "most significant media reform in Australia in a generation", could lead to the loss of local voices and the concentration of media power in the hands of proprietors such as mogul Rupert Murdoch.

"The media ownership regulations in our law were written before paid television, they were certainly before the Internet, they are a relic of a past economy, a past media economy, they have been out of date for years," Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told parliament.

"We are bringing the media ownership regulations laws into the 21st century."

Legislation is due to be tabled this week with the government saying it would help Australian media companies compete with the growing number of foreign entrants in the domestic market, including video streaming giant Netflix and advertising platforms such as Facebook.

One early merger could be between regional broadcaster and radio station owner Southern Cross Media Group and metropolitan broadcaster Nine Network, media analysts said.

Meanwhile, Murdoch's dominant local arm News Corp Australia could merge with television broadcaster Ten Network and radio station company Nova Entertainment, which is owned by Murdoch's eldest son Lachlan.

Fairfax, which also owns several radio stations, has been tipped to merge with Nine.

But the changes were unlikely to improve the chances of publishers - particularly newspapers struggling with declining circulation and advertising - staying viable, CCZ media analyst Roger Colman said.

"It's not going to do anything there that's going to enable the costs to fall at such a rate they can keep the businesses going," Colman told AFP.

Fairfax Media, which publishes The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, last month announced another restructure as print advertising and circulation declined further.

News Corp, which owns numerous local newspapers as well as interests in Britain and the US, also said in February it was looking to cut costs and share services at its Australian and British newspapers.