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Poker News: October 23, 2006

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Copyright © 2006 The Peninsula

HEADLINE: Media moguls in multi-billion dollar poker game: Analysts

Australia’s media moguls have made their first bets in a multi-billion dollar poker game where power, profits and press diversity are at stake under liberalised ownership laws, analysts said yesterday.

Global political power-broker Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp have bought chips. So have Australia’s richest man James Packer and television baron Kerry Stokes.

They are waiting for the game to start in earnest when the government’s new media laws, passed by parliament last week, come into effect and allow an expected wave of takeovers, mergers and foreign investment.

“There is a very large poker game going on where large players have put themselves in a position to do some acquiring and be part of the process of deciding who else does any acquiring,” said media analyst Jock Given.

The swift moves by the moguls have led critics to reinforce their warnings that the result of the new laws — expected to come into effect early next year — would be a further consolidation of media ownership in the hands of a few. “If that’s what ends up occuring I think it does concentrate political power to a very worrying extent,” Given said.

The biggest play so far has been Packer’s A$4.5bn ($3.4bn) sale of half the media assets of his Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd (PBL) to a Hong Kong-based private equity firm.

Packer, who holds major television and magazine assets, is believed to be positioning the spin-off PBL Media to expand into newspapers.

Under the old laws this would not have been possible, but the new legislation allows a company to own two instead of just one out of three media — television, radio and newspapers — in any single market.

Industry analysts say a prime target for Packer is Fairfax newspapers, publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age in Melbourne and the Australian Financial Review.

But Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp on Friday said it had bought a strategic $276m 7.5 per cent stake in Fairfax, the main rival to its own stable of metropolitan newspapers.

“It’s just a strategic holding. We don’t have any particular plans for it — certainly no plans to take over Fairfax,” Murdoch told a News Corp shareholders meeting in New York.

Murdoch is seen as more likely to be interested in moving into television, but he has critised the new laws as protecting the current free-to-air channels, which he said would be “expensive” to buy.

News Corp owns a powerful international stable of 175 newspapers, including The Times of London, The Sun tabloid in Britain, the New York Post and The Australian as well as cable television network Fox and satellite broadcasters DirecTV and BSkyB.

Fairfax newspapers are seen as more “left-liberal” and critical of the government of Prime Minister John Howard than Murdoch’s more conservative stable, but even a takeover by Packer could change that.

“The Fairfax papers would struggle to maintain the kind of editorial position they have at the moment under Packer’s ownership,” Given said.

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