THE ABILITY of the legal industry to “shake the tree” when it comes to burning issues of freedom of speech will be seriously compromised under the federal government’s overhaul of the media industry, according to leading legal industry commentators.
Ownership restrictions will be lifted next year and the Federal Government will allow specialist broadcasters to have access to the television sector under the changes.
The Federal Government reforms to the $12 billion Australian media industry will see a loosening up of legislation to allow a greater concentration of media ownership. For media lawyers, a greater concentration of media ownership means less work, Nicholas Pullen, partner in the media, entertainment and technology groups at law firm Holding Redlich told Lawyers Weekly.
“Just as there will be few independent voices, there will be fewer lawyers advising in that regard,” he said.
“[As] a media lawyer who advises media on a day-to-day basis and looks after their legal proceedings,” Pullen said there could be trouble for a lot of media lawyers who already work in a very small market. These changes, he said, will see the market become even smaller.
“The work will not be spreading itself very far in that a diversification of owners, as in any industry, means a larger spread of lawyers advising that industry. In a concentrated industry, you only have almost the same ratio of lawyers advising into that industry.
“If the loosening up of the cross media limits means there is going to be greater concentration of ownership, then there will be a greater concentration of lawyers in the area ... So legal industry wise, I don’t think it’s terribly good.”
This will have significant ramifications for free speech and the way that the media can behave, said Pullen. “In the past, [it has been a] landscape that has had a lot of players in the industry, meaning there are different lawyers that don’t come from a straight corporate background that do simply have a passion for this area,” he said.
“[These lawyers] have been able to find a forum for ideas and very good legal thinking in relation to things such as free speech and contempt of court issues. Anything to do with prepublication issues should be dealt with by the courts or in forums.”
But in this new climate in which there is a greater concentration of lawyers, “that type of forum is going to disappear,” said Pullen.
“That is what I am afraid of — the ability of the legal industry to shake the tree when it comes to burning issues of freedom of speech, what can and can’t be, should or shouldn’t be published — be it in newspapers or on the web … The ability to debate an issue comprehensively might be at risk I think.”
But in the short term, mergers and acquisition lawyers will see a flood of work. This, however, will primarily benefit “your top five [firms],” said Pullen.
The activity in the mergers and acquisitions areas of the legal industry “will benefit the top tier firms, your top five so to speak, because they are the only ones capable of handling such a big volume”.
The top tiers have a capacity to deal with this type of work, along with some mid-tiers that specialise in the area. Pullen’s own Holding Redlich would be able to handle something of the order of a media acquisitions, he said, be it television station network or radio network.
“We have done that for radio in the past. But I don’t think smaller firms would be able to handle that type of volume that is required, certainly at the due diligence stage.”
It is too early to tell exactly how these changes will affect any firm that has a large stake in media law, said Pullen, including Holding Redlich, which dedicates six out of 41 partners to the area. This is going to depend on the owner and the relationship associations have with the new owner. “That is always the way — and I can’t see it being any different in the future,” he said.