After a year of discovering who really runs Australia, The Power Index is finally set to reveal the country's fifty most powerful people.
Throughout July, Paul Barry and The Power Index team will be counting down the most influential people in the nation from business, media, politics, sport and culture.
The Power 50 / 2012
Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy and Deputy Leader in the Senate
Born in: Ely, UK
Home Town: Melbourne
Stephen Conroy may look like a nerd, a guy who gets sand kicked in his face. But he’s tough, smart, determined, and a bit of a Superman. So it’s fitting that he’s minister for telephone boxes, or Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, as they call the job nowadays.
In the past couple of years, the one-time “factional Dalek” has pushed through the $35 billion National Broadband Network, forced Telstra to hand over its cables for public use, set up two major media inquiries, and savaged The Australian and Daily Telegraph for running a "campaign of regime change" against the Gillard government.
He's also boosted the ABC’s funding, changed the way ABC board members are chosen, handed back millions of dollars in licence fees to commercial TV stations, and tried (unsuccessfully) to censor the internet.
Last year, he overruled his own public servants to snatch the Australia Network from Sky TV -- part-owned by Murdoch's BSkyB -- and give it to the ABC in perpetuity.
But most of all, perhaps, he’ll soon be responding to the government's Convergence Review, which has urged him to scrap Australia's cross-media laws. That should get him noticed.
Not so long ago, Conroy was a powerful warlord on the ALP Right: his ShortCon faction (named after him and Bill Shorten) still rules the roost in Victoria. And while Conroy’s too busy being a cabinet minister to do much stomping himself, he’s still good at getting his way.
The Power Index suggests he's a bovver boy at heart, and he laughs. "I call it as I see it," he retorts: "I'm prepared to say what I think".
And when it comes to the Murdoch papers, he certainly does, telling The Power Index, "The Australian and the Daily Telegraph have shown no balance. They've denigrated the government every single day; they've breached their own code of conduct repeatedly.”
"The shockjocks are even worse. You can hear Alan Jones turning the pages of The Australian and reading them out as fact. 2GB is an absolute shockjocks' paradise for attacking the government.“
The 49-year old Chelsea fan's no-nonsense approach is one reason why Conroy is so powerful. Another is that he knows his stuff after nearly eight years in the portfolio. But he also referees the media scrum in this country and makes the rules by which the game is played. Furthermore, he’s about to change them.
"Our media laws, which are suited to the 1950s, have been completely overtaken by technology," he says. "With new TVs you can sit in your lounge room and watch everything on one screen: free-to-air channels, pay-TV, the internet, Facebook, YouTube, and movies or programs from 2000 channels around the world. We're looking at how you can regulate that."
The big question is whether any rules can be made to work.
"No one has the answers,” he says. "We're the first in the world to really look at this. Others are waiting to see what we're going to do. But the NBN means it's all happening here much faster. It's like a big steam train bearing down on us."
The internet is changing every business, says Conroy, even supermarkets. "The subway in Seoul, South Korea, has a wall with pictures of groceries projected onto it. You go up with your mobile, swipe the barcode of what you want and you've bought it and paid for it. It's delivered to your home. So maybe you don't need even big supermarkets any more. No one is safe.”
Conroy reads his newspapers on an iPad, and wonders when everyone will do the same. Regional publisher APN has just stopped printing its Coffs Advocate and offers it mainly online, he says. "It's the first in Australia, but … will there be any in 10 years time?”
“When we talk about … regulating newspapers,” says Conroy, “the industry says, 'Not us, we're different'. Well, the difference may be their business model is struggling to survive."
Conroy is impressed by Julian Disney's move to beef up the Press Council with more staff, fines and penalties. "Media Watch exists because the Press Council is such a failure," he says. "It has four staff, two of whom are admin staff; and it has no power to investigate, it has to act on complaints."
Conroy also likes Disney's suggestion that journalistic privileges (to protect sources, for example) should only be available to those who join Press Council.
However, he also thinks it makes sense to have only one regulator. "At the moment, you can read it in the paper, see the same thing online and finally watch it on TV. But you have to complain to three different places if you don't like it. From the consumer's point of view that's crazy."
Whether he’ll be game to set up a new government-backed body to regulate all media, as the Finkelstein inquiry recommends, is not clear. We doubt he will. But what he will say is, "There will be no licences for newspapers. Finkelstein made that clear from day one."