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Media diversity not media moguls

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 22 Jun 2017

The government is once again waving their hands and vaguely citing “the internet” as the both the cause of current Australian media woes, and the excuse to do nothing about the core issue of media diversity. At the same time, the proposed changes don’t address the issue of increasing digital media consumption, nor do they equip the sector with the framework to embrace the further changes to come. Instead, the government is continuing to push the same agenda it has for the last 20 years, to deregulate the media landscape, enabling further consolidation in what is already the most concentrated media market in the world. Once again the winners are some of the most powerful media moguls on the planet.

On the surface, this bill seeks to repeal regulations that are decades old, introduced in a time when media could only be delivered by radio, TV, or newspapers. The government maintains that these regulations are obsolete, and this is certainly true for some elements. 

The government argues that search engines, such as Google, and social media platforms, such as Facebook, are increasingly the go-to sources for media consumption, and the beneficiaries of the vast majority of advertising revenue.  This too is true. But the government has not proposed any direct solutions to the challenges presented by this upheaval, or any alternatives of substance to sustain the diversity the original regulations were in place to protect. The strength of our public debate is undermined when people are hearing the news from only the same one or two voices. 

Yes, the media landscape is changing. And yes, we need to ensure local content is being produced, Australian stories are being told, and a more diverse and high quality media is maintained. But again, this legislation does not address these fundamental objectives. It moves to ensure that the government’s media allies are in a position to achieve their long sought-after monopoly of Australian media.

Coalition governments have been striving to repeal laws aimed at preventing media concentration since 1996. But it took them more than a decade to progress their planned increased media concentration. In 2006, the Howard government removed the main cross-media ownership restrictions, allowing TV/newspaper/radio mergers, introducing the ‘2 out of 3’ rule and the ‘5/4 voices’ test. They have since been striving to repeal the rest of the regulations. Until recently this push has been kept at bay by a lack of industry consensus; the second and third largest players don’t much like the largest getting larger still.

Here in 2017 we find the situation has changed. Fairfax is being slowly suffocated by its own corporate masters, as they exploit public trust in the brand while starving the news publishers of revenue from the more profitable properties. 

In this environment the government has presented a suite of enticements that appeal to both the commercial TV networks, in the form of the removal of license fees, and to News Corp’s Foxtel – changes to anti-siphoning. So with this, and a showcase event in parliament house, the industry reached a consensus to repeal all regulations preventing a media monopoly in Australia. It is clear that the government’s process for developing a “comprehensive media package” has involved nothing more than finding just enough to feed each mouth at the trough. 

Several media commentators have also raised the questionable timing of Channel 10’s voluntary administration. Dave Donovan of Independent Australia noted that “This happened after shareholders Lachlan Murdoch (7.7%) and Bruce Gordon (15%) refused to guarantee a new finance package — one that does not become due until December. There is no problem with liquidity at Ten — it has good cashflow and is paying all of its bills as they become due. In short, it is not insolvent.

Nevertheless, this voluntary administration, made during the second last sitting week of Parliament before the long winter recess, did allow Communications Minister Mitch Fifield to yesterday stand in front of the cameras and solemnly urge the Parliament to pass his new media “reform” laws.”

Former Liberal Party staffer and Crikey founder Stephen Mayne said on ABC 7.30 last week “This is the most unusual administration that I've ever seen — where a company that is doing a whole bunch of things to fix itself, and doesn't have to pay its debts back for another six months and has only borrowed one third of the total amount that it can borrow from its banks, has pulled the plug and handed over the business to administrators. So, it's very puzzling.”

Repealing the remaining regulations will not reverse Google and Facebook’s impact on the market. In referring to the Coalition’s recent media dealings, A/Prof Tim Dwyer (Uni of Sydney) in The Conversation said “The takeaway from this sideshow is a profound sense that Australia is a media policy backwater. The time-honoured political and media-owner manoeuvrings are a substitute for smart, citizen-focused policymaking.” A/Prof Dwyer calls for a comprehensive review of how media is consumed across old and new platforms. 

A review such as this, alongside the current Senate Select Committee into the Future of Public Interest Journalism, and the Australian and Children’s Screen Content Review, will inform policymakers taking the next steps in securing the quality and diversity of Australian media across platforms new and old.

The UK’s Ofcom, and the European Commission, have made significant progress into monitoring, researching and updating voice pluralism policies. This is a template for Australia. Ofcom has reviewed the UK’s ownership rules at least every 3 years since 2003, and their regulatory framework sounds familiar. The current restrictions include: a rule limiting cross-media ownership of newspapers and TV at a national level; requirements for the appointment of a regional TV news provider; and a rule for administering a public interest test for mergers. The UK government, via OfCom, have actively engaged with the rise of online news, and the rapidly changing audience behaviour like large groups only accessing news via Facebook. Ofcom have developed a “share of references” to compare news consumption across different platforms. That data is available to lawmakers, publishers and providers to help ensure the public are being well served by the laws governing the media landscape in the UK. 

The US too has had a process of structured media ownership reviews since 1996 – the quadrennial media ownership reviews. The last two US reviews (2010 and 2014) have left key ownership restrictions, including cross-media ownership, in place.

These are markets with some similarities to Australia, but one key difference; they are less concentrated than the Australian media market already is, yet it is in Australia that cross-media ownership restrictions are on the chopping block.
This bill proposes to substitute licence fees worth around $100 million in annual revenue with a tax scheme worth around $40 million. What are the tax payers getting for the $60 million difference? These elements were hastily added to appeal to industry, they should have been debated separately.

There have already been several reductions in licensing fees for commercial TV since 2010. The Greens have argued in the past that licensing fee reductions serve only the interest of commercial broadcasters, not the public. In 2013, we argued that the broadcasting spectrum is not a free gift, it is a public good, and it comes with an obligation for delivering Australian content. A decrease in fees should carry with it increased Australian content obligations. The government are only vaguely promising to increase local content requirements sometime in the future, with their Australian content review. Their pattern has been to reduce local content requirements in the past. Without a legislated obligation we’re more likely to see unchanged, reduced or removed local content requirements.

Absent from the debate on this “comprehensive” media reform package is any mention of public or community broadcasters. A Department of Communications’ and the Arts discussion paper in 2014 noted that any examination of media diversity in Australia needs to consider the roles of SBS and ABC. The paper stated that the national broadcasters “make a significant contribution to media diversity through their provision of television, radio and online services. This is particularly so for the ABC, the reach and depth of whose media outlets compare favourably to its commercial counterparts in most areas of Australia”. 

It also highlighted the importance of the ABC in regional Australia, stating that “The television, radio and online services provided by the national broadcasters, particularly the ABC, are also prominent in regional and remote Australia, providing audiences with an additional source of news and information in areas where there are frequently few local commercial media outlets.” 

Community radio broadcasters – an essential part of our diverse media landscape - face an uncertain future, with no assurance that funding will be provided beyond 2019. Their ongoing costs are less than 1/10th of the discount given to commercial broadcasters in this package.
The challenge of managing Australia’s media landscape in the 21st century needs a more substantial response than some handouts to the biggest players and an incentive for further concentration.

The government says “the internet” when asked about diversity, but when nine of the top ten news media sites are owned by existing major media brands, it’s far too simplistic.

When will NBN penetration be at a level sufficient to allow most Australians to access these alternatives?

What is the role of the ABC and SBS in Australia’s media future?

This package cuts $60 million per year from the bottom line, with nothing for the public.

Public broadcasters. Community broadcasters. Any of the numerous initiatives proposed already in the Journalism Inquiry. There are far better uses for tens of millions of dollars if the objective is a stronger, more diverse Australian media landscape. 

If the objective is giving media giants whatever they want, however, the government could hardly have done better.

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