FRASER, Professor Michael, Director, Communications Law Centre, University of Technology, Sydney
Evidence was taken via teleconference-
Senator LUDLAM: The witness who preceded you directly, Mr McLennan from Channel 10, spoke of the risk that they see inherent. You have said that, if the rule were lifted, you would want to see a buttress of a public interest test introduced to make sure that there was not a wave of mergers and acquisitions. Channel 10 pointed out that their reading of the bill-which I concur with-is that you would have a five- or six-month lag, during which time the Public Interest Media Advocate would not be able to block anything, but they could retrospectively force divestiture, presumably. Does your quick reading of the bill support that view?
Prof. Fraser: That would appear to be right on a first reading, yes.
Senator LUDLAM: Have you got any concerns about how difficult it is going to be? This is a part-time officer proposed to spend maybe the first few months of their job pulling apart deals that have already been done. How likely do you think that is? Do you think that is a very good idea?
Prof. Fraser: It is impractical-absolutely impractical. I think it is totally impractical. Those two measures would have to be introduced together if they were to be introduced because, even though it might be considered inthe public interest to block a merger, that merger having taken place and all the subsequent consequences of that having taken place, it may not be in the public interest to actually unpick it.
Senator LUDLAM: I just wonder how you unscramble these things once they have been done, to be honest.
Prof. Fraser: It is impractical.
Senator LUDLAM: Can we talk about the competition issues that you addressed briefly before, with the regional TV stations being in competition with the internet in ways which they were not before. It is true, isn't it, that they are not going to be really in competition for local news? If I am sitting in Kalgoorlie, I can read the New York Times if I want, but they are not going to be reporting on what is going on in Kalgoorlie. So is it not the case that the regional organisations will still have that benefit of incumbency whether this rule is lifted or not?
Prof. Fraser: Yes, I think people will tend to go to those mainstream sources.
Senator LUDLAM: Does that protect us to a degree? Because the fact is: this rule is being eroded, effectively, before our eyes by technology that has cross-party support.
Prof. Fraser: What has cross-party support?
Senator LUDLAM: There are strong arguments about how to deliver it, but the idea that we should have rapid broadband that would allow you to watch or consume content in the manner of your pleasing at the time that you choose is eroding concepts like the reach rule.
Prof. Fraser: Yes, it is. I think it is hard to imagine how new services will be rolled out and the new ways that consumers will use them.
Senator LUDLAM: Do you have a view then of the kinds of undertakings that we should be placing on regional broadcasters if the rule is lifted? What should be the quid pro quo apart from a public interest test? Can we compel these organisations to keep newsrooms open?
Prof. Fraser: I think you can introduce requirements that they broadcast a certain amount of local and regional material, news and current affairs and, in addition, requirements for Australian drama and documentaries. They are all in your power to require-that kind of content. Since that actually is what is trying to be achieved- that Australian audiences have access to original Australian content, and local and regional audiences should have access to regional news and current affairs-then the best way to achieve that, if that is what you want, is to directly require those quotas.