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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee

MULLER, Dr Denis Joseph Andrew, Private capacity


CHAIR: Good morning and thank you very much for appearing here today.

Dr Muller : Thank you very much, it is a privilege.

CHAIR: I understand that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses has been provided to you.

Dr Muller : Yes.

CHAIR: Is there anything you would like to add about the capacity in which you appear today?

Dr Muller : I am appearing in a private capacity, although I am the acting co-director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne.

CHAIR: Thank you. I invite you to make a brief opening statement, and then the committee will ask you questions.

Dr Muller : I have circulated this very brief statement to members of the committee, but I will read it out:

The proposed amendments address two of the main policy challenges thrown up by the digital revolution, namely broadcast services to rural and regional Australia, and diversity of voice.

But they fail to address a third: the threat to the viability of public-interest journalism.

I will touch on each in turn.

   1.   Regional and rural news and information

Preliminary findings from research we are doing at the Centre for Advancing Journalism show that one of the essential functions of media in regional and rural areas is to provide people with a shared basis for a common conversation.

They can't get this online, where the audience is fragmented and where the content is usually not local.

The findings also show that people do not get coverage of their local affairs through metropolitan and even large regional media outlets. These outlets take an interest in a small place only when something bad happens there.

So in addition to measuring points and minutes, as proposed, it is also important to measure just how local is "local". How much attention, say, does a Bendigo area broadcaster give to the remoter parts of its licence area?

Having the ACMA keep track of how the licensees perform is necessary, but there seems to be no good reason to cease the compliance reporting after two-and-a-half years.

2.   Diversity of voice

I would emphasise the difference between diversity of voice and consumer choice—

And I heard some of the questions to Professor Given on this question. My statement continues:

The Fairfax Media submission conflates the two. It argues that the proposed rule changes will give existing media operations the opportunity to expand. That doesn't mean more voices, just a bigger voice for the present players.

And its argument that diversity rules are irrelevant because consumers can use the internet to access any voice they like is disingenuous.

The fact that online outlets are proliferating does not answer the point.

It is doubtless true, as the explanatory memorandum says, that 44% of Australians say their main source of news is online, but this includes social media content, which broadens the definition of "news" to the point where it parts company from journalism.

It is the public-interest news produced by the disciplines of the journalistic method that is crucial to democratic life. That is where diversity of voices is needed.

It is in this way that the issue of diversity is linked to the viability of public-interest journalism.

3. The threat to the viability of public-interest journalism

There is plenty of evidence about the threat to the viability of public-interest journalism presented by the digital revolution.

You don't learn about bad behaviour by the banks or about the Mafia in Melbourne from Crikey, the Guardian Australia, The Conversation or other online-only outlets.

They don't have the resources or in most cases the mission for this kind of work.

So while the current legislative changes represent a reasonable quick fix, I would invite you to consider the question of diversity in the wider context of the viability of public-interest journalism.

It turns out that the Finkelstein Inquiry, to which I was a consultant, was too sanguine about this, and the situation we now find ourselves in calls for a creative policy response.

I am not advocating direct government subsidies for journalism, but I am advocating for government to explore ways of giving support through the taxation and charity systems for public-interest journalism start-ups and public-interest journalism-directed philanthropy.

This is an urgent next step …

And I have got a reference to work done in the UK on that. Thank you very much.

Senator URQUHART: Who would you say are the winners and losers of this proposed legislation?

Dr Muller : I think the prospective winners are the big media companies and I think the prospective losers are, most obviously, people in rural and regional Australia.

Senator URQUHART: News Corp has argued for the removal of all five media ownership and control rules including the 75 per cent reach, the two-out-of-three rule, the five/four rule, the one-to-a-market rule and the two-to-a-market rule. Do you have any concerns with that suggestion of removing all of those?

Dr Muller : No. I really think the horse has bolted on this stuff. I think the points that Senator Paterson was making earlier on are right—that in a sense it is too late, technology has taken us over and we will not be in a position to exert credible limits on this kind of thing. But I would come back to the distinction between what I might call the economic considerations, which are properly matters for the ACCC, and the non-economic matters, for which we really do not have any kind of national framework. I would consider those as two separate areas of thought.

Senator URQUHART: How do you think Australia's democratic processes have been affected by the nature of our current media landscape?

Dr Muller : From the work I have been doing in regional Australia, which is considerable, let me give you a recent example. In Moree, there is the Moree Champion, which has lost one-quarter of its staff. It has gone down from four to three. It is the only newspaper. It has a commercial FM radio station with a news director who comes from the car spare parts industry. Neither of those organisations any longer cover the local court. They do not cover the local council; they just regurgitate what is on the local council website. There is no independent verification at all. That is a microcosm, but it is the kind of thing that is happening right across Australia. We have a research project called the Civic Impact of Journalism which is looking at precisely these questions. So I think that is a small but important illustration.

Senator URQUHART: I guess that emphasises that the losers are the regional communities.

Dr Muller : Absolutely, yes.

Senator URQUHART: Will the legislation before us today improve or detract from a healthy democracy?

Dr Muller : I think it has the potential to detract from it, but I do not think that you can fix the democratic deficit with this legislation. I do not think that was the purpose of the legislation. I think we have to acknowledge that the legislation addresses itself to pressing concerns arising from the digital revolution, but it is not going to fix the democratic deficit that that revolution has brought about.

Senator URQUHART: Centre director Dr Margaret Simons said in a podcast this month that, while the points system for local content may be able to regulate quantity, it is very hard to legislate on quality. What impact do you think this legislation might have on the quality of local regional voices in our media landscape? You gave us the example of that small area.

Dr Muller : I think it is very difficult to regulate for quality. We really are in dangerous water there. Who is to decide what is a quality story and what is not? I think the proposals that are set out in the legislation are reasonable. They are quantitative, but I think they should go further. I really do think they need to look at the question of how local is local. Let's say I have the licence for the Bendigo area, but my licence area takes in the whole of the Wimmera. To what extent am I reflecting the local concerns of those more remote parts of my licence area? I think there is a deficiency in the legislation there. I think there should be a requirement that that is part of the assessment of the performance of the broadcasters. I do not think that is difficult to do at a quantitative level, but I would not be messing about with the qualitative area.

Senator URQUHART: So you are suggesting that something be added to the proposed legislation to address that particular issue?

Dr Muller : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: In the same podcast, Dr Simons also proposed that there may be a role for industry policy in the area of incentivising local content. What is your perspective on that?

Dr Muller : I am not sure how government can do that, short of government thinking about some kind of financial support for the provision of certain types of news. Really, government does that already through the ABC. If we are going to talk about incentivising, working through those established channels where we already have well-established charters of both independence and responsibility is the channel to go down. I know the ABC, as Mark Scott said at one of our conferences last year, have been pushing for more money to do specific work in regional and rural Australia. Then you use whatever capacity that generates in the ABC as a kind of goad for non-public sector broadcasters. You can create an element of competitiveness in markets if you have, for example, a strong ABC in rural and regional areas. It could go the other way. It could mean that the commercial broadcasters just walk away. But incentivising, I think, has a lot of problems.

Senator URQUHART: Yes. I agree with your point on the ABC. I guess it also comes down to the fact that the ABC has lost significant funding, too. So to be able to continue that work into—

Senator McKENZIE: They were management decisions that have meant that they have been concentrating—

Senator URQUHART: Sorry. Senator McKenzie. So to be able to reach out into those areas, we need to make sure that they are funded in the proper way to do that.

Senator McKENZIE: Even the union agrees with that, Senator Urquhart.

CHAIR: Senator McKenzie, you will have your opportunity.

Dr Muller : I sat in a big church hall down the road and listened to Mark Scott say that he was going to put the weights on the government for some money to do this particular thing. Whether he succeeded or not, and whether Michelle Guthrie will continue to have those priorities, I have no idea. But I really do think it is a matter of practical reality that the ABC's role in this is going to be crucial in terms of both providing the service to the community but also perhaps creating a competitive environment that the commercials will respond to.

Senator URQUHART: My final question is: what is your opinion of the decision of the UK regulator, Ofcom, to look at not only the diversity of media outlets but consumption of users for different outlets.

Dr Muller : There has been some similar work done here quite a long time ago, mainly by the Bond University people—Mark Pearson and so on. When we are talking about consumption, we are starting to move into those areas that I would regard as economic considerations, which I do not think are as important, in many respects, as the non-economic. It is interesting work from Ofcom, but I do not think it gets to the really core problem of diversity of voice for what I call public interest journalism, which is the stuff that we need for a healthy democracy.

Senator URQUHART: If that is not an important consideration, are there other factors that our media regulations should be considering that we actually are not?

Dr Muller : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: What are they?

Dr Muller : Professor Given touched on it. We do not have a credible system of media accountability at all. I worked for Ray Finkelstein. I did not agree, as it happens, with the proposal for a statutory authority, but I do think that a statute based self-regulator, which is a common platform-neutral system of accountability for news and current affairs, is preferable. I do not think it is right in principle that a government statutory authority should have any role at all in regulating news and current affairs, but the Broadcasting Services Act contains that provision. The ACMA is the regulator for commercial radio and television news and current affairs. It is wrong in principle. I think we should look afresh at the question of a single national, platform-neutral, statute based self-regulator for news and current affairs.

Senator PATERSON: I wonder if there are no reasons for optimism at all about some of the technological changes that are happening. For example, the recent story that was broken about Unaoil was done in partnership with Fairfax and The Huffington Post. That is an example of how a new player in the media landscape is really broadening the impact of investigative journalism. Are there are no reasons for optimism at all?

Dr Muller : No, no. I would say there are great reasons for optimism. The Panama papers is the paradigm case, isn't it? But a precondition for the Australian polity is that we retain a journalistic capability to participate in an exercise like the Panama papers. If we did not have the Adele Fergusons and Nick McKenzies of this world, we would not have the capacity to participate in a Panama papers-type of exercise. I think there are great opportunities, but we will not be able to take advantage of them unless we continue to have a viable public interest journalism capability. That is my worry. With the cuts to Fairfax, for whom I worked for 22 years, reaching the stage that the have reached, that capability is shrinking.

Senator PATERSON: I should state for the record that I still have a lot of faith in the capacity of commercial media to do this. You were mentioning earlier in your evidence the possibility of philanthropy funded journalism. What is your view on tax deductibility for funding journalism?

Dr Muller : I think that is an area we should explore as a matter of some urgency, actually. I am co-editing an international journal called Ethical Space with a colleague in London called Judith Townend. She has just written a paper—for which I have given you a footnote. It addresses exactly what they are doing in the UK, where the Charity Commission has recognised certain forms of journalism as being charitable, as meeting a public benefit criteria which then justifies charitable status. So I think these are areas that we could explore. None of them on its own represents a total fix, of course, but it is going to be a mosaic of responses.

Senator PATERSON: In Australia you can get tax deductibility to do research. You can get tax deductibility basically to do advocacy and campaigning, if it is for public benefit, if it is for public welfare or environmental causes. So it would seem to me not a very big leap for investigative journalism, for example, to have that.

You also mentioned the ABC as a vehicle for providing this kind of content. The other way of looking at that, though, is that in a sense the ABC crowds out commercial competitors. The commercial competitors—particularly Fairfax, for example—have to compete for eyeballs with the ABC, and that is a real challenge to their business model. Do you have a view on that?

Dr Muller : I think that the crowding-out argument in a country like Australia, which has 70 per cent of its daily newspaper circulation in the hands of one company, is a very hard argument to sustain. I think we need all of the variety of voices that we can possibly get. So I would put the argument in favour of diversity way ahead of the crowding-out argument.

Senator PATERSON: I am not sure newspaper circulation is going to be a very good measure of media diversity for much longer, though.

Dr Muller : No. I think the point you were making to Jock Given is obviously a very strong one. Probably pretty soon we will be getting a printed paper at the weekends—in Melbourne, an Age, a Herald Sun and an Australian—perhaps not The Australian.

Senator McKENZIE: Oh, yes—The Australian.

Dr Muller : Monday to Friday. I think that is true, but the bigger point is that in a concentrated media environment such as we have here I do not buy the crowding-out argument.

CHAIR: I would like to pick up your point about rural and regional media access and diversity and the quality and quantity of local journalists. Coming back to this bill, it seems to me that this bill is not trying to fix everything. It is a first step. With your desire to have as much diversity as possible and to maintain the integrity and the skills of journalists, wouldn't these reforms assist in retaining the journalists and the news centres of the regional TV stations in particular?

We heard a lot of testimony from them in the first hearing, and you can see it in their submissions, that their profitability is plummeting, partially because of the competition they now have online. They are having to rationalise. It strikes me that, while I do not think anyone has ever claimed these reforms will fix it all, they will certainly help in the short term with the viability of regional media, which is now under threat. I am just trying to reconcile these. We are talking about everything—the big bang, the ideal and revolutionary change—but we now have media operators who are struggling to survive, particularly in rural and regional areas. If these reforms would help keep them viable and operational, isn't that a good thing?

Dr Muller : Fundamentally, yes, but there is more than one way of achieving that. I think we need to look a little bit at the second layer. Take WIN Television. They have consolidated their Victorian regional television news operation in Wollongong. It is a long way from Victoria. You would have to look at the extent to which their structures on the ground in rural and regional Victoria are able to feed up to that consolidated centre what is actually going on in those places and then the capability of the people in Wollongong to make reasonable news decisions about what is important to people in Warrnambool, for example.

Yes, we certainly do not want to have a situation where commercial broadcasters go to the wall financially, but against that we have to look at how real and how relevant the service is to rural and regional audiences. I think we have got to strike a balance there. Perhaps they can persuade you that they can operate a credible Victorian rural and regional news service out of Wollongong. They do not persuade me, but I have not talked to them.

CHAIR: I certainly do not live in one of those regional areas, and if I was in those regional areas and I was currently getting two or three TV stations I would want them to stay. Academically, it is one thing to say, 'This is what, ideally, it should be,' in a policy sense, but the evidence to us is that we have got a real crisis in rural and regional areas and they need help.

Dr Muller : Yes.

CHAIR: If we can actually, through this bill, provide them that relief so that they can stay operating in those areas, and give them some more assurance—like they have with Seven, for example, in Queensland—so that they can find some efficiencies but still have local newsrooms and perhaps put reporters back out in local regions, isn't that a good thing? Isn't it a good thing to at least keep what we have got while we look at other alternatives?

Dr Muller : Yes. I do not argue with the proposition in the legislation. I would just like to add that 'How local is local?' element to it.

CHAIR: To confirm: you have got no objection to this current piece of legislation but there is more to be done behind that?

Dr Muller : Yes, that is my point.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator LUDLAM: The themes are reasonably familiar by now. We are hearing very similar things across the board. I am interested in the distinction that you drew, right at the outset of your opening statement, between the commercial imperatives and the public interest in diverse, pluralistic media and investigative reporting. Evidence that we took from the previous witness—and maybe I will check it with you—was that the bill appears to be at a bit of a tangent to the bigger conversation that is happening here. If we pass the bill and lift these two rules, does that set your mind at ease that everything is going to be fine?

Dr Muller : No; not by miles.

Senator LUDLAM: Let us get that out of the way then. Is it the case that the commercial media market in Australia—at least as we have known it—is rapidly becoming incapable of supporting the kind of public interest journalism that we have taken for granted it will support?

Dr Muller : I think, without a doubt, that that is true, because are talking primarily about newspapers. Newspapers are—

Senator LUDLAM: Okay. I was thinking of broadcasters.

Dr Muller : But the contribution of broadcast journalism, outside of the ABC, to this kind of public interest journalism is relatively small.

Senator LUDLAM: What about 60 Minutes?

Dr Muller : Oh, how could I have possibly overlooked it?

Senator LUDLAM: That was a bit provocative. Sorry. Do not let me interrupt your train of thought.

Dr Muller : That is all right. In reality, we are talking about newspaper capability when we are talking about commercial media contribution to public interest journalism. I have no doubt at all that, whilst Fairfax so far have been able to retain that capability, that corporation's fortunes are getting weaker rather than stronger. I would not put it any higher than that. If we were to lose that particular capability, our democratic polity would be measurably weaker, because it is they plus Four Corners, in reality, who generate that level of investigative journalism—which is not easy to obtain. If I may give you a little bit of history for a moment.

CHAIR: Very briefly, if you would not mind, because we still have got one other senator and we are running out of time.

Dr Muller : I set up the investigative unit in The Sydney Morning Herald in the early eighties after the catastrophe of The Age tapes. It was a very difficult job in terms of both resources and the gathering of experience and expertise. It is not easily done.

Senator LUDLAM: I guess my question is: irrespective of what parliament does with this bill—maybe it will lift the reach rule, maybe it will leave two-three in place; there are various ways that the Senate could decide to go—it still feels as though the bigger questions and the debates that we are having here are going to be fundamentally unanswered. Irrespective of what happens to this bill, what is your advice to parliament on how to address some of the issues that everybody is quite consistently raising?

Dr Muller : We have to look for ways of promoting and incentivising—to use that awful word—what I call public interest journalism. That is, the sort of journalism which contributes to the capacity of the citizens to participate in political, economic and social life—that sort of journalism. Social media will take care of some of it but will not, by any means, take care of all of it. We will need Australian based journalistic capacity for that sort of work into the future, if we are going to have the sort of democracy that we have had to this point.

Senator LUDLAM: Do you think the ABC can do it alone?

Dr Muller : No.

Senator McKENZIE: You claim that the regulatory changes being brought forward in this bill will impact negatively on the quality of news provided to rural and regional areas in particular. I would and have argued that rip-and-read news services being delivered to rural and regional communities under the current regulatory environment are woefully inadequate. You are nodding, but Hansarddoes not pick up the nods.

Dr Muller : I would not disagree with that.

Senator McKENZIE: I want to clarify that you are not saying that rural and regional communities right now, under this regulatory environment, get what they need.

Dr Muller : No, I would not have said that for a moment.

Senator McKENZIE: Part of the changes being put forward mean that ACMA is going to be looking at developing definitions around 'local'. Do you think that is an appropriate process, or should there be some other process?

Dr Muller : I think that ACMA is the right body to do it. They exist. There are already provisions that are written into legislation for the ACMA to do certain things. I think that you could add to it in those terms that I mentioned at the start. I think that ACMA is the right place.

Senator McKENZIE: As to the ABC providing competitive tension, particularly in rural and regional markets: given that they are not providing an opportunity for local businesses to advertise et cetera and that the commercial providers are, how do you see them providing competitive tension?

Dr Muller : I am only talking about what I have always referred to as the non-economic area: the editorial area. They cannot provide a competitive market in advertising. That is why I think that the role of the ACCC is important, but the ACCC's remit and expertise cannot address these essentially political questions of diversity of voice and public interest journalism. That is not their job. The ABC could not possibly contribute, except very indirectly. If the ABC has such a powerful news service in Dubbo that it outrates the commercial TV stations in Dubbo then that will be a problem for the Dubbo commercial stations in advertising. So in that indirect way it would, but not in any direct sense.

Senator McKENZIE: In the 21st century natural and ordinary meaning of the word 'broadcast', what would your definition be, as an expert in media?

Dr Muller : I suppose the natural and ordinary meaning is that it is broadcast to the world at large and is available to be picked up by anyone at any time. By contrast, narrowcast is conveying information electronically to people who, firstly, do not represent the entire community and, secondly, may have to take some action themselves to pick it up.

Senator McKENZIE: So me listening to my ABC Radio app for RN, for instance—that is broadcasting Fran just as if I had it on the radio in my car?

Dr Muller : Yes. I see that the Supreme Court of New South Wales this morning is reported as having rejected the—

Senator McKENZIE: They have.

Dr Muller : On those exact grounds.

Senator McALLISTER: I do not have any questions, although I would like to thank you, Dr Muller, for your very concise yet quite incisive opening remarks and the written statement that accompanies them.

Dr Muller : That is most generous. Thank you.

Senator McALLISTER: You in fact answered the question I would have asked you about the distinctions between public interest journalism and other kinds of news.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Dr Muller, for appearing here today. As you just heard from Senator McAllister, we greatly appreciated your testimony.

Dr Muller : Thank you very much.