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Wednesday, 25 September 2002
Page: 7255

Ms JULIE BISHOP (6:27 PM) —The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2002 touches at the heart of one of our fundamental freedoms, and I would have hoped that all members of this House would be committed to the advancement of free expression in this nation. But, given that the ALP is chained to a pledge that subjugates individual expression to group goals—a pledge that has distorted social democratic politics in this country for over a century—such a hope may well be naive. I saw that the member for Hunter was in the House a short while ago, and that reminded me that we had the example only very recently of the quashing of the member for Hunter's heterodox opinion on trade union membership and membership of the ALP. We wanted to hear more from him, but he was censored by the ALP—and I think the member for Rankin seems to overlook his own party's actions in this regard.

Nonetheless, the Liberal Party does value free expression and recognises that it is a crucial characteristic of free nations. We also recognise that, without the broader apparatus of a free society, freedom of expression is worthless. Such a broader apparatus includes the sanctity of private property, the right to self-defence, democratic and parliamentary institutions, constitutionalism and federalism, freedom of movement, particularly of emigration, and the rule of law. Such freedoms cannot exist in isolation. In our modern society it is within the realm of the media that these principles must be acted out—after all, in a liberal democracy the media is the main channel between the governed and the government. It is the media, particularly broadcast media, which acts as a principal forum for public debate—that is, debate outside the parliaments—in 21st century Australia. It is therefore incumbent upon the Commonwealth, which is constitutionally empowered to legislate in this regard, to encourage the proliferation of media and the widest possible access to television and radio broadcast services and press outlets.

The Howard government is determined to fulfil its duty and its commitment to the diversity and health of the media sector. This is reflected in the television black spot program, the extension of SBS TV to far-flung communities, the antisiphoning and the antihoarding laws for programming, the accelerated growth of community broadcasting opportunities and the encouragement of new technologies. Now the government is taking a further step to bolster free expression and encourage a wider diversity of programming, reportage and technologies. This bill achieves reforms that have been canvassed since 1996.

Foreign ownership of media has always been a controversial issue. But today more than ever, I suggest, foreign ownership of media businesses is the friend of pluralism. The bill will amend and fundamentally reform Australian foreign and cross-media ownership and the regime that governs it. We ought to remind ourselves that at present that regime mandates that a person not control TV licences whose combined coverage area exceeds 75 per cent of the total population or more than one licence in a licence area; that non-Australians must not control a TV licence directly or indirectly; and that total foreign interest in a TV broadcaster may not exceed 20 per cent. Restrictions are also placed on foreign directors and multiple directorships. A person may not control more than two radio licences in the same licence area and, as with TV, multiple directorships are restricted. Cross-media ownership is also severely restricted.

In response to the previous speaker, despite his hollow protestations, the regime of those opposite did not prevent News Corporation from controlling 70 per cent of newspaper circulation in this country. But, as to broadcasters, currently section 60 of the Broadcasting Services Act prevents a TV and radio licence owner—but not, it should be noted, public broadcasters like the ABC or SBS—from having those licences in the same area; and it prevents a TV licence owner who also owns a newspaper from operating both in the same location, with the same applying to an owner of both a radio licence and a newspaper. At present foreigners may not have an interest exceeding 20 per cent in a subscription TV broadcasting licence and total foreign interest cannot exceed 35 per cent.

The bill before the House will ameliorate many of the problems associated with this existing anachronistic regime. The reforms will enhance the possibilities for investment in Australia's media industries. They will also encourage greater competition—and this is to the advantage of the viewing and reading public—continuing diversity and a local focus. Should the reforms not pass through this parliament, the effect is likely to be less investment and less take-up of innovative technologies. Freeing up broadcasting rules and regulations is in the interests of consumers, who will benefit from the resulting flow of money and ideas. Indeed, allowing foreigners to invest in domestic media is the best guarantee of competition and a plurality of views.

I think we ought to acknowledge that keeping foreigners out of the communications business is nothing new and certainly it is not confined just to Australia. In the 1890s the French government banned foreign ownership of the pigeon post—and I guess that is how the ALP would like things to stay. Pigeons gave way to cables, satellites and the Internet, but controls on foreign ownership stayed. Thankfully, times have moved on—well, on this side of the House times have moved on—and these reforms will bring the law into line with the contemporary media market in this country. This restrictive regime, which was introduced in 1987 and reiterated in 1992, just does not meet the needs of a nation in which pay TV consumption has increased fourfold in six years to almost 21 per cent of all households and over two-thirds of homes have a personal computer, with over half having access to the Internet; it is estimated that 72 per cent of all Australians aged 16 or over now have online access. Also, alternative media sources, from magazines to overseas journals to e-zines to blogs to the specialist services of the SBS and ABC, are all growing exponentially.

The reforms themselves deal with foreign ownership, cross-media restrictions, editorial separation, localism and enforcement options. With regard to foreign ownership, the reforms will simply make the media sector subject to the same laws that apply to commercial radio and newspapers—namely, the Foreign Acquisitions and Takeovers Act 1975. As for cross-media regulation, the Australian Broadcasting Authority will be empowered to grant exemption certificates to applicants. These certificates will allow holders to avoid the restrictions imposed on cross-media ownership but only if the conditions outlined in the certificates are properly met. As such, the ABA will only issue certificates if separate editorial functions are maintained in relation to the different media operations. Such a separation requirement must be met within 60 days of the certificate becoming active. Furthermore, the government's amendments to this bill arising from the Senate Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Legislation Committee inquiry will require that, in certain circumstances, the holder of an exemption certificate must disclose their cross-media holdings by way of the business affairs model of specific disclosure or the regular disclosure method. This amendment will ensure that the public is able to act as discerning consumers in choosing between media outlets and in evaluating references to co-owned operations.

Regional consumers whose access is necessarily limited by the broadcast licensing area system will be further protected by a barrier to regional media operators obtaining a cross-media exemption certificate for all three media: radio, TV and newspapers. The bill requires that, to demonstrate editorial separation, the two media entities must have separate publicly available editorial policies, appropriate publicly available organisational charts and separate editorial news management, compilation, gathering and interpretation. Editorial separation does not deny the possibility of sharing resources or similar cooperation, but it does prevent reduction in media sources by way of consolidation; nor do these reforms inhibit the application of Australia's competition laws to media organisations.

A potential barrier to broadcasting diversity that was identified by the Senate committee—namely, contracts or arrangements that restrict program formats of commercial radio—has been dealt with under the government's proposed amendments. Such contracts or arrangements will be voided, and the ABA can impose hefty fines. So, too, with localism, as the reforms contained in this bill will ensure the maintenance of current or minimum levels of local regional news and information. Where a regional broadcaster is subject to an exemption certificate, they will be required to maintain existing local programming. In the event that no local programming is presently provided, the ABA will prescribe a minimum level—and this includes local news and weather bulletins, local community service announcements and emergency warnings.

We should not overlook the ABC and its role in considering this issue. As the Managing Director of the ABC, Mr Russell Balding, said in a speech to the Melbourne Press Club last week on the topic of the ABC generally, but on media diversity specifically:

It has been said many times before that a strong and healthy media is fundamental to our democracy, fundamental to our freedom of speech, and fundamental to the enrichment of our lives.

He went on to say:

... any definition of media diversity which does not include the ABC is meaningless.

No other media outlet has the universal reach of the ABC, particularly throughout regional Australia. The ABC will remain crucial to preserving diversity of voices and views in all parts of Australia, not just the larger cities.

Mr Balding went on to say:

The ABC is already essential for all those one newspaper towns across the country. During the possible reformation ahead, it will be needed more than ever—particularly for news and current affairs which remains free from commercial and political influence.

So in this debate we must remember everyone's ABC.

For the purposes of enforcement, reliance will be placed on the present complaints procedure of the Broadcasting Services Act under which complaints can be directed to the ABA. If the ABA finds that a person has breached the terms of an exemption certificate, penalties will apply ranging from fines of several million dollars. The ABA may also act to force a person to sell shares or divest themselves of an asset so as to remedy any breach.

In broadcasting, as in telecommunications, an open market is the best guarantee of competition, particularly these days with multichannel TV and the Internet and the multiple sources of information available to consumers. Restrictions on foreign investment and cross-media ownership have the same perverse effect as protecting any other sort of market. These reforms will act to protect and expand free expression in Australia, and I commend the bill to the House.