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Thursday, 29 May 1997
Page: 4002

Senator BOURNE —My question is directed to the Minister for Communications and the Arts. Has the minister discussed with the management or the major shareholders of Fairfax his plan to carve up their company in order to enable one media mogul to gain control of it? If so, what was their response? Minister, given that you have not shared with us or with your backbench committee any plans you may have to carve up News Ltd or PBL, do you agree that your reported new cross-media policy, if it is in fact your new cross-media policy, is remarkably mogul specific?

Senator ALSTON —It is always very important to be precise in this game. If you start off by asking about my plan and whether I have shared it with others and then go on to say `your plan, if it is a plan', you are really just confirming that you have no idea about what is going on. That is understandable because, if you are simply relying on today's media, you would be perfectly entitled to feel confused.

Let me just illustrate that for you: under our alleged plan, according to the Australian, Mr Murdoch would have to sell the Australian. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Mr Murdoch would not have to sell the Australian. The Age claims that as far as Mr Packer is concerned he would have to sell the Age or the Sydney Morning Herald. However, the Financial Review says that he would have to sell the Financial Review. So all I can say is that those journalistic flies on the wall really need to have their listening devices tested and, if they are going to rely on idle gossip, they ought to be very careful about checking their sources.

I think the same goes for you, Senator Bourne. I accept you are acting in good faith. I commend you on reading the papers. I know how important you think it is to have fair and accurate reporting and therefore I would hope that you would be very supportive of moves that might be designed to ensure that we do not have gossip peddled under the guise of fact. If you do not know the difference, that is a serious problem because you do not have the basis for any sensible policy making.

All we are doing is having a friendly discussion within four walls, and in due course we will be making some announcements. But the last thing we would want to do is to prematurely share with the world and indeed you, Fairfax or any other media organisation ideas that might be very embryonic, that might indeed be not a true representation of a policy approach that commends itself.

All I can say is be patient. I know you are very interested in the subject. I am delighted that you are now concentrating on broadcasting without those onerous communications responsibilities. In due course, you will have plenty to get your teeth into. But do not be misled by mirages. Do not simply take what you read, which could well be acute self-interest, as somehow representing a policy position when no such policy position has been adopted to date.

Senator BOURNE —Madam President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for his answer, which I take means that he is not intending to carve up either Fairfax, News Ltd or PBL—and I am sure Fairfax will be very happy to hear that. Is it in fact the minister's intention to be Santa Claus and to hand over Fairfax to Mr Packer by Christmas?

Senator ALSTON —I suppose we all want Christmas presents but we are not in the business of making decisions on the basis of people's wish lists. We are much more interested in ensuring that the national interest prevails in the policy we take.

I can confirm one thing for you that was accurate in the media today, and that is that a meeting did take place on Monday night and we did have a discussion. Beyond that, I really think you will need to just hold your breath. Any decision we do take will reflect a need for editorial diversity. I would have hoped that you would be very much in the business of supporting an attempt that we might want to make to ensure that there are more sources of comment and editorial opinion that are not related one to another, that do in fact come from a variety of different sources and therefore contribute to sensible policy debate.

The problem is you are too focused. You listen to only a very small group. You really have to broaden your horizons. Get onto the Net, get out there and explore all the new media opportunities and you will be a lot better informed. (Time expired)

Senator Hill —Madam President, I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper .