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Thursday, 19 March 1987
Page: 1184

Mr MACPHEE(8.21) —The Opposition does not oppose the Radio Licence Fees Amendment Bill 1987, the Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1987 and the Broadcasting Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1987, but I want to make some observations and ask the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy) a number of questions regarding the mess which the Government has created for those who are paying the fees which are subject to these Bills. There are two questions in particular to which I would like the Minister to reply tonight. I will ask others but I will be content to wait for him to reply when he presents the Bill in May which he is now drafting on the ownership and control of television and radio, but particularly, I understand, television. The licensees of Australian television and radio are very concerned with the ownership and control rules that are now proposed and, of course, they are the subject of the Bills now before the house.

My first point of comment and criticism concerns the remote community television service. Aussat Pty Ltd has set a deadline of tomorrow. It set that deadline last week in a letter to the licensees of the north-eastern and south-eastern beams on the third satellite. We are all aware that the north-eastern and south-eastern beams cover Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria-those remote parts which cannot be reached through ordinary regional television. Of course, the idea was to reach them via the satellite. Consortia of regional television stations operating in those areas joined together to apply for a licence and were granted that licence but the stations felt that, as a consequence of the Government's own policies to aggregate regional television areas, their own viability as regional stations was at stake. As a result, they could not proceed with the consortia actually to launch the remote community television service via the satellite.

I can understand that Aussat has an obligation, under the laws of this Parliament, to operate commercially and that it wants its transponders to be fully utilised. But it seems curious that the Aussat board should have decided on tomorrow's date when it knows, and knew at the time that it set tomorrow's date, that the Senate Select Committee on Television Equalisation, will be reporting next Monday to the Senate on the Government's regional television legislation. The matter will not be disposed of by the Senate next Monday but it will be disposed of, one understands, with reasonable dispatch. Therefore, my question to the Minister is: Will he ensure that Aussat, which, after all, has to report to him even though it is incorporated, actually enables those licensees-the consortia that I have referred to-to have an opportunity to proceed with their licences in the event that they assess their commercial viability differently from the way in which they did when the Senate Select Committee was chosen. I venture the view that they will only make that assessment if the Government's policies are changed as a result of further Senate deliberation.

I have to point out that the only remote commercial television station now operating is in Western Australia. It is operated by Golden West Network Ltd but with substantial funding from the Western Australian Government. Likewise, the central Australian service, which will be operated by an Aboriginal co-operative, will be funded by the Federal Government. No such funding arrangements have been promised in respect of the outback Queensland, New South Wales and Victorian services. On that basis, I believe that it is unreasonable for Aussat or the Government to expect the consortia to go ahead in the circumstances that we now find, where its future is in doubt because of Government legislation and because of a stipulation that it has to comply with an Aussat request by tomorrow.

We know very well that Aussat's third satellite is to be launched by the Ariane launcher system in Europe. We know that that has broken down and has delayed the launch. We do not know-the Minister may know-when the third satellite will be up. So I put it to the Minister that he should be able to extend the time available and inform the public tonight that he is requesting Aussat to do so; he should also give us some idea when the third satellite will be up so that any commercial interest that is able to take advantage of the opportunity to provide this service could then make a bid in the event that the existing licensees do not proceed. If they do not proceed, by what means does the Government intend the remote community television service to be provided, or is the Government to be taken as forsaking the interest of Australians living in these remote areas?

I want to quote from an article in the Australian of Monday this week headed `Aussat sets deadline on transponders'. I will not quote the entire article but there are several important parts of it. It states:

LETTERS sent last week by Aussat to two remote commercial television licence-holders, offer the first hint that Aussat might shortly be in a position to lease two 30-watt transponders on its satellite system to the leading television networks.

Aussat has imposed a March 20 deadline for the two Queensland and NSW-Victoria RCTS licence-holders to pay up or lose their transponder allotment. They are asked to sign a customer service agreement by that date.

The deal amounts to a $4 million leasehold commitment for each consortium.

If the March 20 deadline is not met by the two RCTS consortiums, Aussat says it will offer the transponders on the open market.

The consequence could be to open the door for the three big television networks to lease the capacity to broadcast national TV.

This proposal would appeal to the networks, and be in line with the original design of the satellite system in the early 1980s under the former Liberal government.

But this would be in direct conflict with the intention of the RCTS legislation developed by the Minister for Communications, Mr Duffy.

Each of the channels holds a 12-watt transponder lease, and under its new ownership by the Bond Corp, Channel Nine now leases two 30-watt transponders, one of which is used for broadcast of video entertainment to clubs and pubs. SBS holds a 12-watt transponder lease.

The impact of the Aussat decision, if it goes ahead, could mean the end to the long-promised and long-awaited delivery of commercial television to all Australians in remote areas-the original justification for government investment in Aussat.

The move shows that Aussat is impatient with the policy confusion. It needs to reap revenue from the two transponders, no matter what, and has set a deadline for that revenue.

The technical consequence of the Queensland and NSW-Victoria regional consortiums failing to meet the deadline of March 20 could be that commercial television would be financially out of reach of most remote area viewers.

If commercial TV were offered on a national beam, as the network channels would inevitably prefer, this could only be received with a large dish-up to 4m across, at a cost of about $15,000, compared with the 1.5m $1000 dish proposed for the shared ABC and commercial remote television service in the original plan.

Many outback users have purchased a $1000 dish to receive ABC TV, with the understanding that under the RCTS, they would later be able to receive commercial TV using the same dish.

But the purchase of the two transponders by commercial channels could mean a second dish would be needed to pick up nationally broadcast commercial TV-possibly from a second satellite.

Remote television service was the second tier of the Government's justification for the development of the satellite system, which was originally proposed as a private venture by Channel Nine.

The Government turned Aussat into a government-owned private company, giving Telecom a 25 per cent shareholding, with the balance held by the Department of Communications.

The Government has an obligation to inform the public, especially those living in remote areas, of its view of these developments. I wish now to turn to another matter in which Government policy is in chaos. That is, of course, the ownership of the television stations, the subject of the legislation before us tonight. On 27 November the Minister for Communications announced that the ban on one licensee owning more than two stations was lifted, subject to certain other restrictions. On the basis of the Press release there was a massive shakeout in the media. Several media corporations are now in breach of the law and it remains only for the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal to formally conclude that this is the case.

The Government might not even get into the Parliament this session its Bill to amend the law in accordance with the contents of the press release, and it is by no means certain that the Parliament will pass the Bill anyway. Meanwhile, more questions are arising than were within the contemplation of the Government when the Press release was made. Some of the companies bidding for print and electronic media in recent months have large non-media commercial interests. This has serious implications for free speech. I have frequently expressed my concern outside the Parliament regarding the potential for news management if the ownership and control of the media is in very few hands. A media magnate who wished to wield political power could certainly do so unless the concentration of ownership was self-controlled or diminished. Ways of doing that will be debated when the Government's proposed changes come before us. I ask the Minister tonight to consider whether it might be in the public interest to place some curbs upon the ownership and control of the media by non-media interests.

Late last year the Bond companies withdrew their advertising from the Fairfax group because Mr Bond disliked an article in the Sydney Morning Herald. I ask: What if a media proprietor did not like the words or actions of a government or an opposition? It does not take much imagination to realise that a range of retaliatory measures might be available if the non-media interests of the proprietor were under threat by either government action or inaction. For example, there would surely be a temptation to manage media perceptions of a politician or government seeking to impose a tax on an industry, one part of which owned and controlled a television station or even a dominant radio outlet. If the non-media owner included a gold producer, and if the Government contemplated a gold tax-which this Government did until recently-would not there be a temptation on the part of the owner to use the media to influence opinion against the Government or to have the Government back down by threatening to do so? I am not suggesting that this has happened. This situation has only just arisen, but the potential for it is considerable. We would be naive and irresponsible as parliamentarians, in my view, if we did not take this into account when considering the legislation which the Government hopes to bring before us in a matter of weeks.

Likewise this could happen with the array of charges which governments from time to time levy upon certain of the oil-related and mineral industries. With drops in world commodity pricing, concessions are sometimes sought from governments, so the potential to use the media arm owned by a predominantly non-media empire might be very strong. Likewise, with beer or spirits, one can imagine that if television stations or networks were owned by people whose essential income came from beer or spirits they might seek to have the restrictions on the hours of advertising on television lifted. What if a tobacco company owned and controlled a television network and wanted to pressure the Government into allowing cigarette advertising to come back in again?

Mr Ruddock —It is like the airlines.

Mr MACPHEE —As the honourable member for Dundas reminds us, another question relates to dramatic changes to airline policies. There is tremendous scope for influence. In March 1984, the editor of the Melbourne Age, Creighton Burns, warned:

Newspaper management have, I fear, put them selves and their editors at hazard. The inter-connection between newspaper ownership and investment in other activities subject to government control or influence has left active editorial independence vulnerable to political pressure.

I might say that Mr Burns's remarks could now be extended to other branches of the media. A potential conflict of interests exists between the non-media interests of media proprietors and government or Oppositions in many areas of policy. Two others that spring to mind readily are the environment and Aboriginal land rights. The gaining of lucrative contracts is another area of potential news management by media owners reliant for much of their income on non-media government business is another area of importance.

Again, this can be illustrated by an example in the United States-that is, the takeover of NBC, America's largest radio and television network, by a non-journalistic or non-media organisation, General Electric-which recently caused some alarm. As Vittorio Zucconi said in his Article `America's Media Empires' in the World Press Review of May last year about General Electric:

. . . principle scope is neither news nor entertainment but household appliances, airplane engines, nuclear reactor, and arms.

General Electric has a long history of public controversy concerning nuclear power plants and military contracts and is the Pentagon's largest supplier. There is a fear that a conflict of interests is inevitable. Zucconi noted in his article:

On that December afternoon a little piece of the legendary American press freedom died.

My concern is based on the fact that the dissemination of information and opinion is critical to the functioning of our democracy. Freedom of speech is too precious to be put at risk. News management does occur but it is hard to prove. It is hard to take action after the event. Owners do set parameters, if only by their choice of editors. Sometimes, self-censorship is worse than overt censorship.

I am not, of course, advocating censorship but I am alerting the public, through this House, to the need for some debate on these matters. As it was not, and reasonably could not have been, within the Government's contemplation last November but now must be, I ask the Minister to consider it so that we can debate it when he brings in his legislation. Professor Henry Mayer, a well-known commentator on the media in Australia, has often pointed to the potential for the abuse of media power. At a conference organised last weekend by the Australian Institute for Political Science on democracy and electronic media he pointed to the absence of what he called a media culture in Australia. He really meant that we have lost sight of our democratic culture. We take our liberties for granted, and that is something that we cannot afford to do. Indeed, several well-known media commentators said at that public forum that the proprietors for whom they have worked over the years have probably never even spared a moment for democracy or recognised that they were an essential ingredient of it. I do not doubt that that is so.

It is time that we all considered the value to us of democracy. Our economy is in crisis and we all know that. The signs of totalitarianism, and intolerance of the needy, along with racism, greed and rising lawlessness are there as warnings to us. What does the Government have in mind to tackle the problem created by the scramble for media ownership? That scramble deliberately and immediately followed the announcement on 27 November last year. Will the Government, for example, grant more licences-I would be interested if the Minister would respond to this-in our capital cities on the basis that the more channels there are, the less open to abuse the media might be?

Another matter, with which I intend to conclude my contribution, and which is also a consequence of the media scramble, concerns Channel HSV7 in Melbourne. The Fairfax organisation owns Channel 7 in Sydney and Brisbane and is in breach of the two-station rule by buying HSV7 from the Herald and Weekly Times Ltd. It is also in breach of the Government's proposed cross-media ownership rules. As we understand it, the Australian Democrats in the Senate intend to support the Government and therefore those rules are likely to be approved by the Parliament. Even if nothing else is approved, it seems that they might be. On that basis all observers expect that the Fairfax organisation must sell either Channel 7 in Melbourne or the Age.

It is not for me to dwell on the options open to the Fairfax organisation and which one it is most likely to take, but it is generally regarded by those whose business it is to know these things as being the temporary, and ultimately the illegal, owner of HSV7. Yet it is greatly rationalising the Seven network and, in the course of that, is reducing the number of Melbourne-produced programs. Indeed, the staff believe that Melbourne programs will, in the end, represent about 25 per cent of the output of the station and therefore it seems certain that the employment of many production and administrative staff will be terminated. As a result, representatives of HSV7 staff have approached me with some really sad stories of the employees who fear that not only the increased centralisation in Sydney of Channel 7 but also the existing concentration, because the head offices of Channel 9 and Channel 10 are in Sydney, will leave them with an insufficient number of jobs which can use the skills which they have acquired. Some of them have been very loyal to HSV7 for many years and some from its inception.

For this dislocation to have been caused by a temporary owner raises serious questions of morality which the Fairfax organisation must consider. Equally serious for the Government is the administration of the law. I ask the Minister: What has he done to ensure that the existing law is administered as expeditiously and fairly as possible? We have a policy which led to this scramble. We now have very considerable legislative uncertainty about its future and when it might be introduced into, let alone processed through, the Parliament.

In the meantime, many investors and many employees are becoming worried about the security of their investment or employment. Has the Government asked the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal to give this matter priority over those involving others who are in the breach of the law, such as the Bendat family in Western Australia or, of course, the Bond companies? I believe that in the circumstances the Fairfax inquiry ought to receive priority over the other two. Will the Minister tell us what is the schedule of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal's inquiries? What is the Government's legislative schedule to try to cure the mess that has now arisen as a result of its Press release of last November and the scramble that followed it? I suspect that the six months period of grace which is provided in the broadcasting and television legislation for the breach of the two-station rule will have expired before the Government has any kind of ownership Bill through this Parliament. I wonder what the Government will do in that event. These are some extremely important questions being raised throughout the industry, especially amongst those employed in it or seeking contracts with it. Above all, it is a matter of vital concern to everyone who watches and listens.

In respect of the machinery of the Bills, the Opposition is in accord with the Government in believing that these are important measures, we certainly support the passage of these Bills but hope that the Government will take into account the constructive, but I think important, questions which I have raised tonight.