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Tuesday, 12 May 1987
Page: 3005

Mr CHARLES(5.36) —I and, I think, the majority of honourable members on this side of the House are still no nearer to understanding what the Opposition's stance is on the legislation before the House-the Broadcasting (Ownership and Control) Bill and the Communications Legislation Amendment Bill; in particular, the Broadcasting (Ownership and Control) Bill, which is probably the most significant television and broadcasting legislation to come before the Federal Parliament since the decision to introduce television in 1956 because it places the media in general, and particularly television, in a completely different ball game. When one talks about the media one has to ask what does one mean by the media. Various Opposition spokesmen have contributed to the debate. We are going to hear the honourable member for Murray (Mr Lloyd) speak next on behalf of the National Party of Australia. We will hear the honourable member for Boothby (Mr Steel Hall) and the honourable member for Goldstein (Mr Macphee) speak later on behalf of the wets, putting their version.

What does one mean by the media? Is the media radio? Is it television? Is it the newspapers? Is it film? Or is it all of them put together? This Government has put them all in the one basket. That is the fundamental change this legislation introduces. The major slice of this legislation concerns the cross-media ownership question. The honourable member for Goldstein has been rabbiting on in the Press recently about the concentration of media ownership. To some degree there is such a concentration, which I will allude to in a minute, but I would argue that there is not a fundamental concentration. Indeed, the opposite has occurred.

In Melbourne the two most influential mediums are television and newsprint. One could not argue against that assumption. Melbourne will move from having four basic owners of all the newspapers and television to five. Sydney will move from having three owners to four and, if the Fairfax group sells its network-I suggest that is quite on the cards because Fairfax is in more trouble than the early settlers at present-from three owners to five. So rather than having had a further concentration of the two most powerful mediums in our country we have had the reverse effect in the two biggest cities which carry half the population of Australia. For example, in Melbourne one could get up in the morning, turn on 3DB, get one's morning newspaper, the Sun-which has the highest circulation of any newspaper in Australia-read that on the way to work, leave work at night, pick up the Melbourne Herald, get home and turn on Channel 7 at night and one would have heard the one voice all day. That will not occur any more under this legislation. The one voice in Melbourne was the Herald and Weekly Times Ltd. Good luck to it. That was allowed to occur. If I had been the Herald and Weekly Times I would have been into it like a shot, too. But it should never have been allowed. This legislation stops that. It is ridiculous. I do not think those opposite know what they are talking about. The honourable member for Deakin (Mr Beale) succinctly said that they really have no idea what they are on about. In all the years that I have been connected with the industry, I have never blindly supported anyone, let alone the television owners with whom I have had a few blues from time to time. But on this occasion one has to support the owners having regard to the nonsense put by honourable members opposite.

One aspect of television and broadcasting is profits-it has to be. One does not buy a television station or radio network to lose money-one is not a benevolent society. Other aspects are proper programming, television production, and responsibility to society. All the networks believe at present that they are in a tight financial position. The Opposition says: `We'll fix them up well and good. We'll introduce another network. If they are in trouble we will make sure that they go right out of business'. Who will it benefit? It will not benefit Australian production or programming because no one will be able to afford it across the board. The only way for them to survive will be for them to say: `We'll have to buy a few more Mickey Mouses from America. We'll whack it on. It is the only way they will survive'. A person in the industry put to me some time ago-and this will probably send a few people into apoplexy-that the way to go would be to have only two networks, that we make them wonderfully profitable and then regulate them. I believe that that is not a bad philosophy. I do not see a fourth network coming in for a long time. But we have to make the three networks profitable. I put it not only to the House but also to the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy) and the Government that now is about the appropriate time to say: `As we have given you a little more influence, a little more accessibility to national advertising, thus giving you more profits in the long run, we want to see some regulation of Australian program production'. Who makes that program production? I am not necessarily talking about program production made by the networks. There is a very good argument that the networks should not produce any programs, that they should buy it all as happens in some countries where the stations are the distribution centres.

It is interesting to note why Fairfax is in so much trouble in Melbourne at present. It is because networking has two strands to it. One is the aspect of networking down the line, when one actually pushes the button to roll the film or the videotape that puts the program to air throughout Australia. If that comes from a central point there is a certain aspect of employment, but it is relatively small in the overall employment of the industry. A major slice of employment comes from program production-the production of shows. Therefore, Channel 9 and Channel 10 have successfully been able to have a certain amount of production in both major cities. Channel 7 in Melbourne, owned by the Fairfax organisation, has scrapped virtually all production in that city. As a result, there is a possibility of massive job losses, et cetera. Most of the jobs are on the production side and not on the actual distribution side of programming.

I would also like to make a point about ownership as against programming. There has been much debate about ownership, about who owns what. Does it matter who owns what? If an organisation owns stations in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, does it make it any better if it owns stations in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth? I argue that it does not. I argue that the power is in the hands of those who control the programming. The power and the influence is in who controls the programming. Certain people in bygone years who have been owners of television networks have gone to certain regional stations and said: `Look, I don't care whether I have shares in this company; I'm telling you that you will accept such and such because if you don't you won't get any programming from me'. I put it to the House that in that case, it does not matter two hoots who owns the station; it is who controls the programming who has the most influence. So it really does not matter whether Alan Bond owns stations in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Perth or whether he owns stations in just Melbourne and Sydney. If he can control the programming, obviously he has the most influence. I have not heard anyone from either side of the House-although the honourable member for Aston (Mr Saunderson) may well put it forward-say that we should tackle the question of breaking up the Melbourne-Sydney axis. It would be a game government which would even think about that, but that is another question.

I think I have made my views very clear on the nonsense put forward about the new commercial network. We have also heard about unabated free enterprise marketeering, that will allow cable television, free television and pay television. Cable television may well come in. It is a few years off yet. I see it in contrast to what has been done in Britain. I see it being initially funded-and this is why it is a few years off-through business and information, with entertainment on the back of it rather than the other way round. We have a very good `free' system in Australia now. When cable television comes in, the entertainment channels, apart from the business and information channels, will be basically as they are in the United States of America. They will be theatrical or sporting channels, or they will be channels specialising in areas such as language. They will not have, as is the case in the United States, any great influence or power because they will be concentrating on special things such as running films 24 hours a day. In the United States, where there are a hundred cable channels, the basic political influence and power that so many people are worried about is still exercised by the networks. They are the ones who still control that influence. It will always be the case.

I support this legislation. It will expand the allowable population reach for ownerships of television stations. It will do away with the two-station rule, which was quite ridiculous as it equated Melbourne and Sydney, which has a 43 per cent population reach with Mount Isa and Broken Hill which at the other extreme has a 0.4 per cent population reach. Obviously, that is quite ridiculous. This legislation repeals that situation and introduces a 75 per cent reach in conjunction with the cross-media rules. That is why this legislation is the most impoortant legislation for television and broadcasting since the introduction of television.

I have mentioned program production. It is a very important area. The Government should be looking at what it can do. I believe the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal is about to commence a very important inquiry into the Australian content of program production. I hope that is successful and that some good comes out of it. The film industry is also wound up in this little exercise. No longer does the film industry get out there and make just feature films, and it is completely separate. It is wound up with and should be part of this Minister's portfolio. Hopefully under the next Labor government it will be because it is all intertwined. The film industry makes films not only for the cinema but also for the television industry. When I worked in the industry I would be working one day on a television program and on a film the next day. It is intertwined. It is all the one industry.

Even if the honourable member for Holt (Mr Duffy) is not the Minister for Communications but has a higher portfolio after the next election, I hope that the next Minister for Communications has the film industry as part of his portfolio, because it is very much intertwined with other aspects of this area. In relation to program production and film, it is interesting that Mr Hector Crawford, in a letter to the editor in today's Australian Financial Review headed `Squeeze to hit TV programs', states:

. . . many US-produced series which we show on Australian television screens cost between $A1.5m and $A2.5m an hour to produce. However, the cost of comparable formats of programs made in Australia range from $100,000-

they are really the cheapos-

to $250,000 an hour. Although US produced programs are so expensive to make, they have traditionally been sold to Australian television networks for only a small fraction of their total cost of production, about $15,000 to $25,000 an hour.

I would say that Mr Crawford's figures are reasonably accurate. We hear about protection and so on in other industries, yet the Australian production industry has not had any protection at all, and I would argue that it probably should not have protection. The tribunal should look at those interesting figures in its coming inquiry.

The honourable member for Deakin spoke about radio as if it were part of the cross-media ownership and implied that, if there were one owner in relation to a radio station in the Melbourne and Sydney market, for example, we were in trouble. That is not right. This legislation specifically stipulates that radio is treated when it is in a monopoly situation. If there is a radio station in a monopoly market, such as Ballarat or Bendigo, then the matter is addressed. However, if the radio station is in Melbourne or Sydney, for example, where there are eight or nine radio stations, it is not affected by this legislation; it is exempt. Basically, the major thrust of this legislation is to attack the ownership of newsprint and television in the one market. It does this successfully. I have been talking now for 20 years about cross-media ownership in Australia, and I am glad to see that this Government has introduced this legislation.

It may be that the Minister for Communications can enlighten me about his, because I am dashed if I can work out what the honourable member for Deakin was talking about when he referred to all the barriers put in front of people entering the industry. I know that the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Howard) has been talking about barriers too. I want to know what barriers he is referring to. Unfortunately, my time is up. This is very important legislation about which I could talk for some time. In fact, it is the most important legislation affecting television and broadcasting since 1956. The duo of the outreach of 75 per cent plus the cross-media ownership are intertwined. This Bill must be passed in its entirety by this House and the Senate to bring some very big benefits to the Australian television and broadcasting industry.