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Monday, 1 December 2003
Page: 23353

Mr ANDREN (5:46 PM) —When I commented on this legislation late last week, I drew the attention of the House to the proposed merger of the news service and some other services of 2UE and 2GB and the way it breaks at least the spirit of existing legislation, let alone the cross-media ownership dilution that we are talking about in this Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2002 [No. 2]. So if this legislation is to be consistent in promoting diversity, an amendment is required to insist that all licensees in any given licensed area should be required to maintain editorial separation. Therefore I give notice of intent to move two amendments in the detailed stages of consideration of this bill that would require all commercial radio and television broadcasting licensees to deliver that editorial separation. I must say for the benefit of the member for Hinkler, who is in the House, that Bundaberg is one of 18 radio markets of two commercial licences where the 2UE/2GB exercise could be repeated if not blocked by my amendments. I would urge him and all other members, particularly the minister, to consider them.

I will not again cover the concerns on the impact of this legislation in regional markets that I outlined in my speech to the earlier legislation, for those comments are already on the record and still apply. I notice the member for Lowe has also reiterated my personal experiences, which are also on the Hansard record over several years, of the direct interference of city media operators in news programming that I was involved in. However, I repeat that from personal experience also over two decades in regional radio and television, it is a nonsense to suggest that owners of say, print and television or print and radio in a regional market would not use that editorial and commercial advantage to merge their resources and content.

Organisational charts, separate editorial policies and independent news management are a figment of the imagination of the government. It just will not happen. As we see with the 2UE/2GB proposal, the existing laws are not tough enough to prevent two major media organisations making a mockery of the very provisions the government plans to put in place with these mandatory tests. To make matters worse, according to the current issues document prepared by Dr Kim Jackson of the Parliamentary Library, the impact of these relaxed cross-media rules will reduce from five to three the minimum possible media owners in places like Bathurst, Orange and Tamworth and major regional centres, which is a 40 per cent reduction in minimum possible ownership, diversity of control and possible opinion further exacerbated by the likely converging of editorial management and content under such reduced ownership.

We have already seen, I know the member for Hinkler has, the impact of the hubbing and spoking—or the hubbing, I am confusing it with the transport aviation report—of services by regional radio operators, some of whom are not only controlled from outside the area that they have the licences for but also are foreign controlled with absolutely no commitment to the market beyond the force of pressure that has brought about some minor changes. If they had their way there would be no commitment to localism, unless it is forced upon them. I hear the free marketeers saying, `A new operator could start up or new media could provide alternative voices.' The fact is the laws do not allow it at the moment, at least in free-to-air media. There is little chance of independent newspapers breaking the stranglehold, say, that the rural press group has on the country market, and new media is years away from making a significant impact.

The minister argues in his second reading speech that reform of the cross-media rules will clear the way for renewed market interest in Australian media assets. The minister says this will allow media companies to take greater advantage of investment opportunities as they arise. This is all very well for the media company shareholders and owners, but I remind the House of the words of the then Postmaster-General, Mr Davidson, in 1956 when he said:

Television stations are in a position to exercise a constant and cumulative effect on public taste and standards of conduct, and, because of the influence they can bring to bear on the community, the business interests of licensees must at all times be subordinated to the overriding principle that the possession of a licence is a ... public trust for the benefit of all members of our society.

Those words should be as applicable today as they were then, almost half a century ago. A broadcast licence is a privilege and not a commercial right, but this bill comes down on the side of commercial right as opposed to public good. Indeed, the Productivity Commissioner is on the record in more recent times as saying that diversity of opinion and information is more likely to be encouraged by greater rather than less diversity in the ownership and control of the main media—and I would include the major regional operators in the definition of `main media'.

While the government has picked up on some of the important amendments recommended by the Senate for the first bill, which was laid aside, the crucial Packer-Murdoch amendment of Senator Harradine is absent, no doubt to be reinserted—I would hope—by the good senator when this bill is read in the other chamber, because it certainly will not be inserted or passed here. This is the amendment from hell for this government. This is the amendment that flushed out the true intent of this legislation—to smooth the way for an even greater control of our media by two large players, cheered on by the Fairfax group.

The Harradine amendment prevents a media owner from owning a television station and newspaper in the same mainland capital city. If that were passed, the government would have failed to deliver the cross-media laws demanded by the government's media masters. The only way this legislation would be passed is at a joint sitting of parliament, no doubt with the full sale of Telstra bill included. If that turned out to be the case, it would represent one of the greatest ever betrayals of ordinary Australians by a government intent on delivering power, influence and assets to big business, particularly in the politically crucial and public opinion swaying mass media.

I have drafted a press release regarding my proposed amendments to block the 2UE/2GB news merger, part of which I want to record in Hansard. It goes something along the lines of:

This attempt by two major competing Sydney radio licensees not only circumvents the spirit of broadcasting laws, but highlights the dangers of the relaxed cross-media ownership regime the government is promoting.

The 2UE/2GB news merger makes a mockery of the so-called mandatory tests the government is planning to impose on media operators to separate editorial controls when a newspaper, television or radio operator buys other media in the same town.

The Macquarie and Southern Cross organisations, who operate 2GB/2CH and 2UE, are planning a joint venture company to provide news and other services to the competing stations.

To argue that this will ensure independent news analysis and comment is a nonsense.

My amendments require each commercial radio and television licence holder to have separate editorial news management, separate news compilation processes, and separate news gathering and interpretation capabilities.

While the share market and shareholders might get excited about the cost-cutting potential of the 2UE/2GB move, such an arrangement would enable any media organisation such as a major newspaper group to manufacture a common news supply to any radio or television station.

If the 2UE/2GB proposal gets the nod then regional licensees could also form a joint service supply company for news and sales, thus reducing not only news variety but competitive local advertising rates.

I hope I do not get to use the last two paragraphs that I drafted. I hope that the government will at least accept the need for these amendments to the existing broadcasting laws because, if they do not, they are exposing the sort of nonsense that will be the case if these cross-media rules are relaxed, because it will be delivering editorial control, comment and news diversity to fewer and fewer people. If the government does not see the sense of inserting into the existing legislation the amendments needed to block this circumvention of the broadcasting act, then I believe its hypocrisy will be exposed, and I will certainly seek to have the amendments introduced by independent senators elsewhere.