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Monday, 1 December 2003
Page: 23355

Mr NEVILLE (5:57 PM) —When I previously spoke to the Broadcast Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2002 I made it clear that, although I had some reservation about aspects of the bill, I believed on balance that it should be supported. I might say by way of preamble that I have some sympathy with the views, or at least the spirit of the views, of the member for Calare—that the recent proposed merger in Sydney would really, if applied universally across Australia, test this particular bill. It is a matter that weighs heavily on my mind and one which I will pursue within the normal processes of being a government member.

At the last federal election, in the interests of allowing our media sector to prosper in a global environment, the government committed to the reform of the cross-media ownership and foreign ownership restrictions. With this legislation we are fulfilling that commitment. We are giving our media organisations the tools to expand in the face of foreign competition. However, we are keeping a tight hold on the reins when it comes to the concentration of ownership and control over the number of media outlets within the market and over the diversity of editorial content. We are shepherding through these changes to the media ownership rules, but we are doing it responsibly.

The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2002 [No. 2] has run the gamut of the legislative process. It has been debated, referred to a committee, reported on and amended. We finally see it back as a bill in this House, and I am confident that the amended bill is a workable and effective piece of legislation. The bill is the same as that passed by the House last year, but it incorporates some Senate amendments which, on the whole, bolster my argument about preserving the diversity of opinion and information in the interests of the Australian market. The bill removes the regulatory barriers to foreign investment in the Australian media sector which are contained in the Broadcasting Services Act 1992. Those responsibilities will now be covered by the Foreign Acquisitions and Takeovers Act 1975 along the same lines as the foreign ownership of commercial radio and newspapers. Part IV of the Trade Practices Act 1974 remains applicable to the proposed mergers and acquisition of media outlets, and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission will still be responsible for scrutinising existing and future arrangements which may impact on competition.

A number of other amendments passed by the Senate are included in the bill, and their inclusion points to the government's willingness to work with the Senate to provide the best possible media environment for both consumers and media organisations. Those amendments include the stipulation that commercial and television broadcasters must supply mainland state capitals with a set minimum amount of material of local significance. We have also seen the inclusion of a sensible `minimum commercial media groups' test. This guarantees, after a merger, a minimum of five separate commercial media groups in major metropolitan markets and four in regional markets. The bill retains the `two out of three' rule, which stops some local demagogue controlling all three traditional forms of media—newspaper, radio and television stations—in the one market. The government has also incorporated a `one newspaper per market' limit for holders of a cross-media exemption certificate, which does not apply to operators who do not hold such a certificate.

When I spoke to this bill previously, I told the House of my reluctance to meddle with the principle of freedom of the press. My ideas on cross-media ownership are on the record for all to see, but I believe strongly in the fundamental principle of freedom and diversity of media, which perhaps is best summed up by Thomas Jefferson's famous words to John Jay in 1786:

... our liberty, which cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.

In guaranteeing the freedom of the press, it is also our duty to guard against interference in editorial freedom, and we must ensure that the audience—the general public—has access to different news sources. At present there are three major commercial television networks, three pay television providers, half a dozen major commercial radio network owners and five major newspaper proprietors operating in Australia. There are many smaller scale, independently owned media players in the Australian market, but all the main outlets have a presence in our major population centres as well as our regional, rural and remote Australian areas.

The end goal of our media policies should be the fostering of our own domestic operators while ensuring that every Australian, whether they live in Double Bay or Dajarra, has access to a varied media content. In the interests of news diversity, the reflection of our own culture and the provision of a lively, fresh news service for residents of a particular region, none of our media outlets should come under the influence of a single media operator. The relevance of this statement comes to light when we look at the key characteristics of the Australian population spread and the demographic changes that are taking place in this country.

The majority of Australia's population is concentrated in the capital cities—at June 2002, 64 per cent—and this is expected to increase to 67 per cent by 2051. The vast majority of our remaining population lives in satellite suburbs and major regional centres along the coastline or in country and remote areas. So, if we want our nation to have access to a variety of media and opinion, we must ensure separate media outlets have editorial independence from one another, particularly if they are members of the same media stable. Without a vigorous licensing regime, it would be all too easy for our major media players to consolidate their news and program operations in the interests of cost saving and conceivably provide a generic news service of little value—and that was my concern when I agreed in principle with some of the comments of the member for Calare.

Some provincial media operators advised the previous communications minister of their interest in hubbing and networking and that they could potentially consider some form of merger between their news services. I am not in agreement with this. I find this idea, on face value, wholly unacceptable without appropriate safeguards being put in place to ensure that editorial independence exists between various news services. I am one of the strongest advocates of editorial independence. I believe that a key feature of Australian news services must be the independent sourcing, compilation and presentation of news reports.

When previously speaking on the bill, I mentioned my concern about the tendency towards a Sydney-centric influence, particularly in the electronic media sector. In radio, taking the ABC as an example, current affairs programs like AM, PM and The World At Noon come from Sydney. The commercial stations, with their four leading shock jocks, come from Sydney and Melbourne; and hub news services come from Sydney or the hubs of the major networks. In provincial TV, such as in my electorate of Hinkler, any news service outside the prime time bracket—that includes bulletins generated locally and at the state capitals; in other words, those outside of the 6.00 to 7.30 p.m. time slot—generally comes from Sydney. The only exceptions that I am aware of are short news breaks, the ABC's Stateline on Fridays and WIN's late regional news. I am in no way criticising the individual programs or their presenters; rather I use these facts as an illustration of how easily opinion can be concentrated, which is a phenomenon we should all guard against.

An extreme example of the concentration of opinion within the media was presented to me by a delegation of Vietnamese-born Australians which I met in my office last week. This meeting was spontaneous and not contrived. These gentlemen raised their concern that a particular Australian network is broadcasting—in an unedited and unbalanced way—material produced by the current Vietnamese government, and that its presence on our domestic television services was unsettling to them in the extreme. Whilst this may be a case of balance rather than media ownership, I believe it serves to illustrate a point: if you take a program direct from a foreign news service unedited and unbalanced, you get media being dominated simply by one opinion—and that is what these people rail against.

I feel a tremendous sympathy for members of Australia's Vietnamese community who came to Australia in order to avoid such overt media content only to find it on their television screens and in their homes. Like all Australians, they want to see a balanced view of news from their homeland. Although this is an extreme illustration and something of a rarity in our nation, I go so far as to say it is proof that we cannot and should not allow opinion to become one-dimensional. By making editorial separation a condition of being granted an exemption certificate for cross-media ownership—that is, insisting upon separate and distinct editorial policies, organisational charts, editorial management, news compilation processes, news gathering and capabilities to interpret that news—we are safeguarding the diversity of our news services.

To back up the relevance of this policy, in its April 2000 report into broadcasting the Productivity Commission found there was no vital connection between diversity of media ownership and diversity of views. The report said:

Diversity of sources of information and opinion is a keystone in a democratic society ... the Commission accepts that diversity of information and opinion may not be inconsistent with a concentrated media sector ...

I can accept that, but I can only accept it if the safeguards are in place to ensure general editorial diversity and independence. I think we must also be cognisant of the fact that media technology and presentation formats are changing rapidly. Once upon a time it was possible to strictly define news as daily bulletins or the content of a newspaper, but information now flows freely in all manner of programming formats—everything from light entertainment shows to documentaries, from television hosts and shock jocks on radio to journalists who compile news stories. All of those factors come into play when we interact with the media to glean information, and it is vital that a multi-dimensional media sector is maintained, particularly with new and emerging technologies.

More and more Australians are accessing new mediums for entertainment and information. An ACNielsen survey indicated that, as at July 2001, 20.7 per cent of homes, or 1.4 million households, had pay TV subscriptions. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, by September 2001 there were 3.7 million household Internet subscribers. We need to be careful that, as notional diversity increases, the services available and the presentation of information reflect that diversity and do not become a downstream take of another news source; that is, we must guard against exactly the same information being presented in another guise. That is not to say that a television or radio station may not have an Internet service that reflects its day-to-day broadcasting—nor is it to say that it should not expand its information on the Internet or run a chat room discussion following a major interview or program—but it is important that the Internet become multi-dimensional, with various players espousing their views through their own formats and not just using other peoples' formats.

More importantly, I believe that every encouragement should be given to independent regional Internet services. In many regional areas today, country newspapers are producing major stories of only seven or eight paragraphs. That gives the reader no opportunity to understand the background, the details or the nuances that may colour a particular story. The episode of the sheep on the Cormo Express is a typical case in point. The simplistic grabs of the shock jocks on metropolitan radio and the abridged stories carried in provincial newspapers did not go any way towards outlining the complexity of the situation or doing justice to the facts. When I give constituents, or groups of constituents, the full facts of this case from start to finish they are invariably stunned by the complexity of the options that Australia was faced with, and they invariably give the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Warren Truss, resounding accolades—something that did not come from the shock jocks or provincial media. We must guarantee that there is always a place for such information within our media sector, whether it be in print, electronic or online format. The spirit of this legislation—especially as it applies to electronic media—is to ensure that independent newsrooms are flourishing in regional television and radio stations. This should be even further enhanced by independent Internet services.

I am a great lover of Australian radio. I think that, to a large extent, the ownership of Australian radio has become too concentrated. We have one network with over 90 stations and another with over 30. What has been happening in many parts of Australia is that these networks have come to a town and bought, say, the third licence in that town. At a later date, they buy the AM licence and the section 39 station associated with that AM station—generally a rock-and-roll station—which is normally an FM station. They do that to get around the `two radio stations in a market' rule. They do that under what is called the section 67 exemption—which, quite frankly, I would like to see amended in the Broadcasting Services Act; there are some three pages in the act which tell people how to get around the act.

Quite apart from that, what then happens is that the network flogs off the AM station—possibly to a TAB service or to some non-competitive entity—and the community is forced to listen to one of two FM stations. There is nothing wrong with FM stations as such, but in that exercise we have lost diversity, we have lost competition and we have lost localism—and that must not be allowed to happen. There is a section in the bill that addresses that matter. Ultimately, it gives the minister the authority to grant another licence in that area where he thinks diversity and competition have been removed. That is something that I very strongly support. In fact, I would even like to see it written into the legislation. I think it is terribly important.

In speaking to this bill, I have made it clear that my main area of interest is the requirement that we preserve diversity of opinion and information relevant to the Australian public. I am also adamant that media outlets should declare their interests and broadcast material related to any other interests that they might hold. Under the bill, this will be achieved by making it a condition of licensing that television and radio operators who are holders of cross-media ownership exemption certificates must declare their interests when they broadcast or publish a particular story that has a relationship to one or other of their interests. The condition also extends to the print media, even though they are not subject to the licensing conditions under the Broadcasting Services Act. Instead, their responsibility will be to disclose their link to another interest—and that will be enforced by way of legislation that carries with it a criminal offence.

Previous speakers from the opposition have aired their views on this bill. If it is passed, they say it will be the beginning of the end of the Australian media sector, if not of Australian democracy. I would like to remind them that perhaps the most eloquent comment ever made in Australian politics on this matter was that made by John Button. During an angry cabinet meeting he said to Bob Hawke, `Bob, why don't you tell us which of your media mates you want to help so that we can end the meeting?' We must make sure that this never happens under this government. So let us get this issue onto a mature and balanced plane. We must allow our media sector to grow in the global economy but balance this against diversity of opinion, and we must ensure that the diversity of ownership does not allow one dominant player in the market.