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Monday, 1 December 2003
Page: 23359

Ms KING (6:17 PM) —I rise to speak against the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2002 [No. 2]. I was pleased to hear the member for Hinkler's contribution to this debate. I think it was a very genuine one. But I want to say to the member for Hinkler that the issue of editorial separation is very much a myth: no matter how many safeguards you have in place, it is just not going to happen. If you look at the changes that we have had across the course of the last decade, the reality is that most Australians are still getting their news content from a small number of sources—through the news media and our newspapers.

Today really does feel a bit like Groundhog Day. Here we are in this chamber, yet again, debating the Howard government's attempt to repeal Australia's cross-media ownership laws. Here I am, again, following a contribution by the member for Calare, who has a great deal of experience in these matters, trying to defend this country's media ownership laws. Yet again, we are debating the Howard government's determination to undermine media diversity in this country.

The previous bill travelled the full length of the parliamentary corridors, and we now find this new version in the House, after the government could not support amendments to the previous bill passed in the other place. The initial purpose of this bill was to water down the cross-media ownership rules. It was aimed at providing the two big media players in Australia with an opportunity to tighten their stranglehold on Australia's media outlets—a stranglehold that continues to use its influence in making and shaping opinion in the way that we as a community view aspects of local, national and world events.

The re-introduction of this legislation is not about reflecting the changing patterns of media broadcasting in Australia, as the government would have us believe. It is not about stronger local news content in rural areas, and nor is it about creating greater diversity in news and content in Australia's already tightly controlled media. It is about stifling views and opinions and it is about the government, in my view, giving a Christmas present to the major media owners on the cusp of a federal election campaign. If this government were committed to local media content it would look to protect current media diversity, not water it down.

There are currently five media outlets in my electorate that provide a daily broadcast of local content news and current affairs: the Ballarat Courier,owned and operated by Rural Press; 3BA and Power FM, owned by Grant Broadcasters—an independent broadcaster; WIN TV; and ABC radio. All five media provide different opinions and reflections on our local community and what is occurring in our area. All five have different editorial comment and content and provide a range of opinion about local, state, national and international affairs.

My concern is the potential impact that this bill will have on the diversity of views in electorates such as mine, through the repealing of existing cross-media ownership rules. The diversity of media ownership in my community means that people in my electorate have access to a wide range of news, information and opinion—and not just about local issues. Local media ensures that state, national and international events are reported with a local element.

The submission by Grant Broadcasters to the Senate inquiry on the first bill clearly spelt out their fears in regional Australia, and I again want to highlight their concerns. They stated:

We are vehemently opposed to the Bill for the following reasons:—

There is no demonstrated public benefit in the amendments.

There will be a decrease in competition for advertising.

There are unlikely to be any independent broadcasters left as they will be at a competitive disadvantage.

The long-term effect is that Australian media is likely to be owned and controlled by foreign companies.

There is currently insufficient diversity in ownership in Australia.

Local news and service to the community in regional Australia will decrease further and there could be a general lessening in the provision of all services.

It is doubtful the Australian Broadcasting Authority will be able to effectively police the amendments.

Grant Broadcasters specifically cited their experience in Wollongong, where grandfathering of the current cross-media ownership laws sees the WAVE FM station, owned by Grant Broadcasters, up against the jointly owned WIN TV and i98. With the TV and radio stations commonly owned—exactly the circumstances the government is proposing in this legislation—Grant Broadcasters state that competing in this environment for limited advertising revenue is extremely difficult. Grant Broadcasters are concerned that the media concentration allowed by this bill will lead to larger media companies having more control over advertising rates and placement, leading to decreased competition and the loss of smaller, local independent operators such as themselves. The government's new bill does not address this issue.

The media outlets in regional areas are major generators of jobs. With daily news services from all three major types of media in the Ballarat city area, we have in effect become a training ground for some of the major metropolitan media outlets. Local regional media contributes significantly to community events through sponsorship, community service announcements, promotions, fundraising and participation in local community organisations. It is not just about ensuring that major metropolitan broadcasters have local content in what they broadcast into country areas; it is also about ensuring that we have broadcasters in country areas and that we have media that are owned in country areas. Concentration of local media ownership could see a constriction in the employment offered through local media jobs and a reduction in the spread of community support activity undertaken. Regional media companies and small independent broadcasters, such as Grant Broadcasters, will be the first to disappear should this bill be passed.

The cross-media ownership rules were introduced in 1987 and 1988 to ensure that media owners could not have any more than one television station, newspaper or radio station at the same time in the same area. This bill is trying to remove these provisions. In the original bill the government wanted to completely remove all cross-media ownership provisions. It tried to claim that, by including a provision for so-called `editorial separation', there was no need to continue with cross-media ownership rules. We have heard in submission after submission and from the member for Calare's own experience just what nonsense the notion of editorial separation is. The editorial separation provisions still exist in this bill. They totally ignore the fact that media owners do determine and have determined the content of the media that they own—and despite all the will in the world it is impossible to guarantee that this will not continue to be the case.

In the last bill we saw the government acknowledge that the editorial separation provisions were nothing but a fig leaf when they agreed to amend their legislation to retain a version of cross-media ownership in regional areas. If they were so confident that editorial separation would work, why amend the legislation to protect the diversity of regional media? The reality is that they know that editorial separation will not work, and their own amendments to the previous bill were a tacit agreement that cross-media ownership rules are important in ensuring media diversity. Retaining a version of the cross-media ownership laws exposed the hypocrisy of the government's argument that they are not important for ensuring media diversity. Cross-media ownership laws do matter if you want to retain media diversity in this country.

The bill, as the government now wants it, will allow the joint ownership of newspapers and television in our major cities. The Senate attempted to prohibit this in the previous bill but the government was never going to agree because this is the very thing that the big media proprietors want and what the government is oh so willing to provide. The bill, as it now stands, would allow the two largest media owners to become even more influential and would stifle the diversity of news and opinion in this country. Time and time again we have seen this government attempt to stifle diversity of views, whether it be through attacks on the ABC, attempts to interfere in the management of our universities, attacks on the judiciary or the watering down of democratic institutions. This is just one more attempt by the government to cosy up to its mates at the big end of town. We do not want media dominated by a handful of large media owners. We want and need a diversity of media owners in this country, as that is the only way you can ensure that there is a diversity of views and a healthy democracy. I again oppose this bill.