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Monday, 1 December 2003
Page: 23365

Mr WINDSOR (6:43 PM) —I will speak reasonably briefly to the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2002 [No. 2] as there has been discussion on it before in the House and quite possibly will be again. I would like to publicly state that I will be opposing this legislation and supporting the amendments that will be proposed in the House by the member for Calare. Hopefully they will be successful in this chamber but, if not, I believe they will be moved in the Senate and hopefully they will be successful there. My opposition to this legislation is essentially that I believe we need as much diversity of expression within Australia as possible.

We seem, over the last decade or so, to have been preoccupied with the concentration of power—the concentration of control—at a whole range of levels, and we are using commercial imperatives to attempt to drive those sorts of movements. Whether it be Coles and Woolworths in the shopping centres and the control that they have over the produce that they sell and the implications that that has on the farming community within Australia, or whether it be the major players in the media across Australia, there is a propensity to suggest that it is only the big that will survive and they will be able to deliver a far better service.

The very existence of ABC radio and television is obviously an argument against that sort of rationale, particularly in regional areas—and I compliment the ABC on the work it does in regional Australia, and also the government for the additional staff for and recognition of the ABC, especially regional ABC, that took place last year. I understand that it has financial problems from time to time, but regional ABC is a very important voice for many people in country Australia, as are commercial radio stations. Any threat to the diversity of those voices, any diminution of those voices' ability to make different statements about a certain issue, is something that I believe we should oppose. For those reasons and others, I will be opposing this piece of legislation.

I heard the member for Hinkler say earlier that one of the reasons he is supportive of this legislation—now; he obviously was not back in 1995, when he was in opposition—is that we must allow the media within Australia to grow in the global community. That sort of line has been run out quite a lot by people of different political persuasions for some years now, and it almost seems to be a pitch to people who really do not understand what is happening within our own boundaries so that they think it is okay: `It's all global stuff; it'll be something that we should participate in.' We heard similar views on the full privatisation of Telstra. When we look at Telstra's global participation, we find that it was not necessarily a good thing for the Australian community; in fact, there was over $1 billion lost in one of Telstra's attempts to become a global player.

I think we are seeing a similar thing with media diversity. We are developing what I have referred to a couple of times in this parliament as a feedlot mentality—the best way of delivering the highest number of services to the greatest number of people at the lowest possible cost is to put them in a feedlot. One of the reasons I am interested in the federal arena is that it frightens me, in a nation of this size, that we could even start thinking along those lines, because if you think that a feedlot is the best way to run Australia you are marginalising those who live in the smaller and remote areas and the medium sized communities of Australia.

If we allow the diversity of media expression to be given into the control of a few voices, obviously, as with Telstra, the smaller players will not be as economically productive in their balance sheets, and—although I am not saying they will all disappear—they are less likely to be supported in terms of having their own voice. Again, that is one of the reasons that governments over the years have kept regional ABC in place, and I see this bill being a threat to those sorts of things.

The member for Hinkler, a man whom I have personal regard for, stated today that he had some degree of concern with parts of the legislation but that on balance he was prepared to support it. He believes that the controls that are in place can overcome some of the problems that many of us foresee, particularly in regional areas. But back in 1995 the member for Hinkler said in this place:

Somewhere, some time, the Australian community must take a stand on the centralising of media control.

... ... ...

A quick scan of the Australian media landscape should put a decided chill through the veins of all lovers of freedom, cultural diversity and a well informed society, as bulwarks against oppression.

I do not think I could have put it any better. I think what he was saying then was a very appropriate statement. That was in 1995, when the Liberal-National coalition was in opposition and there were attempts to modify the diversity of the voices within the media in Australia. I think his statement then was quite appropriate. I do ask him, though: what has changed? Why isn't that sort of statement appropriate today? Maybe the minister will be able to elaborate on what has changed in that period. There are a number of other current members of the government who made comments on this, back in those days, but I will not start quoting them.

But I do believe that there is a role for government in safeguarding diversity of opinion and that that role has to be particularly strong in regional areas. If we leave everything up to commercial imperatives, almost by definition the regional areas will suffer—and, as I said, Telstra is a good example of that, where the majority in the Senate at least believe it is important that the government maintain some degree of interest in what is happening and in the regulatory functions. Even though it was promised by the previous Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, I think most people believe and understand that one government cannot guarantee any service delivery by subsequent governments—and neither should they. That is a good reason why we should not risk those sorts of things happening, and I think the same logic applies to media ownership.

I have been very supportive of my parliamentary colleague the Independent member for Calare, Mr Andren. I would like to read some comments that he made. As all members would know, Mr Andren was a radio news editor before becoming a parliamentarian and has some degree of knowledge in relation to the delivery of news and current affairs and a diversity of view in a regional context. The member for Calare made these comments on on 27 November 2003:

While the joint venture—

he is talking about the 2UE-2GB newsroom merger, which demonstrates some of the great concerns that a lot of us have—

... might be presented as a stand-alone and doesn't contravene ABA ownership limits or regulation, the spirit of the act is certainly broken.

It is interesting to note that 2UE and Sydney radio services will be co-located in Pyrmont. This is a very cosy arrangement for a supposedly independent company providing services, including news, to two competing companies—

that is, 2UE and 2GB—

I believe it compromises the editorial independence of all three licensees, makes a mockery of competition in news (and I would suggest other more commercial activities like advertising etc). It also narrows the variety of voices, stories, opinions etc available to the three audiences.

It is a cynical interpretation of the act which requires a licensee to “contribute to the provision of an adequate and comprehensive range of broadcasting services in that licence area”. The “contribution” here becomes a collegiate product by a supply company jointly owned by the licensees.

I have argued that the pre-1992 Broadcasting Laws requiring each licensee to provide “adequate and comprehensive” news and other services should be restored. In the absence of that, the licensees should be required to run stand-alone news rooms. How would the public react if Murdoch and Fairfax established a joint company to provide copy and stories to their papers?

I do not think the provisions within the act fully safeguard the community against those sorts of things happening. We can all stand up here and make speeches about what we think will happen, but the interpretation of the law may well be different further down the track. The mere fact that 2UE and 2GB are doing this under the existing rules suggests that the smarties who are out there would, under fewer controls, be able to dream up a whole range of schemes that could avoid some of the supposed regulations that the government believes—and, I guess, quite rightly—would be sufficient.

I would also like to read into the Hansard some comments that were made in an article in the Australian of Wednesday last written by Jane Schulze. It relates again to the 2UE-2GB sharing of news services and other services. If that sort of process were applied across all the areas that have two radio stations, that could apply to something like 18 areas across Australia where you could see what were traditionally competitive radio stations working through a third organisation—a subcontractor, in a sense—to provide news and editorial and other services. That could relate to the competitive nature of advertising as well. You could end up completely contravening the message that has been out there for quite some time: that we do need some degree of competition in relation to some of those services. The article written by Jane Schulze is headed, `Radio sharing shocks jocks.' It reads:

Plans by rival Sydney radio stations 2UE and 2GB to share resources have outraged 2UE stars John Laws and Mike Carlton and put the stations' owners in the radio regulator's spotlight.

Laws, whose program is syndicated to more than 60 stations in every state, said it was “a pretty strange way to do business”.

2UE owner Southern Cross Broadcasting and 2GB owner Macquarie Radio Network will create a jointly owned company to provide news, sales, technical support and production services to those stations, and 2GB's sister station 2CH. Southern Cross's interstate network, including Melbourne's 3AW and Brisbane's 4BC, are not not affected by the deal.

The cost-saving moves have also aroused the interest of the Australian Broadcasting Authority. The Broadcasting Services Act states one group cannot control more than two radio stations in the same market, and John Singleton's Macquarie Radio Network already owns 2GB and 2CH.

Laws said the news being presented on 2UE, 2GB and 2CH could be identical, and he feared jobs would be lost.

“It all comes down to the mighty dollar, and I know they want to keep shareholders happy, but I would prefer to keep staff happy.”

Breakfast host Carlton was also concerned about merging newsrooms: “It means jobs lost and a lack of competition.”

Southern Cross managing director Tony Bell expected the changes to be approved by the ABA. Mr Bell said Southern Cross already had a similar operation in Perth, where its 6PR and 96FM stations shared resources with 6IX.

Station operators in other states are expected to closely watch the ABA's response, but industry observers said there were few opportunities for similar deals.

National operators, such as FM radio giant Austereo, already own two stations in each market. Others, such as the British-backed DMG, which owns the Nova radio stations, also have national reach.

As I said, I will be supporting the amendments that the member for Calare will be bringing to the parliament a bit later tonight. I reiterate in conclusion that I will be opposing the legislation as it stands now.