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Tuesday, 29 May 2012
Page: 6203

Mr FITZGIBBON (HunterChief Government Whip) (21:14): We are going digital, which is a great thing. There might be a few luddites still floating around the House, but going digital has us moving with the rest of the world, and that is a good thing for viewers because it offers us all a range of services we could have only dreamed of once upon a time. However, in electorates like mine in regional Australia the transition can be problematic because there are black spots, and not everyone can receive new digital technology through terrestrial means. We are turning analog off, and that is obviously problematic for anyone and everyone living in a part of rural and regional Australia that is in what might be defined in colloquial terms as a black spot. This is welcome news because the government has acknowledged the problems, and the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Digital Television) Bill ensures that those people in black spot areas can move to satellite technology more quickly than they might have been able to if this bill had not been introduced and not, therefore, passed by the parliament.

It reminds me that I have had many people in my electorate like Noel Googe from Wybong, who approached me at a forum earlier this year complaining about this very thing. It is good news for him and for my electorate, as well as more generally for all those who might have been disadvantaged by what is an inevitable transition and a good transition but which is, notwithstanding, a transition that could potentially disadvantage people who, after having analog removed, find themselves with a gap and an inability to secure new digital services.

The digital world is moving rapidly, and it is causing all sorts of transitions all over the place. It is changing the way we all access the media, and certainly the way in which we use our local technologies. Just today we were reminded about the pace of this change and how it might impact on people differently in different areas. Tonight we are focusing on rural and regional Australia. In a sense it is timely that we are debating this bill tonight because just today Fairfax announced some considerable changes within its own organisation which I believe will have significant consequences for people who live in my region and, indeed, in other parts of rural and regional Australia.

Most people in this place will remember that in 2006 Fairfax merged with Rural Press to form what was then a $9 billion media company. It goes without saying that the merger helped Australia to claim the mantle as the country with probably the highest level of media concentration in the world. Our lack of media diversity, given current events in the UK, would make the poms blush. I warned in 2006 that this merger would lead to (1) considerable job losses in journalism and production in the Hunter region and (2) a further undermining of both diversity and, indeed, local content. I remember having a pretty colourful conversation with a Fairfax executive at the time who called to admonish me because he believed my public statements at the time were misguided and misdirected. It was certainly a very robust conversation over the telephone, but I fear that my concerns expressed at that time have been somewhat vindicated. I would have been very happy to have been proven wrong.

When you pick up a newspaper in the Hunter, whether it be the NewcastleHerald, the Maitland Mercury, the CessnockAdvertiser, the Singleton Argus, the Muswellbrook Chronicle, the Hunter Valley News or the Scone Advocate—and that is just in my electorate, as there are other examples in the electorates of some of my colleagues, including the member for Paterson, who I hope might show an interest in this issue—you will now be reading a Fairfax publication. In the past, with the Newcastle Herald, you would be reading a Fairfax publication, while the Maitland Mercury and those other, smaller newspapers would have been under the control of Rural Press, but it is one and the same now. For many years after the merger between Fairfax and Rural Press, if you had been listening to talkback radio—if you are such a masochist that you are inclined to do these things—you would have been listening to Radio 2UE streamed out of Sydney. Of course, 2UE is another tool of the Fairfax empire. That underscores the lack of diversity we have in the Hunter.

But today, very sadly—and of great concern—Fairfax decided it would sack about half of its editorial staff not only at the Newcastle Herald but also at the Illawarra Mercury and at other places. This means that a critical part of Fairfax production will now take place in New Zealand. We are now off-shoring a significant part of our news production in the Hunter region. We want our local newspapers produced locally—in print, online and of course on our television screens. The Hunter's residents—around half a million of them with very active communities everywhere—deserve to be able to access local news.

While I have no doubt that the Fairfax decision today is based on commercial consideration—that is their right and their will—I fear that it is going to be the beginning of not only the end of diversity in Hunter media but also the demise of local content. I have been concerned for some time that NBN3—which of course is a sister station of Channel 9, as is the case with all of the WIN television stations around the state—will begin to wind back its local content and focus its media presentations out of Sydney. I hope I am wrong about that.

I want to make the general point that media organisations in this country enjoy the right to produce, publish and screen their information thanks to the licence given by the national government. I am not saying that it is always a licence to print money—obviously Fairfax has considerable fiscal challenges before it—but I think that with that licence should come certain obligations. In terms of the interests of Hunter residents, I think that obligation should include not only every effort to overcome diversity with independent thinking and the expression of views but also of course the guarantee that they will meet certain standards of local content in their publishing.

It was a great disappointment today. We will see how things roll out tomorrow as Fairfax attempt to justify their decision. I am sure there will be a bit of spin and some guarantees that local content will remain and that they will do their best to prove that diversity does not necessarily matter because of their determination to be fair on every occasion and be independent in their thinking. But I think this is the start of a really worrying period for the Hunter in terms of media diversity and local content. I lament the decision today and I extend my support to all of those who, as a result of Fairfax's decision today, in a very short time will no longer enjoy the opportunity to be employed by Fairfax.