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Monday, 23 March 1987
Page: 1162

Senator POWELL(8.37) —I, too, rise to speak to the motion that the Senate take note of the report of the Senate Select Committee on Television Equalisation. I note that, as the terms of reference of this Committee clearly show, this Committee, in essence, was really tackling two particular tasks. The terms of reference state:

The Broadcasting Amendment Bill 1986 and the Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill 1986 be referred to a select committee for report, by 28 February 1987-

that was subsequently, of course, extended-

on the provisions of the Bills and their implementation-

That, I suggest, is the first area in which the Committee had a responsibility. The second area was as follows-and I continue to read the terms of reference:

in the light of new broadcasting and technology developments and the Government's policy statements on ownership.

In that scenario I want first to address the second aspect of the Committee's undertaking, that is, that all of the work that the Committee was doing-and the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the Committee have already outlined the enormous amount of work that was before the Committee-was in the context of shifting sands, if one likes, because the Government's statement in November on proposed new ownership and control rules in the media caused an enormous upsurge in changes in ownership. It was against that background that the Committee had to operate. It was a background which caused a great deal of public concern. It was not just a concern for this Committee. Among members of the public concerned about that environment at the time that the Committee received submissions, and subsequently when the Committee considered the specific issues of the legislation, was Sir John Norris, who conducted the Victorian Government's inquiry into the ownership and control of newspapers in 1980-81. I quote briefly from an article by Sir John Norris which appeared in January-in fact, at the time that the Committee was at the height of its deliberations-in the National Times on Sunday:

The proprietors of the press and of the electronic media are engaged in an industry which is, in a major respect, unique. They supply to the community the information upon which the public largely depends for its knowledge of most current affairs, at home and abroad.

That knowledge, and the commentaries upon and analysis of news furnished by the media, particularly the press, constitute the background against which most people consider issues and which determines their initial reaction . . .

It is therefore important that the information supplied to the readers, viewers and listeners is correct. It is also important that they should have placed before them as many rational views as possible on the problems with which they are faced.

Sir John Norris went on to address that issue to point to the fact that concentration of ownership in the media was anathema to any responsibility in that area, and he pointed out specifically:

It is essential to appreciate that economic forces exert a strong influence towards concentration of ownership and control.

At the very time of the Committee's deliberations, the operation of economic forces was demonstrating that to be accurate. We, the Australian Democrats-and I individually-share the views expressed by Sir John Norris and a whole lot of other people on the whole issue of media ownership and control-an issue upon which the Government had made certain proposals, but upon which we had before us, and still have before us, no specific legislation.

For that reason on 25 February the Australian Democrats attempted in this chamber to extend the scope of this Senate Select Committee so that it could fully inquire into these proposals and their likely effects, in the interests of the Australian public. This attempt was thwarted jointly by the Government and the Opposition. Now that the only inquiry which has been possible, albeit limited in nature, has reported its findings, major aspects of the debate have been delayed and will not come before the Senate until later this week. Since the majority report is along party lines and rests upon the casting vote of the Chairman, as has already been noted, it could have been expected that a number of other Committee members may have wished to give their reasons for agreeing with that report at the time of tabling, when most of the interest in this report is concentrated. I note the presence in the galleries tonight of a number of people with major concern with this report. I draw attention to Senator Puplick's dissent. Apart from myself, he is the only other member of the Committee to oppose the outrageous proposal for a 75 per cent audience reach for television licensees. In addition, Senator Puplick also takes a strong stand-a stronger stand than the majority report-on cross-media ownership proposals, as I do. In the context of the turbulence in the media ownership area, it would have been important to have had a major contribution in this debate tonight while attention is focused very much on this report.

Aspects of the majority report, and unfortunately of one of the dissenting reports, lead to the conclusion that the prospects of any responsible action being taken when government legislation on ownership and control rules finally comes before the Senate are dim. The fact is that on the lines of the reports that we have before us and of current political developments, I for one do not have a great deal of confidence that we shall be in a position to reject what I believe is an outrageous proposal for the nebulous reason, as Senator Richardson said, that Sydney and Melbourne are already dominant, which seems to be some kind of an argument for a 75 per cent rule. I have rejected those arguments, as has Senator Puplick. My only concern is that the Liberal Party spokesperson on communications has not done so, nor has the National Party representative on the Committee. That does not augur well for those concerns expressed by Sir John Norris and by a number of other people in the community on that matter in particular.

I would like to move to my own report and take some time to explain and expand on some of the recommendations. I have said in the report, as I have said already in this debate, that I believe what the Committee was forced to do was less than it should have been able to do in the environment in which it was sitting. The framework was limited, and therefore what the Committee was able to do was effectively limited. I believe that, understandably perhaps, there was great emphasis on matters of technical concern, that there was an emphasis on some of the more specific areas which led, in the time and resource constraints of the Committee and the individual members of it, to a lack of concentration on some of those broad issues which should have been met in the interests of all Australians.

My first recommendation is that immediate priority should be given to the establishment of a second television service in each region. That recommendation refers directly to the legislation that is before the House today which, in my final recommendation, I urge should be rejected. My belief, following the submissions to the Committee, is that if we are to provide for people outside Melbourne and Sydney and the other capital cities a wider variety of television experience, we must do it not in the way the Government has suggested or in the way in which the majority report has suggested. There was put before the Committee by the Government and in evidence from the Department of Communications a proposition that the number three somehow has mystical significance. It is simply that government policy has become one of providing for three services. I was not persuaded by the evidence that under the proposed program three services were either necessarily economically viable or even possible to be implemented, particularly in some of those markets for which implementation was to come further down the track. For that reason I believe that the beleaguered supplementary licence system, or a variation of it, could and should be used to bring services to country people in particular, and to people in other regions who do not have the three commercial services which most of the major capitals have. The criticism in the majority report and in some of the evidence before the Committee on this matter is not substantiated.

The history of supplementary licences has been somewhat beleaguered-introduced in 1980, the provisions extended in 1982, but then restricted in November 1983 without ever any licences having been granted. Yet in evidence before the Committee two conflicting pieces of evidence were tendered. I point to the evidence of the Bond Corporation in which it, objecting to the supplementary licence scheme, proposed that regional television needed fewer operating groups, not more. The Committee in its report says that the Bond Corporation's assessment of the value `may have been influenced' by that network's market position. I would say that is probably the understatement of the year. On the other hand, Regional Television Australia has reported that a great many regional licensees remain convinced that the supplementary licence concept remains the best means of bringing additional television choice to regional areas. I agree with that position and believe that when this legislation is rejected by the Senate, if indeed the Government brings it back to us, all efforts should be made to pursue that course. That is the substance of my first recommendation.

I am rather astonished and I believe it is somewhat inconsistent that the majority report should state that supplementary licences are not necessarily an undesirable interim measure en route to aggregation and then recommend that the provisions for the granting of supplementary licences should be deleted from the Broadcasting Act 1942. I find that inconsistent and I urge the Government to look closely at this as the means for providing broader services to regional Australia. In that process it is very important-and another of my recommendations relates to this-that we have accurate information on what regional people want. One of the deficiencies in our Committee hearings was that we had nothing other than anecdotal evidence to back up the Government's policy of the magical number three. The evidence which came forward as a result of the proposals for new licences for Perth was the nearest we had to that and I believe that an effort must be made to find out what people want, other than by listening to what people tell politicians as they travel the country.

Another of my recommendations is that an audience reach rule replace the two-station ownership rule. I believe that the 75 per cent idea is outrageous; a 35 per cent limit is adequate. That provides the opportunity for any licensee to have a variety of ownership in both a major area, if it has one there, and in regional areas as well. I stress that under no circumstances should a figure above 43 per cent be used. Another recommendation which I have not made formally, but which I urge upon regional licensees, is to counter those arguments which were put before the Committee by the major players that it is necessary to have such a high level of ownership concentration-which Senator Richardson rather cutely called a `restriction' of 75 per cent-in order to provide enough resource for quality Australian productions. Some of the regionals have already recognised and performed in this area. They have put resources into significant production of local material. The work of the Australian Children's Television Foundation, for example, has been supported more recently by more regional licensees and I encourage people in the industry not to lay themselves open or make themselves vulnerable to pushers for more concentration. They should get into that area and support Australian quality local production. I am sure they will do so.

I have recommended that cross-media ownership rules, which are rather stringent, be applied and, in fact, that there should be no cross-ownership at all. I am not persuaded by any historical arguments that, particularly in regional areas, the proprietors of the original print media in the area and then later the radio stations, have played such a large role in the establishment of television services that that therefore is necessarily the natural way of things. We must recognise the power and influence of the media and ensure that its ownership is as widely spread as possible.

Further on in my recommendations I have referred to some specific issues which were before the Committee. I disagree strongly with the majority recommendation that in Tasmania the ENT Ltd licence be able to be sold. I believe that the existing licences should be consolidated. I do not see why one company in particular should receive some sort of compensation. There is no doubt at all that upon final aggregation all companies involved will, to some extent, find some change in their financial arrangements. To set this precedent would be to set a roller-coaster going which no one would be able to control in the future-that is, if what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, which, in all justice, it should be.

I support the issue of independent assessment on the technical aspects surrounding the UHF and VHF issues and the clearance of band 2. Other speakers in this debate, particularly Senator Lewis, have already referred to the dilemma faced by members of the Committee when we received what was obviously expert, but severely conflicting, advice. It is essential that from time to time the Government face the fact that it might have to incur some kind of expense. The Committee believes that there is already so much data on record that this process could be undertaken with minimal expense in a fairly short time. I recommend that that take place and that in the meantime provisions are made, in particular for NBN3 and WIN4 to be able to continue with their services.

I have referred to my proposal that a national survey be carried out into viewer preferences. As I have said, we do not know what people want. I do not believe that we can or should subscribe to the assumption that because we have three major networks in the cities we must also have three major networks in the regional areas. My consistent concern during the Committee hearings was that in the area of localism, once the major networks got their hands on programs which go out across regional areas, it would be very difficult for those areas to sustain localism. As a Melburnian, I must say that we have already experienced this sort of thing, even though Melbourne is supposed to be one of the capital cities. At some point during the Committee's hearings I referred to the possibility that we might have networking for everyone from Sydney, or even from Los Angeles, so I do not think that Sydneysiders should feel smug about the fact that the only programs that have gone are World of Sport and a few others from Melbourne. If the present trends continue, then all Australian localism is at risk.

In a further recommendation I say that the emphasis should always be on maximising diversity of choice and that that should always be the guiding principle in the regulation of the electronic media. I believe that the electronic media will always have to be regulated; I do not believe that we can assume that market forces will bring to bear the best possible result. I remind the Senate of Sir John Norris's remarks that economic forces exert a strong influence towards concentration and concentration is dangerous. Although I say that, I believe that the process of the issue of supplementary licences as a path towards eventual aggregation, which should take place at the same time across the board, is a market-driven solution of a kind-much more so than the Government's proposal, which is a legislated aggregation. As I have said in my report, I do not believe that this can be supported either economically or in the best interests of the community.

Debate (on motion by Senator Robertson) adjourned.