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Tuesday, 28 April 1987
Page: 1913


Senator PUPLICK(8.30) —We come now to the conclusion of what has been a very long debate on television equalisation, on the Government's Broadcasting Amendment Bill 1986 and the Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill 1986. We have come, I am glad to say, to a position in which the Broadcasting Amendment Bill will be rejected, defeated, on the basis of the evidence which has been put before the Senate Select Committee on Television Equalisation and on the basis of evidence gathered and weighed carefully by those who are concerned that the media in Australia remains one of the most significant forces shaping our political and social lives and who are determined not to see it wantonly handed over to people who should not be placed, in any democracy, in a position of control such as would occur in the case of this Bill in conjunction with the rest of the Government's legislative package as far as the communications industry is concerned. I will return to the absolute centrality of that point shortly.

I want to say only two things arising from the debate earlier this evening. Firstly, Senator Robert Ray in the course of his contribution criticised my dissenting report in the Senate Select Committee document in relation to what I had had to say about cable television. The thrust of Senator Ray's argument was essentially that cable television is too expensive. The response to that is that Senator Ray was talking about the cost of a technology in 1982 terms, drawing as he did upon the evidence put to the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal inquiry on cable television. He was attempting to say that 1982 technology and its cost can simply be projected into 1986, 1987, 1988 and the 1990s. If one looks, for instance, at a fairly recent article by Richard Corrigan which appeared in the magazine Dialogue earlier this year under the heading `Fibre Optics-The New Wave' one sees this written:

The cables-

he is talking about fibre optic cables-

are also undercutting the high-flying status of communications satellites, which seem likely to lose a major share of future long-distance domestic and international telephone traffic to these new competitors. Acknowledging that satellites will incur big losses in a battle that has just begun, Alan L. Parker, chairman of Ford Motor Company's Ford Aerospace Satellite Services Corporation, says: `Between now and the end of the century, you're talking about fibre optics taking over the role of terrestrial microwave [radio] and satellites in essentially all heavy-route point-to-point communications. I think it will be the handsdown winner.

That is absolutely correct. In the long run the cost of the communications technology which I have been advocating in my minority report and which Senator Vigor has spoken about today will undercut a great deal of the comment made by Senator Ray about the projected costs of the alternatives. I do not intend to develop at any great length the argument which I have put forward for the use of supplementary licences. I have wearied this chamber on two previous occasions when this report and the Government's response were debated, putting forward the alternative about supplementary licences. It is still a system in which I believe. My views have been made known in this chamber and in the minority report, and I do not intend to canvass them further.

However, I intend to come to the issue of networking. I said earlier that this question and the ownership and control of the media were absolutely central to what I believe as a Liberal about the nature and shape of Australian society. I know that the Australian media barons today exercise what in the last century was described as power without responsibility-the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages. That is precisely what is being done by people who think that because they have access to a billion dollars they have the capacity to buy and sell Australians as consumers of media services and feed to them any sort of rubbish, any sort of political point, without control or qualification which they think from their offices, be they located in Sydney, Perth or Los Angeles, the Australian people ought to have served up to them. Some years ago, talking about media concentration in this country, Mr Murdoch was asked for his opinion on the matter and, in particular, his opinion on the development of newspaper networks. He said:

I think it would be a pity if I grew any bigger in Australia. There are now basically three groups in Australia and that is too few already. If I were to grow bigger and to take over one of the other groups that would be against the public interest. I would like there to be six groups. The fewer there are the worse it is.

Mr Murdoch said that in an interview he gave to an American magazine back in 1977. The important thing is that that is a clear indication that, speaking outside Australia, interestingly enough, Mr Murdoch was prepared to come to the conclusion that he should not be allowed to grow and develop any further. Although this legislation does not deal specifically with the ownership and control of newspapers, it nevertheless provides part of the Government's overall package in dealing with the media which we will have the chance to debate when the cross-media ownership rules come before us.

Networking has been put by Senator Vigor and others as a potential danger for small markets, for small operators. But it needs to be understood that networking is a danger for everybody. Nobody need look further than the city of Melbourne to determine what networking means. The National Times, as it then was, on 7 December 1986 ran a story entitled `Herald and Weekly Times Takeover Could Spark Massive News Networking'. In other words, it warned that there could be a networking, a centralisation, of news if that takeover took place. Everybody pooh-poohed that. But what happened? As soon as the HSV7 channel in Melbourne fell into the hands of the network operators of the Channel 7 operation nationally the Melbourne television station was turned into a slave station for relay from Sydney. Local programs went. Victorian programs went. Sackings have occurred-rationalisation, so-called. The Sydney Morning Herald on the 25th of this month ran a story entitled `HSV7 Sackings Confirm Networking on the Way'. So it is not just the small communities, the small regional operators, who have to be concerned about networking. The Melbourne station has already been made a slave station out of Sydney.

Given the vertical integration of the broadcasting and communications industry, which starts primarily with the question of who owns the programs, decisions will be in fact removed from Australia, because the program libraries are owned in the United Kingdom and the United States of America and the programming is owned and controlled outside Australia and brought into Australia. I predict that if this model is allowed to succeed it will not be just a matter of stations being slaves to Sydney-Sydney will eventually become a slave station of Los Angeles. There is absolutely no way that we will be discussing localism. We will be discussing the death of Australianism in broadcasting in this country if this Government's preferred model, based as it is upon a set of sleazy deals done with friends in the media industry, is allowed to succeed.

Let me give honourable senators a couple of examples. One concerns the market in the area of sports broadcasting. What do we find? We find that deals are entered into for the exclusive control of sports broadcasting. For instance, we find that the Power Play organisation now has special rights over winter sports in Australia which are much the same as those the Bond media group holds over cricket in the summer. What happens? We have the Australian Broadcasting Corporation making an arrangement to broadcast the Victorian Football League matches and all of a sudden, at no more than a click of the fingers or a throwing of a switch, because somebody has acquired in monopolistic fashion access to that broadcast, the VFL matches go off the ABC and it has to put on Big Bird and other children's programs. That happens all because somebody pulls the plug on it. That is what networking and concentration mean. Do not think that people are not prepared to use this for their own political advantage.

Mr Bond had a disagreement with the Fairfax newspaper group, which wrote something he did not like. Like some local President Suharto, because the Sydney Morning Herald published something he did not like, what did he do? He took hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of classified advertising away from a particular newspaper chain. He said to the local newspaper chain: `I have hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of advertising but, if you write stories about me that I do not like, you can forget about it'. Where is the concern of the Government front bench? Where are the civil libertarians on the Government front bench and where are the people concerned about free speech in Australia when things like this happen? They are silent. They know what the deal is, they know what the price is and they are prepared to pay it. Honourable senators should ask Dick Smith about the difficulties he has in getting anti-smoking advertisements carried because there are all sorts of network arrangements now integrated with tobacco companies, brewing companies, and other companies that have absolutely no interest in promoting better health or public health concerns in Australia.

We now see the attempt to carve up the Queensland market. We see Mr Bond and Mr Skase attempting to get, within the framework of this Government's legislation, into a situation in which what is called rationalisation of broadcasting services in Queensland means in fact the extension of State-wide monopolies in Queensland. That is not healthy. I would have thought that at the very least Queensland Labor senators would have been alert to the dangers which exist in having a situation where they do not even have a free and critical Press in order to complement the problems that they believe they have in other parts of the political system in the State of Queensland.

We see all sorts of deals, all sorts of backhanded and underhanded deals. Everybody thought Mr Murdoch was going to pull out of Australian broadcasting operations and then, all of a sudden, what did we find? We found that there was some sort of covert deal done with the Northern Star company, which became a principal of the Channel 10 network, and all of a sudden there was a small shareholding bought by one of Mr Murdoch's associated companies and Northern Star issued an invitation to Mr Ken Cowley of the Murdoch operation to become a director of that particular company. If it were not for the vigilance of the Trade Practices Commission that would have occurred. But the Trade Practices Commission was alert. It knew that this was potentially a conflict of interest and that invitation has been withdrawn. Again, the silence on the Government's front bench, in defence of this wretched deal, is absolutely overwhelming.

We have the sorts of arguments presented to the Senate Select Committee on Television Equalisation as the argument that was presented by the Department of Communications about revenue projections. It was said: `Oh, there is going to be no difficulty, no financial problem, for the small regional operators. Advertising will grow by at least 4 per cent'. Indeed, when Mr Westerway was explaining all the virtues of why the Department of Communications knew more about anything than anybody ever had or ever would know, he said: `Oh, it might be 10 per cent, but let us be conservative and say 4 per cent'.

Let us look at what has happened to the gold mine in radio. Radio used to be a gold mine. Radio station 2DAY FM was sold for $70m. Seventy million dollars was the asking price and the price paid for 2DAY FM. Anybody who got into radio in the past couple of years could hear nothing except the clinking of cash registers. It was like a permanent playing of The Goon Show. Every five minutes up went the ring of the cash register. What has happened to advertising revenue? We see for the first time in the Times on Sunday of 29 March 1987 an article headed: `Radio Stations hit by Static Advertising'. We see the headline in the Time magazine of 27 April 1987: `Is Radio Running Out of Steam?'. We see an article in the Business Review Weekly of 3 April 1987 indicating that in 1985-86 one-third of Australia's regional radio stations were in the red and the total operating profit of all stations fell by 33 per cent. That Time magazine article to which I referred indicated that a Federation of Australian Radio Broadcasters survey showed that in 1985-86, 43 stations out of a total of 135 recorded a loss-the highest number since 1940. Fourteen of those that flunked were metropolitan stations and included some in the big Sydney and Melbourne markets. The revenue base of advertising which the Department of Communications was so glib at telling us was going to grow by at least 4 per cent and which would finance anything that needed to be financed has dried up in radio. It is drying up and will continue to dry up in television.

I will not go into the specific details of the Broadcasting Amendment Bill 1986. One could have some problems with clause 94l (3) about the power of the Minister on the issuing of implementation plans and with clause 94n (4) in relation to the powers of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal to impose decisions and the amendments giving the power in certain circumstances of ministerial direction, which perhaps ought to be more carefully examined. I want to come back to the issue of networking, to the issue of concentration of media ownership. I put it to you, Madam Acting Deputy President, that nothing will be more subversive of the system of parliamentary democracy and of democracy in the broad than the continued concentration of media control and ownership in Australia. No country in the world has the degree of media ownership concentration that Australia has. We have people who own newspapers which have a penetration of almost 60 per cent of the country. They do not hesitate to use the power given to them by money and by indolent governments to put forward their particular points of view, and indeed from time to time to regret that they did not use their power more effectively. Mr Murdoch in the same interview to which I referred earlier expressed his regret at not supporting the Australian Labor Party in the Federal election of 1961. He said:

. . . a crucial, desperately close election when we might have made the difference. We might have made another party the government of Australia, and I regret that I did not use the power which I had on that occasion.

Implicit in that is: `You can make sure and take it from me that I won't let such an opportunity pass again'.

If we are to see this Bill simply as a question of regional television stations, we will mistake what is being done to this Parliament. This Bill is part of an integrated package put to the Parliament piecemeal, so that we do not get the opportunity to see the whole picture. It goes with all of the other little bits and pieces. It goes with the communications amendment legislation, which I believe has already been introduced into the House of Representatives, which deals with the position of the Overseas Telecommunications Commission and which deals with the attempt to impose a moratorium on pay television, because that represents a genuinely competitive alternative that this Government is determined not to allow the people of Australia to have. It goes to the integration of the ownership and control rules-5 per cent, 15 per cent. Who knows? There is the question of 75 per cent coverage or six market coverage. Who knows? It is all part of this Government being prepared to trade off in the short term the support of the media proprietors for its own re-election against the long term well-being of Australian democracy, least of all to be taken into account the interests of people in regional television services.


Senator Vigor —Shame.


Senator PUPLICK —As Senator Vigor says, shame. It is more than a shame; it is a scandal. I know that if one looks through the report of the Senate Select Committee on Television Equalisation one will find that Senator Lewis, Senator Sheil, Senator Powell and I all sought in our dissenting reports to say: `How can we genuinely provide additional regional tele- vision services', something to which the people of regional Australia are absolutely entitled without trading them off against the concentration of media ownership which is implicit in this Bill and in the package of Bills of which this is part. We put up a number of alternatives. It took this Government less than seven days to bring into this chamber a report which it tried to sneak in at Question Time as the Government's response.


Senator Vigor —Pre-prepared.


Senator PUPLICK —Pre-prepared, as Senator Vigor says; and pre-prepared because the Government never had the slightest intention of allowing, if it could avoid it, any deviation from the master plan laid down. It was prepared to reject the Committee, whether the Committee had recommended 8:0, let alone 4:4 on Senator Richardson's casting vote. If it were 8:0 the response would have been the same because promises have been given. Give the Government its due, it is prepared at least to try to deliver on its promises. The people to whom the promises have been given are not the viewers in regional Australia; they are, as the Minister for Industry, Technology and Trade (Senator Button) said in that famous Cabinet meeting, `Mates of the Prime Minister'. `What do your mates want?' are the words that Senator Button used in a Cabinet meeting when trying to find out what the Government policy on broadcasting was going to be. `What do your mates want?' We know what they want. At least the Government deserves passing credit for having attempted to deliver. What will happen now? This Bill will be defeated. We have not seen the last of it, mark my words. The Government, when the major omnibus piece of legislation dealing with ownership and control, cross-media ownership rules, is brought out-75 per cent or six markets, 5 per cent prescribed interest or 15 per cent prescribed interest, whatever it happens to be-and its attempt to get the moratorium on pay television, is, I hope, subsequently also thrown out by the Senate, will wrap it all up in one omnibus piece of legislation and wheel it back in here and say `Here it is on a take it or leave it basis'. It will be so integrated, so tied up, that it will take an extraordinary feat to untangle the whole thing and we will be presented with a take it or leave it package.

As Senator Vigor rightly said, we are in this mess because the Department of Communications has allowed broadcasting legislation to get into the mess that it is in. There is no reason for the Broadcasting Act to start looking like the Income Tax Assessment Act for which one needs a university degree in order to be able to read past the first page of it. But that is what it looks like. When the Government cannot fiddle the Broadcasting Act it slips it in under the Radiocommunications Act. That is the Government's other great trick-shove it under the Radiocommunications Act and there is no need for a public inquiry or hearing. It can do it all. It can deliver on its promises made in secret and delivered in secret.

I have not had the opportunity to develop the argument and nor indeed should it be developed on this particular Bill as far as cross-media ownership is concerned, but I recommend to honourable senators that they look very carefully at the paper produced by Dr Rosaleen Smyth from the Education and Welfare Group, Legislative Research Service of the Department of the Parliamentary Library entitled `Concentration of Media Ownership in Selected Overseas Countries'. Honourable senators will see in that excellent paper mention of whether it happens to be in France to contain Monsieur Hersant of Le Figaro, whether it happens to be in Germany to contain Mr Springer of the Bild-Zeitung newspaper chain, whether it happens to contain the owners of the major Italian newspapers such as Corriere Della Sera and L'Unita, whether it happens to be in response to the Canadian inquiries by Davey, by Bryce, and by Kent, whether it happens to be the Federal Communications Commission model, or whether it happens to be the operation of the Media and Monopolies Commission in the United Kingdom. I had the great pleasure of talking to the Chairman, Sir Godfray le Quesne, when I was in London in February about the way in which the most rampant free market economies-the West German economy, the American economy, the British economy, the Austrian economy, the Swiss economy, and now increasingly the Italian economy-all have careful, constructive rules to provide that the integrated ownership and control of those countries' media should not fall into the hands of too few people. If there is anything that this Parliament, in discharging its responsibility to the people of Australia, ought to be addressing it is the question of who it is who will be given access to the public resource of the Australian airwaves in order to get the particular message across to Australians, whatever its political bias, whatever its economic bias, whatever political party or whatever social philosophy it wants to support.

The Opposition senators on this Joint Select Committee looked very carefully at this matter. Senator Lewis, Senator Sheil, Senator Powell and I have looked at all of those issues and have concluded that in the long run the interests of all Australians, whether they happen to be regional Australians, metropolitan Australians, or future Australians will best be served by the rejection of this shabby piece of legislation. I am delighted to be in the position of knowing that that view is supported not only by the Liberal Party, but also by the National Party, the Australians Democrats and I hope the Unite Australia Party and other people in this chamber. There are people elected to this Parliament who will discharge their responsibilities to the electors of Australia by rejecting this legislation and putting those responsibilities ahead of honouring the shabby deal which the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) and his Treasurer (Mr Keating) have entered into to sell out the people of Australia.