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Tuesday, 28 April 1987
Page: 1917

Senator SIDDONS(9.00) —I listened with great fascination to Senator Puplick. His great oratory was most inspiring and I agree with most of his comments. The dangers of networking, the concentration of the media and the problems of the cross-ownership of the media are all very real and critical problems facing this country. Unless parliamentarians are prepared to stand up and do something about it there is no doubt that shortly this country will be run by media barons, and very few of them. However, I am bound to say that most of the concerns raised by Senator Puplick and other speakers in this debate about the concentration of the media, cross-ownership and so forth and the way in which takeovers have gone ahead are not specifically related to the Broadcasting Amendment Bill 1986. The Bill is specifically designed to give better and more competitive television coverage to regional television viewers. I believe that the concerns that have been expressed relate to legislation on media ownership that has yet to come before the Senate.

The thing that we must watch very carefully is what percentage of media concentration is allowed in this country. That has yet to be debated. The Government has yet to declare its hand in that area. It is not before time that the millions of Australians who choose not to live in the capital cities should expect to have roughly the same television services as those who live in the major cities of this country. The proposals before us plan to improve the services that are available to country viewers. Those plans have been floated for no fewer than eight years.

It is true that the regional television stations are not overly enthusiastic about the planned aggregation as is proposed in the Broadcasting Amendment Bill, but they are prepared to accept it as the best alternative under all the circumstances. To put not too fine a point on it, many of the regional television stations, especially those in Queensland, have already gone ahead and have started to buy into each other's companies. They are planning to rationalise on the basis of this piece of legislation. Many licence holders are currently in breach of the two-station policy. They have already geared up for aggregation. I do not know how one can unscramble the eggs. Regional television stations would be faced with a very difficult problem if the legislation did not go ahead. I stress that that has nothing to do with the degree of concentration of ownership. The Bill relates purely to an attempt to regionalise television in country areas and it does not of itself have anything to do with the concentration of media ownership.

If the subsequent legislation is carefully drafted, there is no reason why roughly one million viewers in the regions as proposed should not be provided with real competition among three television licence operators in their areas. Surely in principle it is not a bad approach that a region of one million viewers or thereabouts should have three genuinely competitive operators. I have looked at the regions carefully. They are not perfect, but it is impossible to get perfect regionalisation. I think that under all the circumstances a genuine attempt has been made to divide the whole of our great nation into reasonable regions of about one million viewers. Why should not regional viewers who previously have had access only to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation or the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and one other channel get current affairs programs and have wider access to current opinion that is available to city viewers?

I have long been a supporter of regionalisation for Australia. I believe that the States as they presently exist are purely a hangover of our colonial past-our British colonial days-and it is necessary to try to get some regional association among the peoples of this country. This seems to be a first step in that direction. If we can get reasonable regions with competitive viewing on our airways that would be a good start.

The majority of regional television operators are now keen for the equalisation plan to go ahead. They are also keen to keep the timetable that the Government has set up. Despite some doubts that the Department of Communications can install the necessary hardware in time, regionals believe that by supplying some of their own equipment there is no problem in meeting the 1992 deadline. As far as I can ascertain, regional operators are keen to get their equipment up and running as soon as possible. It is expensive equipment and they do not want to see it remain idle for any longer than is necessary.

Terrestrial operators do not see that the satellite competition will be a real threat to their operations providing they have time to get established before satellite television becomes a reality. The chief concern of regional operators is the proposal of a 75 per cent limit of ownership of the nation's television services. That, I believe, is the target to which Senator Puplick's rhetoric was directed, and that is the debate that should take place in this chamber when other legislation comes before us.

If the Government comes up with a 75 per cent ownership rule there is no doubt there will be an enormous degree of networking in this country and that the small operators will not survive. They will have no hope of surviving. We have only to see what has happened to HSV7 in Melbourne to get an idea of what is likely to happen to regional television stations if the 75 per cent rule is passed by this Parliament. HSV7 is now very largely a satellite of Sydney. It is a relay station for Sydney programming. If this process of networking is allowed to continue and is allowed to apply in our regional television, there is no doubt that editorial opinion will be in the hands of a very powerful, and a very few, elite operators of television in this country. The Government has a responsibility to ensure the independence of the few remaining independent operators in this country.

Senator Vigor —This is the Bill.

Senator SIDDONS —I am sorry, Senator Vigor; I do not believe this Bill is related to this particular problem. We are talking about equalisation and dividing up the audience into regions; that is what this Bill is related to. On that basis I believe the Bill is worthy of consideration and support.

The HSV7 dilemma raises an issue on which I believe the Government must take a very strong stand; that is, the cross-ownership laws relating to television and newspapers in one catchment area. This is exactly the problem that is confronting the Government and the people in Victoria, where the Fairfax family, it appears, will have control of television station HSV7 and the Age newspaper. That is in absolute conflict to the principles put forward by the Government. I suggest it is very much the responsibility of the Government to ensure that that does not occur. Newspaper ownership in this country is already concentrated in too few hands. The Government has an opportunity to stop the same thing happening with television broadcasting.

In summary, I support moves to equalisation, but I cannot support figures such as the 75 per cent ownership rule. I was told in answer to a question I asked at Question Time today that the Government intends to make a statement on the level of ownership that it will allow. It is my very fervent hope that it thinks again about the possibilities that have been bandied around that it will support a 75 per cent ownership rule. That would undoubtedly have the effect of concentrating all media in this country in the hands of two or three very powerful organisations. In the interests of fair communications to all Australians, this Parliament has a very grave responsibility to ensure that that does not happen under any circumstances.