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Tuesday, 10 October 2006
Page: 75


Senator BOB BROWN (Leader of the Australian Greens) (5:39 PM) —The Greens oppose the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006 and the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2006 because they will increase cross-media ownership and reduce diversity. This legislation is going to increase the foreign ownership of the organs which give us information and therefore are fundamental to democracy and it is going to leave Australia in a more isolated position than ever amongst like countries in having a smaller diversity of outlets and a greater concentration of proprietorial authority over what Australians get to know about and how Australians form their opinions. It is ultimately a matter of how we view democracy. As you will know, Mr Acting Deputy President Murray, information is the currency of democracy.

I have just spoken with the ambassador for North Korea. One of the things that we all know about authoritarian states like that is that there is no media diversity—people are not free to express different points of view; people are not free to hear a diversity of opinions, and so you do not have democracy. While that is not what this legislation is about to invoke, it is going, through market mechanisms, to move us further away from the ideal of a multiplicity of news-gathering and opinion-giving outlets in this rich and wonderful democracy of Australia.

On the cross-media ownership provisions the government argues that the current ownership laws are anachronistic. It wants to remove the restrictions, arguing that the emergence of new media players—such as on the internet and on pay TV, for example—will ensure the free exchange of ideas in a further deregulated media sector. However 75 per cent of Australians still rely on radio, newspapers or free-to-air TV as their source of news and current affairs, and the internet news sources that people do access for news are dominated and controlled by the traditional media. For example, ninemsn.com.au is owned by PBL, news.com.au is owned by News Ltd, smh.com.au and theage.com.au are owned by Fairfax, and the ABC obviously operates abc.net.au. These sites are the main internet sites people access for the news; and the vast majority of content is exactly the same as their print publications, or broadcast stories in the case of the ABC and PBL. So not only does new media have nowhere near the penetration of free-to-air TV and radio but it is also dominated by traditional media owners.

I put out podcasts, but I can assure you, Mr Acting Deputy President, that they are no match for the reach, access and dominance of the traditional media owners. I suppose some of them would say that that is a good thing. There is a myth that somehow new media means a whole range of alternatives beyond the reach of the dominant players, but the dominant players are right there in the box seat to keep taking the dominant role in what the majority of Australians see as genuine opinion and in what the majority of Australians receive as the important news of the day—with what is deemed by somebody other than themselves as unimportant news not reaching them.

So the basic argument which underpins these reforms—that new media players are challenging the traditional media and will ensure diversity of opinion—simply does not stack up. If diversity is what the government is seeking with this legislation, it has manifestly failed. Diversity of ownership is crucial to ensuring diversity of opinion, and any reform of cross-media laws should achieve a greater diversity of ownership in Australia, not less. That is not what this legislation will achieve. The government’s proposed changes will inevitably result in an even further concentration of media ownership and a loss of diversity of opinion for all Australians.

The proposal that we are facing here is for a five-four rule to apply to cross-media transactions, so there can be no less than five media voices in cities and no less than four in regional areas. The ACCC will separately assess the competitive impacts of transactions. But the problem with this model is that we have no clear definition of what a voice constitutes, so we have to ask: does a small community radio station count as a voice? I know that it does not actually count, but where is the line drawn? What is specified if the government says that is not the case? I know that is worrying all the people who have yet to make up their minds about some of the particular provisions. I should interpose my outrage at the process that is involved here where major amendments to this historic legislation are brought into this place this afternoon and we are debating them straight away. That has sideswiped the time-honoured role of the Senate, as a house of review, to be able to go to the populace of Australia and be informed by people’s feedback before it deals with such matters. That is the result of the government having control of the Senate and of the executive of the Howard government dictating when the Senate shall or shall not deal with such matters.

While the ACCC can ensure competition, it cannot ensure diversity of opinion. Australians living in rural and regional areas will be the biggest losers under the new laws. The Greens are very concerned about the potential for the diversity of opinion in the big cities, where 70 to 80 per cent of Australians live, to be halved under this legislation, to go from what is almost world’s worst in democracies to much worse again. In Hobart, in my home state, there are currently seven separately owned media outlets. That number could drop to four under this legislation. In Launceston there are six separately owned media outlets. That could drop to four. In Burnie the number could drop from six to four.

Mr Acting Deputy President, you will have seen the figures which show that in places like Broken Hill, Darwin, Kalgoorlie, Mildura, Mount Gambier and Mount Isa—major regional centres—the reduction in possible media ownership under these laws is two-thirds. In Melbourne it can be 60 per cent, likewise in Hobart, and it is almost that figure in Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Sydney: theirs can be at 55 per cent. The Communications Law Centre produced a report on this. It is a long while since I have had very close contact with this organisation; I have to go right back to 1991. I have to thank an expert from the Communications Law Centre for helping me to devise the freedom of information legislation introduced in the Tasmanian parliament and passed under a Green-Labor accord. It was at the time the strongest freedom of information legislation in the nation.

This august centre produced a report on the effect of the cross-media changes on rural and regional Australia called Content, Consolidation and Clout. This report concluded:

The ‘minimum number of players’ test proposed by the government will not work effectively as a safety-net to provide an adequate level of diversity and prevent further consolidation.

It also found:

The alternative to a ‘minimum number’ approach must be a test that recognises the difference between media outlets. In the markets we have examined, it is clear that some mergers would result in a profound disruption to the news culture of those communities. Examples of mergers that would damage the public sphere are:

  • In Wollongong, the Illawarra Mercury and WIN Television
  • In Toowoomba, The Chronicle and WIN or 4GR
  • In Launceston, The Examiner and 7LA or WIN or Southern Cross
  • In Townsville, the Bulletin and 4TO.

I quote from the conclusions of the report:

This is not to say that other mergers would not produce adverse results; but equally, it could be the case that other combinations of media assets would have minimal impact on the community. Our conclusion is based on a recognition that there is little competition and, contrary to claims by proprietors that consolidation would raise the standard, we fear that partnerships between the only real sources of local news will have the opposite result—that standards will decline. Our conclusion is that a test for diversity should identify the mergers that matter.

It added:

Before deciding on a new method of regulating media ownership, there should be public disclosure of the ACCC’s proposed new approach to media mergers. Consideration should be given now to the intersection of competition regulation and the ‘minimum number’ test proposed by the Minister, based on five companies in metropolitan markets and four companies in regional markets.

Where are the ACCC’s new powers? How are the ACCC’s current powers going to be effective here? They will not be.

A Crikey survey of Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance members, conducted by a Roy Morgan poll, found that journalists do not support the media reforms. We all have a variety of opinions about journalists. Journalism is a much maligned profession—like politics. Good and fearless journalism is fundamental to not just democracy but the way that we work, the way that we are informed about what is going on in the community and vice versa. It is absolutely pivotal to our democracy. Thank God for the journalists who work for our community by putting us to the test as often as they do. We all feel frustrated at the diversity of results from journalistic inquiry in Australia at the moment, but, for goodness sake, here we are heading for even less!

Looking at this Crikey survey, we see that more than 80 per cent of journalists believe that the changes will have a negative impact on the integrity of the reporting, and 85 per cent say the reforms will reduce diversity. Eighty-seven per cent of the experts in the field—this is the profession that is central to these media changes—are against the cross-media restrictions, 74 per cent are against the provision for foreign ownership and 70 per cent are against the limit of three free-to-air commercial TV networks. Journalists were also surveyed on how the political and commercial interests of their owners influence their work. Fifty-three per cent said they were unable to be critical of the media organisation they worked for, while 38 per cent said they had been instructed to comply with the commercial position of the company for which they work. Thirty-two per cent said they felt obliged to take into account the political views of their proprietor when writing stories.

The best way of countering this feeling amongst journalists, which does clearly impact on what they write and how they write it, is to diversify the ownership of media, to give journalists the freedom to go where they feel they are best placed. I suppose there is an analogy here with the position I have often put in this place—and I am sure you have, Mr Acting Deputy President Murray—that more parties is better than fewer parties in the political arena. Potential candidates—people wanting to represent their community in parliament—have a greater range of choices so that they can dovetail in with a party if they want to and of course go independent if they do not. It is a similar situation we are dealing with here. Effectively, what is happening here is that it is as if we are legislating to reduce the number of political parties. It is bad for democracy. Reduce the number of sources of information and opinion in the community and you are similarly truncating the ability for a full and open discussion of everything and, therefore, for the health of the democracy to prosper into the future.

The online survey of 374 journalists was conducted over the last week by the Roy Morgan centre for Crikey and the MEAA, the union representing Australian journalists. Journalists from SBS, the ABC, Fairfax, News Ltd, Rural Press and all the major TV and radio networks were represented among the respondents to the survey. The results show that most journalists are highly sceptical of plans to relax cross-media and foreign ownership restrictions and replace them with a new minimum of five significant media voices in metropolitan areas and four voices in rural areas. More than 63 per cent of journalists surveyed said they believed Australian media companies have too much influence in deciding how Australians vote, and 71.4 per cent said media owners had too much influence in determining the political agenda. This is the people at the coalface. According to that poll, if journalists were fairly represented in this chamber today, this legislation would be thrown out. It would not be proceeding. That is the profession we need to be listening to.

Alliance federal secretary Christopher Warren said the survey reveals that the people who work in the media know the truth about the government’s proposed media changes. He said:

The changes will undermine diversity, affect the integrity of journalism in Australia and further empower media owners who already have an unwelcome influence on their employees to report the news in a way that suits the owners’ political or commercial agendas ...


Senator Ronaldson —An independent source!


Senator BOB BROWN —There we have the vassal of the government interjecting that it is an independent source. I am making quite clear who the source is. It is the Federal Secretary of the MEAA, and it is a view that ought to be listened to.


Senator Ronaldson —An independent source!


Senator BOB BROWN —It is a professional source. That is what is important about it. It is a professional source. It is backed up—


Senator Ronaldson interjecting—


Senator BOB BROWN —I agree with you that it is an independent source. It is a source of expertise that we should be listening to.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Murray)—Order! Address your remarks through the chair, please.


Senator BOB BROWN —Mr Warren said:

Globally, we are in an age of the big fish eating up the small fish. We are in an age of global media conglomerates. Australia is a small country. We have given rise to a couple of the big media players in global terms. We have lost out through the diversity of outlets and ownership of outlets that Australia has had in my lifetime. This is a matter of defending the health of democracy based on the right of all citizens to have a diversity of information, news and news analysis available to them.

The Greens will oppose this legislation. We recognise the government may have the numbers, but we will be supporting amendments to at least blunt some of the worst teeth biting into the public’s right to diversity which are built into this legislation. When it comes to the third reading, we will still be opposing this legislation but, if there are amendments—and I note those from Senator Murray—which help to improve the trajectory of this legislation away from its negative impact on Australian society, we will be supporting them as we go.