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Tuesday, 10 October 2006
Page: 79

Senator HUMPHRIES (5:59 PM) —The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006 and the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2006 are extremely important in bringing Australian media law into the 21st century and discarding models for the operation of our media which are extremely outmoded and which are seriously hampering the capacity of Australian media to meet the expectations and needs of the Australian community. Arguably this area of our economy is changing so rapidly that even a framework that was created five years ago would be out of date already. But in fact Australia’s media laws were crafted nearly 20 years ago and they are certainly in need of being updated, because the Australian media is changing at a rapid pace, technology is providing opportunities which were not dreamed of only a short time ago, and the sources and means of delivery of news, of information and of entertainment are multiplying rapidly. Media policy needs to keep pace, and, frankly, it has not.

The government has had a clear policy for the better part of the last 10 years to change and update that media framework, and these bills wisely put those changes into place. I think it is important to bear in mind in the course of this debate that, although there are many points of view about who benefits from these changes, there can be no question that it is primarily the consumer of media services who will benefit from the changes this government engineers. What sorts of benefits will they gain? There will be new digital services, including free-to-air in-home digital-only channels and even television content delivered over mobile devices much like mobile phones. There could be up to 30 new channels on mobile TV and potentially eight new in-home channels. The ABC and SBS will be able to show a range of new and exciting content on their digital multichannels, ABC2 and SBS2. Free-to-air broadcasters will be permitted to provide new digital multichannels from next year and can increase the number of multichannels shown in 2009. This could mean up to eight or more multichannels from 2009 and even more multichannels once we completely switch to digital.

Some may argue that those changes are going to happen anyway. I would say no. I would say that it is very important to bear in mind that we need to change the basis on which industry delivers these sorts of services in order to achieve those benefits. The package is not divisible in that sense. You cannot pick and choose benefits without also understanding that we need to create more flexibility and greater capacity to reorganise within the Australian media industry.

The media industry itself has changed very substantially since those last media reforms nearly 20 years ago. We have pay television, we have digital TV, and the internet is creating new players and more choices for consumers and it is undercutting the revenues of traditional media. Computers were once only seen as an office tool; today they are used for watching movies, listening to the radio and reading newspapers. We need to take account of those changes in the way that the law is framed. Current media laws have become, arguably, obsolete and risk preventing necessary mergers, the creation of economies of scale and the entry of new players. In other words, there is a risk that the current laws stifle the ability of the market to work its magic, as it does in other industries.

Of course, the government has provided safeguards in this package to protect the public interest. Indeed, those safeguards have been strengthened only today. Although the government favours a less regulated market, it is not arguing for an unregulated market. It is not advocating open slather. The test of five voices in metropolitan markets and four in regional markets, as well as looking at local content rules, is about making sure that Australians are guaranteed a minimum amount of diversity and choice.

Let me touch on some of the issues that have been raised in the course of debate and comment on how they will likely impact in this community. This community—the Australian Capital Territory—for example, is classed under these changes as a regional market and will therefore be able to have a minimum of four so-called voices as part of that market. Fears have been expressed that the number of media owners here and in other regional markets could shrink under the changes that have been announced. But I think those comments fail to understand that the focus on ownership of media is too narrow a focus. There is an issue here also of quality in the marketplace. The separation of media interests—that is, for example, not allowing the television station owner to operate a newspaper or a radio station—can perpetuate some problems in the quality of our media. A former editor of the Canberra Times, Crispin Hull, put that very well recently when he wrote about these reforms:

The pitiful fodder which passes as broadcast news in some regional markets could be improved with the support of newspaper newsrooms, as they did before the present rules came in 20 years ago.

Indeed, a newsroom providing vision, sound and the written word makes a lot of sense in a world of converging digital technology and an increasingly powerful internet.

That makes the very important point that this assumption that the consolidation means less diversity underestimates the capacity of media outlets in Australia to deliver higher quality services where they are able to rationalise the basis on which they operate. In a media release, my Senate colleague Senator Lundy expressed great misgivings about the possibility that the number of media owners in the ACT could decrease from six to four. Whether that happens or not is a matter we can speculate about, but there are a couple of important points that she and others in this debate have overlooked.

First of all, we need to understand what we mean when we talk about four or five voices. There are some people who are assuming that those voices refer to all the possible sources of information or news available to individuals in a particular community. But those four or five voices do not count a range of other sources of information and news to the community. In any given marketplace, for example, it does not count the ABC in all of its forms—that is, ABC television, ABC radio in all its variety of forms and ABC online. It does not count SBS, with its equivalent number of outlets. It does not count community television—let Senator Bob Brown be clear about that. It does not count community radio. It does not count national newspapers, such as the Australian and the Financial Review. It does not count newspapers that are published less than four times a week in a particular marketplace or electorate. It does not count out-of-zone or out-of-region newspapers like, for example, the Sydney Morning Herald in Canberra. It does not count pay television, and of course it does not count the internet.

Even if you were to abolish the voices we are talking about, if you were not to have any of those four voices in this regional marketplace—you abolished them altogether and you only had the other voices—you have already got so many voices that you would almost call it a cacophony of points of view, of sources of information available in this marketplace, and of course in others all over Australia, from which citizens can obtain points of view, information, access to news and so on. It is on top of that platform, that variety of voices, that we are adding this requirement for a regulated four or five voices as a minimum. Those who enter this debate and talk about those voices as if they are all that people are going to be able to access must understand that.

The other point is that the four voices in the case of this particular regional marketplace is a minimum. Senator Murray described it as a ceiling, but I think it is better to describe it as a floor. It is a minimum. Of course many marketplaces will have more than that. There is no requirement that people have to get rid of the number of voices in a marketplace in excess of that minimum number. And, if for some reason a particular marketplace does have four voices or moves to four voices, it is perfectly possible for new voices to enter that marketplace in certain circumstances and enlarge that number at any point in the future. For example, there is no regulation on who can start a newspaper in this country. If there is a marketplace with four or five voices and someone wishes to start a new newspaper, they can go ahead and you will have an enlargement of that number of voices in that particular community.

It is important to bear in mind just what will change in marketplaces around Australia. Let us assume that every consolidation that this four- or five-voices test allows does actually occur, that there is a race to the bottom and that this floor is reached very quickly. What would it mean in marketplaces across Australia? First of all, under the four-voices test no mergers could take place in 63 per cent of regional markets across Australia—that is, in the overwhelming majority of regions, almost two out of three marketplaces in Australia, no mergers can take place because the mandated minimum for voices is already what that community or marketplace enjoys. You have no change in that respect. In fact, you could only get an enlargement of that number rather than a reduction in the number of voices in that particular marketplace.

In a further 18 per cent of regional markets, we have an existing five voices and, therefore, only one merger could possibly occur—hardly a doomsday scenario. So we have a total of 81 per cent of regional markets in this country where either no mergers could occur or, at most, only one could occur. There are 19 regional markets which presently have six or seven voices and where, theoretically, you could have two or three mergers occurring in order to reach that minimum. But again, even if that is possible in a particular marketplace, it does not mean it is going to happen. Apart from the question of whether existing media interests wish to sell out to other existing media interests in that marketplace, there is the question of whether or not such mergers would be permitted by either ACMA or the ACCC. Having seen the work of the ACCC over a number of years, I have a little more faith than some others do in its capacity—and that of the Communications and Media Authority—to be able to see a bad move for a particular community when it recognises one.

The other point to make is that the existing restrictions preclude one player owning more than one television station in a marketplace or one player owning more than two radio stations in a marketplace. That will not change either. So, again, there are further layers on that four- or five-voices test which guarantee a minimum level of diversity. The minister has announced today that on top of all of this there will be the maintenance of the two out of three test, which I will come back to and speak about in a minute.

The other important point that has been overlooked in Senator Lundy’s statement and in a number of other contributions to this debate is that there is a key player in the media in Australia with access to news, information and entertainment which is going to radically alter the way in which Australians access those things in the future—that is, the internet. To quote Senator Lundy’s website, ‘the future’s in the net’, and indeed it is. It is that element that will undercut any argument that freeing up those traditional sources of media will somehow reduce the available access to news and information.

The internet will radically change the way in which Australians obtain that information, as it has already done. It has already undermined the concept of the mass audience by enabling consumers to read newspapers and listen to radio stations from across the globe. It has encouraged countless numbers of individuals to create websites and blogs which challenge the views expressed in the mainstream media. If someone finds their views are not being expressed in the mainstream media, the odds are they will be able to find them on the internet. Other contributors to this debate have made reference to Crikey. I do not have a lot of time for Crikey—it tends to raise my blood pressure rather more than I want it to—but the fact is it is an example of the kind of diversity in media we are going to see increasingly relied upon by Australians in the future. It represents the future of Australian access to news and information.

Minister Coonan herself made the point in an address last week:

... those that dismiss the impact of blogs and online communities as a source of diversity miss the point. Their illegitimacy is their strength. The mass market for media is changing and the cost of not adapting will mean a generation lost to the internet.

There are a number of major advantages the internet currently provides over traditional media. It is a truly global medium. Someone living in Canberra can access a newspaper article in Paris or a blog in the United States and so on. It is easily able to access niche audiences—that is, through things like narrowcasting. The cost of setting up entry to the internet, such as through a website, is vastly cheaper than producing a newspaper or running a television station, and thousands upon thousands of Australians already use the internet in that way. Internet consumers are able to access news and entertainment on demand and the information is up to date. They can now make the media revolve around their schedules rather than the other way around.

So the model that we are used to at this point, of the typical citizen of our country walking out to their front lawn to pick up the rolled up newspaper and going inside to read it, is less likely to be the model of access to news that we will see in the next generation of Australians and certainly in the one after that. They will be logging on first thing in the morning and checking out news or information on the internet because it is up to date, it is global and it contains much greater access to in-depth analysis or sources of knowledge that simply cannot be provided by a newspaper or even, for that matter, television or radio.

I welcome the lifting of restrictions on multichannelling which these changes entail. They will significantly drive a number of things, including take-up of digital television, and will have major significance to the way in which Australians view those sources of media. I also welcome the changes to the foreign ownership laws. People in this debate have again decried the lack of diverse sources of media ownership, but they overlook the fact that by relaxing foreign ownership rules we have the capacity for people from outside Australia to enter the marketplace and to provide a new range of points of view to the extent that those ownerships reflect themselves in the views of media outlets. I think that has also been exaggerated very considerably.

I want to make reference as well to the changes to the antisiphoning regime. That is extremely important, giving Australians access to a range of sporting events which simply have been outside their capacity to enjoy because there are so many important sporting events which fall into the crack between those available on free-to-air television and those available on pay television. We simply have to change that system, and I welcome the minister’s commitment to the reform of that area.

I will close by making reference to the fact that there has been a great deal of exaggeration in this debate about elements of this government’s package. There have been a great many assumptions made by opponents which simply are not true: the assumption that some consolidation of media ownership will be an entirely bad thing—of course it will not; the assumption that the four or five voices referred to in the legislation are the only voices in this debate in any marketplace—of course they are not; the assumption that all possible consolidations in a marketplace will occur as permitted by the legislation—that is not true; the assumption that there will be a massive change even if it did occur in the landscape of the Australian media—that is also not true; and the assumption that somehow the use by Australians of the internet is a static phenomenon and will not continue to change—of course it will.

I commend the minister for her perseverance, her negotiating skills and her courage in driving this package to the point where it is being debated and, I am confident, will be passed by this Senate. They are important developments that put Australian media laws into the 21st century and provide us with the chance to have very exciting change and development in the way Australians view news, information and entertainment.

Debate (on motion by Senator Colbeck) adjourned.