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Tuesday, 10 October 2006
Page: 96


Senator HUTCHINS (8:21 PM) —I wish to speak on the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006 this evening. As you are aware, we have waited nearly two days to debate this bill. Despite what Senator Ian Macdonald has said, I think that, if you look at the actions of the coalition since they gathered control of the Senate in the last 12 months or so, it is their side that is consumed by ideology. We have seen it in the introduction of the Work Choices legislation; we have seen it in the introduction of Welfare to Work; we have seen the changes to the electoral laws; and we have seen the changes to the committee system. All this has happened in the last 12 months since the government gained control. That is what concerns us on this side about the contents of the bill and, in addition to that, the conduct of where we have got to at this stage.

Senator Ian Macdonald was a competent minister and has continued to be a competent parliamentarian. I listened to his contribution this evening and he highlighted a number of difficulties that he has with the bill that he has indicated to us that he will be raising in the committee stage when we get to that. I think that not only reflects on Senator Macdonald’s character but also indicates to us at least that there is still some disquiet or some difficulties not just within the National Party but also within the Liberal Party about the progress of this bill.

But one has to compliment Senator Macdonald because he at least has the courage to come into this place and put his position. Senator Macdonald is a known coalitionist. In the end, despite his misgivings about what may be said and the difficulties he has highlighted, he will no doubt continue to support the government line. But, as I said, Senator Macdonald is here this evening and has spoken.

But where is Senator Barnaby Joyce? Where is Senator Fiona Nash? You can get them to make a contribution in the vicinity of the parliament if you go out and get a doorstop from 7.30 to about a quarter to nine every morning. I saw Senator Joyce this evening, all sweaty after a run around the paddock, giving the people of Australia, through the ABC and the other media outlets, the opportunity to hear what he thought. I went and checked just then, and I cannot see Senator Joyce’s name on the speakers list this evening so that Senator Joyce could at least outline to us, as he does in his media grabs, what he has been able to blackmail out of the government in this legislation. Where is he?

Where is Senator Fiona Nash? She is the person who follows him around now. Equally she now seems to be an anticoalitionist. Where is she? What did she blackmail out of the government? At least I have not seen Senator Nash do the 30-second grabs out the front here between 7.30 and a quarter to nine every morning. Maybe it is Senator Nash’s turn tomorrow. Why aren’t Senator Nash and Senator Joyce in here this evening explaining to the Senate what they had difficulties with in relation to this legislation and what they blackmailed out of the government?

At least Senator Ian Macdonald has outlined his concerns, which he will raise in the committee stage. But will we hear from Senator Joyce or Senator Nash in the committee stage? I doubt it very much, because this has all been done secretly, except for the grabs out the front here and the odd television appearance. These two members of the Senate have been able to extract some major concession from a hapless minister about what is going to be involved in this legislation. So what did they get out of it? We know the two to three rule, but I have looked and we now have the list of amendments that we are going to be expected to consider this week. I am not sure when these arrived but they have now been presented.

I am sure Senator Nash and Senator Joyce have had their opportunity to speak to that hapless minister, Senator Coonan. I am not sure if in the end Senator Coonan conceded and decided to meet them collectively rather than individually. Maybe she did. But, in the end, the deal has been done. Listening to the Liberal people making their contributions, these anticoalitionists have now got you by the short and curlies. Despite the misgivings of Senator Ian Macdonald, which he has outlined this evening, they are not in here explaining that to us. I do not know what they explained to their joint party room this morning. Maybe they did that as well. But, in the end, they have screwed a concession out of the government. They have blackmailed a hapless minister into making concessions that we will have the opportunity over the next 24 hours to look at and make our own determinations on. That is what we have seen this afternoon and in the last few days.

I agree with Senator Ian Macdonald in relation to this rushed hearing. With the complexity that is being asked of parliamentarians and the complexity of this legislation, how does two days suffice? In the end, the government have the numbers—well, you would have thought so with Senator Joyce and Senator Nash joining the coalition ranks last year—and so the government should be able to come into this place and be able to execute their legislation. But, of course, they have not had an opportunity because they have been blackmailed by these blackguards, as people might call them. That is what has happened and that is where we are at at this stage.

These reforms are the most significant since the cross-media laws were introduced in 1987. They were put in place to protect the diversity of Australia’s media and to give Australians access to a wide range of opinions, news gathering and entertainment. They make sure that the controlling interest of radio and television is also not the controlling interest of a newspaper in the same capital city. This makes sense. It is logical for the Australian people to expect that when they read a newspaper, tune into their radios or switch on the television news the copy is not all written by the same hand or spoken by the same voice.

True enough, the media landscape is a different one to the one when the cross-media laws were introduced nearly two decades ago. The prevalence of the internet as a popular medium for news and entertainment was not on the agenda of policymakers then. Mobile phones were not jangling around in people’s pockets and bags back then. However, the foundation argument remains—we are entitled to a diversity of opinion in our media.

Let us have a look at the current face of the media. There are 12 owners of major media in Sydney, 11 in Melbourne, 10 in Brisbane, eight in Perth and seven in Adelaide. In the regional markets we are looking at six or seven major media owners. In places like Bathurst or Gosford, there are five groups. In Lithgow, there are only four. Oh, good, Senator Joyce is going to join the debate. This level of concentration is also one of the highest in the world. This bill seeks to make it easier for the big players in the industry to grow bigger and sounds the death knell for the smaller media organisations. This is particularly important for regionally based media, but its significance to suburban consumers should not be overlooked. When people open their local newspapers, they want to see local news. When people listen to their local radio stations, they do want to hear about topical, local issues. The vibrancy and connectedness of many communities relies greatly on the interaction they have through their local media. The letters pages and the local talkback are all part of the networks communities tap into.

The government’s original plan, however, would have seen a reduction of media voices down to minimums of less than half in some cases, as I understand, of the organisations that are now operating. Some of these remarks of mine are predicated on the facts of the original bill. The proposal is for minimums of five voices in metropolitan media and four in regional Australia. With an open slather market it will be a race to acquire the most prized and most influential media organisations. A minimum of five voices in a capital city can mean a major print organisation acquiring a leading radio station and leading television station in one market, marginalising its competition but still being able to fulfil the five voices regulation.

As radio group DMG noted in its submission to the Senate inquiry:

It is unrealistic, for example, to suggest that a mega media conglomerate with one daily newspaper, one free to air television station and two radio stations in one market should be counted as a voice just the same as one small stand alone radio station in that market with an insignificant number of listeners. This belies reality.

DMG makes a very valid point that is lost on the thin rationale behind the five/four voices plan. Fairfax in its submission to the inquiry highlighted the example of the Newcastle market, where there are seven media organisations, but the prevalence of only a handful of outlets already dilutes the diversity and does not bode well for the market post the abolition of the cross-media ownership laws. Fairfax representatives told the inquiry:

If you asked the lord mayor of Newcastle how many media players there were in Newcastle, I think he would be amazed to find there were seven. If he puts out a press release, probably only our newsroom, NBN’s newsroom and maybe one of the local radio stations will contact him. The notion that there are seven independent voices in Newcastle is probably mathematically correct and statistically true, but it is substantively false. I think there are concerns in regional Australia, which are expressed to our regional editors in the markets in which we participate, that further consolidation in those markets will further diminish diversity of content in those markets.

Exposure is the jewel in the crown for a media organisation. Mergers, if they occur, will be designed to garner the most exposure for a media organisation. They will be designed to grab the largest number of readers, listeners and viewers to maximise profits through advertising revenue and to likely minimise the cost of centralising production. Taking away the protection of diversity enshrined in the existing cross-media laws is a strong signal from the government that it values the profiteering of big media rather than the service it delivers to consumers. Advertising is the driving force behind any successful media organisation. The larger an organisation grows, the more advertising it attracts. The two have a very close relationship that is sometimes too close.

In my local area, in Penrith, where I have an office, in my duty electorate of Lindsay, there was this week reported an issue about Work Choices. It related to a local real estate agent, Mr Jim Aitken. Mr Aitken is probably the biggest real estate agent in Penrith area. He is a local Liberal councillor—that would not surprise you—and he is also a former state Liberal candidate. He has been accused this week of creating a new company so that he can terminate his employees and shift them onto new contracts. A faithful Liberal soldier, he has taken the opportunity provided to him by Work Choices and told his staff they can sign it or else. It is an interesting local story and I wait to see the outcome of it, because Councillor Aitken would have to be the biggest advertiser in the local papers—the Penrith Press and the Penrith City Star. I will be interested to see whether this story does get a run in the local papers, because it did get a run on Channel 10 last Saturday night.

But, as I said, while the government’s proposal says it will guarantee a five-four minimum, it does not speak to the influence of these voices or the marginalising effect a significant merger could have on the remaining voices. This may not be an overnight effect, but the exposure to even a watered-down two-way merger, combined with the increased revenue from the ensuing advertising, would make for an incredibly formidable conglomerate that would more than likely encourage its competitors to follow suit.

One of the great attractions of a merger for media organisations is centralising their production units. Production staff and journalists are a high cost for media organisations. Mergers between groups provide the incentive of homogenising production so that live and local becomes mass produced and impersonal. In a merged media market, the number of locally based journalists would be downsized so that locally produced news is an afterthought. For the money counters, centralised production makes good sense, but the local consumers who want to find out what is happening in their communities will be left scratching their heads. And just as the temptation to delocalise media production would be too great, so too would be the temptation to use all arms of an organisation for cross promotions. We have already seen some poor examples of promotions tarted up as news, and the abolition of cross-media laws will only add to the opportunities for media organisations to use their time and print space to further their own bottom line, regardless of the public interest value.

I would also like to touch on the role of the emerging media. It is completely ignored in this bill, more than likely because the dominance of the existing media players means that the influence of the voices represented by emerging media are following similar patterns to those in the traditional media. The argument goes that new media like the internet is much easier for a nonplayer to break into than your traditional media market. Theoretically, this would hold true. It is relatively inexpensive to begin your own online news service or entertainment provider. There are literally millions of blogs out there giving unknown authors’ unfettered freedom of expression, and there are web portals with video, audio and text on demand that surpass what is on offer in traditional media.

But popularity in the emerging media has its price. Online video sharing website YouTube is the most popular site of its kind. It began as a way for people to upload video diaries and has exploded to include all kinds of audio-video content. But YouTube does not quite know what to do with its popularity, and has a monthly $2 million bill just to keep up its capacity. The profiteers from the existing media stable are hovering, ready to turn YouTube into an advertising goldmine. Mobile television is the next battleground, where media companies will fight to be in the pockets of millions of Australians. The government has already signalled it will open the bidding to existing media companies, meaning that another emerging media will be lost to diversity and we will see more of the same.

It is characteristic of a government ignorant of the wishes of the Australian people, who are sick of the profit first mentality of the current Howard regime, and that is why this bill worries me. We have seen many examples in the last 12 months where this government has opted for ideology over practicality. We have seen it with the issues I raised earlier. We are seeing it now with the sale of Telstra, the sale of Medibank, which the government has backed off from at this stage, and the other issues that we have been highlighting, including Work Choices. The bill that we have been presented with today is, once again, a triumph of ideology over practicality. This bill worries me, because in the end it will narrow the stream of opinion and it will be a significant threat down the track to our parliamentary democracy.