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Wednesday, 11 October 2006
Page: 24

Senator WORTLEY (11:13 AM) —I rise to speak on the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006 and related bills. In doing so, I again highlight the contempt with which the Howard government uses its numbers in the Senate to ram through its extreme legislation. The task of the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts was to examine changes to the media landscape in Australia—in fact, to examine the most significant changes since the introduction of cross-media ownership laws in 1987. So how does the government go about this process? The minister released information before the ECITA committee had even met to discuss the inquiry, nominating the reporting date, because again there was no need to wait to see if the committee agreed: the government had the numbers. Even some coalition senators were outraged by this.

The committee met. Labor senators put forward reasons as to why the time frame was too short. We argued that witnesses would need longer to prepare their written submissions and make arrangements to appear before the committee in Canberra. The issue of time was raised by a number of witnesses, including the Screen Producers Association of Australia, Premier Media Group, Commercial Radio Australia, the ACCC and the Communications Law Centre. We provided reasons why two days were not long enough to hear and question the witnesses, but again the government’s arrogance won the day.

On the day of the hearing, opposition senators were told we would have only 10 minutes to question and receive answers from each of the witnesses, and witness opening statements were limited to just five minutes. Why? Because the two days allocated by the government was not long enough and it was the only way we could hear from the more than 30 witnesses who were lucky enough to get a guernsey to appear before the inquiry. There were some potential witnesses who had provided submissions but missed out on appearing because of the time frame and the stubbornness of the government in refusing to allow the committee to meet anywhere but Canberra.

At this point I would like to raise the issue of time in relation to the two-day inquiry. In doing so, I understand that it is likely the government chair was operating under the instruction of the minister, so it would have been very difficult under the circumstances. However, in support of my claim that it was a rushed process, I point out that the government chair told nearly every witness group words to the effect that we were operating on a very short time frame; and, on at least 15 occasions during the two-day inquiry, the government chair made reference to running out of time, as did the other government and opposition senators.

But lack of time in relation to the inquiry did not end there; the abuse of process continued. Opposition senators were given just 40 minutes to consider the chair’s draft report before a telephone conference was convened to endorse it. They were given 40 minutes to consider a report on legislation that was lacking in detail, flawed in content and would significantly change the media landscape in Australia. Even rose-coloured glasses could not make this process look any better. The reality is that the inquiry into this legislation, which will impact on every Australian, was a farce.

Labor senators did not accept the report but submitted their own minority report highlighting the failure of the proposed legislation to deliver to the Australian people—and it is to these issues that I will now turn. The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006 and related bills propose significant changes to laws on cross-media and foreign ownership, digital television, antisiphoning rules and the power of the media and communications regulator. The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2006 contains some measures which relax the regulatory regime and increase the appeal of digital television to consumers. Labor supports these initiatives. We welcome too the adoption of our policy, advocated before the last election, of lifting the genre restrictions on the multichannels of the ABC and SBS. We urge the government to consider giving the ABC and SBS extra funds to drive take-up as part of the digital action plan under development.

There are two significant changes to Australian media law in the media ownership bill. One change, which Labor supports, is the provision that proposes the repeal of the specific foreign ownership provisions in the Broadcasting Services Act that relate to commercial and subscription television while at the same time retaining the ability to screen foreign investment in Australian media to ensure that it is in the national interest. Such changes regarding foreign investment offer the potential to introduce new players into the market and increase media diversity. However, the second provision in the media ownership bill is a significant change that weakens the existing cross-media ownership rules, and Labor opposes it. We cannot support legislation that could make way for increased concentration in the control of the major media outlets and the most influential media—newspapers, television news and current affairs, and radio talkback programs—increasing their ability to influence Australia’s public and political agenda.

It is widely acknowledged that concentration of media ownership significantly impacts on the public debate, including the formulation of public opinion. Any further concentration of media ownership in Australia would be detrimental to our democracy. These changes are likely to lead to less diversity, less competition and greater concentration of ownership. They are not in the national interest but in the interest of the incumbent media entities.

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the union that represents the professional and industrial interests of journalists and the entertainment industry, in its submission to the inquiry, said:

It is difficult to see how enacting legislation that allows for more mergers and acquisitions in the media sector could deliver greater competitiveness or guarantee ongoing diversity.

Their submission highlighted the Melbourne market as an example of where the introduction of five commercial media entities could result in the loss of four. This is not media diversity; it is fewer voices in the media of influence in an Australian capital city. In my hometown of Adelaide we have some understanding of the lack of diversity in media ownership because our daily newspaper, our Sunday newspaper and our suburban newspapers are all owned by News Ltd. While we welcome the investment that News Ltd continues to make in news and information in Adelaide, I am sure that even they recognise the benefits of competition. I know that many of the journalists there would welcome increased competition. In Adelaide the existing competition are the other mediums that could be lost in a merger or acquisition.

However the legislation is packaged, the end result is a reduction in the diversity of ownership—an increased concentration of media ownership—and hence a reduction in the number of voices of influence. A number of witnesses and others who put forward submissions to the Senate inquiry were of this view. I will quote from the submission by Private Media Partners. They said:

We do not believe there is any justification on public policy grounds for the Government to abolish or amend the current cross-media restrictions.

Such a change, in our view, could result in a dangerous increase in the power of existing media companies to influence Australia’s public and political agenda.

We see amendments to the proposed legislation that will prevent more than two of the three traditional media being owned by one proprietor or company in a market. Last night, we heard Senator Nash claim this as a win for The Nationals and so, too, did Senator Joyce this morning. Two out of three of the traditional media is a significant slice of the market. It is a significant change to the current laws. Under the current laws, companies are limited to the ownership of television, radio or newspaper in one market. I fail to see how The Nationals can claim that the two out of three rule is a win, when it is likely to spark a run of media mergers and takeovers.

The changes to the cross-media ownership laws and the introduction of the two out of three rule mean that we could see a reduction in diversity through possible mergers or takeovers, where a media company could own the newspapers and a TV station. For example, under the two out of three rule, it would not be inconceivable in Adelaide for News Ltd to own all of the newspapers and Ten Network, and one voice would effectively be lost.

The government’s argument that new media’s position in the market makes the current laws redundant is just not the reality. This was put clearly in the submission to the inquiry by Private Media Partners, when they stated:

... the old media still totally dominate the flow of serious information in Australia. The arrival of websites and blogs may have added more numeric voices to the debate, but they are minute blips on the information radar compared to the societal and political influence that is wielded by newspapers or talk radio.

When Australians use the internet to access news, they overwhelmingly go to the websites owned by the traditional media players. Recent figures reveal the dominance of the old media players in new media as having the dominant share of internet use and advertising sites, with Fairfax at 33 per cent, News at 24 per cent and PBL at 13 per cent. As ACCC Chairman, Graeme Samuel, told the Senate communications committee last week:

... the internet is simply a distribution channel. It has not shown any significant signs at this point in time of providing a greater diversity of credible information and news and commentary.

The dominant source of news and opinion for Australians remains the product produced by television, radio and newspaper companies.

Relaxation of the cross-media rules will lead to mergers and acquisitions. The companies will take on debt, resulting in cost-cutting exercises, with companies consolidating newsrooms and other departments across their organisations. History demonstrates that this in turn leads to a reduction in the number of journalists and other editorial staff being employed. Jobs will be lost. This, of course, would be occurring at the very same time when companies in Australia should be investing in new media, and so would not have the money to do so. There is a flow-on effect: fewer voices of influence, fewer journalists employed and a possible impact on quality of journalism. And the consumers—the Australian public—will be the big losers. As Mr Beecher said in his submission:

Removing or weakening the cross-media rules will result in fewer journalists and diminished journalism. The new laws are constructed for industry consolidation, which is likely to result in acquisitions by existing media owners of existing Australian media assets.

The removal of the cross-media rules will result in fewer owners. By consolidating political and societal power in the hands of a number of individuals, this legislation will curtail public debate and make Australia a less democratic country. In the process, the role of the fourth estate in the scrutiny of government will be weakened.

According to recent opinion polls, the majority of journalists do not support this legislation and the majority of the public do not support it. A recent Roy Morgan Crikey! poll revealed that 85 per cent of journalists surveyed believe the government changes will reduce diversity in Australia; 82.6 per cent believe that the changes will negatively affect reporting integrity; and an even higher number, 87 per cent, disagreed with the bill’s intent of abolishing the cross-media ownership rules. One submission to the Senate committee concluded in relation to the abandonment of the cross-media laws:

It creates the impression that the Government is working in the interests of a small number of media owners instead of working in the interests of all Australians.

The existing cross-media laws provide a diversity of ownership in the most influential media. They ensure that a wide range of information and opinion is available. The changes to the cross-media ownership laws are not wanted by the public, not wanted by many who work in the media and even not wanted by many of the media owners.

In concluding, I quote from an article in today’s Age newspaper by Malcolm Maiden:

As for the national good, it’s hard to find any.

By dismantling the cross-media ownership barrier the Government is opening the way for a substantial consolidation of ownership of the traditional media before new and independent digital media forums are sufficiently well developed.

It is the reverse to what was proposed by the Government’s think tank, the Productivity Commission, and it will diminish what the commission called the market for ideas. If it gets up, media consumers will be the losers. The corporate winners will emerge rapidly.

Everyone in this place knows changes to the cross-media laws will reduce media diversity. This is unacceptable to Labor. Repealing the cross-media laws and replacing them with the coalition’s new laws could facilitate a massive concentration of media ownership. It is without doubt that this would not be in the best interests of the Australian public.