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Wednesday, 11 October 2006
Page: 35

Senator FIELDING (Leader of the Family First Party) (12:04 PM) —The issue of media ownership has been a difficult one for Family First to resolve. Each media organisation has a different position on the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006 and related legislation, based on its own commercial interests. These are loud voices that we politicians hear, but too often the views of ordinary Australians and their families are not considered. To be honest, most Australians that Family First has spoken to do not know about these changes. When I have outlined them, most have told me that they do not have a particular view one way or the other.

You see, ordinary Australians are busy getting on with their lives. They are working hard to get the mortgages paid, struggling to keep on top of the bills and doing their best to raise their kids and put them through school. Debates in parliament about who owns what in the media simply do not feature in the day-to-day lives of the Australians we represent. More and more families are not reading newspapers and cannot afford them. Television, especially free-to-air television, is the primary source of information and entertainment. The programs Australians watch are determined not by who owns what station but by the programs themselves. Families switch from one station to another depending on what is on.

This reality has led me to conclude that the current debate over media ownership is going in the wrong direction. There appears to be widespread agreement that relaxing cross-media ownership restrictions is likely to lead to further concentration of media ownership. Family First believes the question we need to ask is: what is the theory underpinning this debate? Are we concerned about greater media concentration because it will boost profits of media barons? No. The concern about ownership is based on the assumption that ownership is the dominant factor which determines content and editorial priorities. It is also based on the assumption that when media outlets do use their power to promote particular views they significantly influence public opinion. However, Family First strongly believes the real concern ought to be not so much the concentration of ownership but the concentration of ideology—the concentration of ideas. Where is the evidence that the key factor that determines ideas is ownership—in other words, that owners dictate ideas?

Out there in the real world it is nothing like that. Consider the ABC: it is owned by the government, and the ABC board is appointed by the government. Therefore, wouldn’t we expect the ABC to voice the views of its owners? In theory, yes, but we all know the ABC’s owners—the government—are constantly railing against them. Does Southern Cross Broadcasting hire Neil Mitchell in Melbourne because of his views or because he can pull an audience? Did John Singleton lure Alan Jones to 2GB because of Jones’s political views or because he rates? Does 2UE keep John Laws because he toes a certain editorial line? Does 2UE particularly care what Laws says as long as he rates? The reality is that media organisations are big businesses and need to be profitable to survive. What drives them are dollars.

Of course further concentration could result in fewer people wielding power and influence, and I admit Family First is uneasy about that. But would fewer people mean less diverse ideas or merely fewer people sharing the same philosophical or cultural outlook? I also note the Productivity Commission’s 2000 report. It stated:

The likelihood that a proprietor’s business and editorial interests will influence the content and opinion of their media outlets is of major significance.

However, Family First is sceptical about that statement as it does not accord with our real world experience.

The argument that ownership is the sole determinant of ideas is simplistic. It is a myth. It is much more complicated than that. Therefore, if the media owners are not preoccupied by content and running editorial lines, we need to ask: who does determine what ideas are promoted? Increasingly, it comes down to the mindset of individual journalists, opinion editors, editorial writers, section editors, columnists and editors of the nation’s letters pages. It is these people who decide what is published, what is aired, what is screened and what is not. For example, just last week almost 200 doctors signed a letter opposing embryonic cloning. The letter was sent to every major newspaper across the country, yet only one published it. Was that because both Rupert Murdoch and Ron Walker decided that? Clearly, it was the decision of the letters editors.

But let us consider for one moment that media ownership and ideology are intrinsically linked, that owners do dictate the ideas. What effect does that actually have on how Australians think and behave? In other words, how influential are these media barons at using their media mouthpieces to dictate how ordinary Australians should act? Consider the republic debate in 1999. With very few exceptions, every paper and journalist across the country actively campaigned for a yes vote. What effect did they have? Overwhelmingly, Australians voted no. Consider the war in Iraq. Many people believe the Murdoch press has run a strong pro-war campaign; yet, despite the fact the Murdoch press dominates newspaper circulation across the country, polls show that the majority of Australians do not support the war and want our troops out.

Another point that is important to make is that, increasingly, news is becoming entertaining. Our talk show hosts and columnists are as much there to entertain as to run any editorial line imposed from above. As I said earlier, the media industry is driven by dollars. This is all commerce. The Murdoch empire thinks these changes are against News Ltd’s commercial interests, while the Packer empire thinks they are in PBL’s commercial interests—all for reasons Family First does not fully understand.

That said, there does need to be balance. Despite my earlier comments, Family First is concerned about the possibility of a monopoly of our major media outlets and the potential abuse of power that that represents. That is why Family First supports the two out of three rule and is pleased it will apply to metropolitan as well as regional markets. Family First is also pleased the government will require regional radio stations to air local content and news during the day and that that will be put in legislation. However, Family First is unsure what a reasonable level of local content would be. Family First supports a review to examine what is reasonable and how operators, big and small, will be affected.

It is important to note that the real concentration of regional TV occurred when we allowed aggregation of television. Regional TV is now dominated by Southern Cross, WIN and Prime. Where is the existing law that stops Murdoch buying the Morning Bulletin in Rockhampton or that says Fairfax cannot buy the Shepparton News or the Wangaratta Chronicle? There is no limit on that. In fact, Fairfax bought the Border Mail in Albury-Wodonga just months ago. Family First is cautious when approaching difficult issues like media ownership. But we are not talking about moving from a regulated system to an unregulated one. The proposed changes are about a different system of regulation. Family First understands there are arguments both for and against this legislation. However, Family First believes that the arguments against these changes, whilst strong, are not overwhelming. This is a decision which must be made on balance. Family First is not persuaded that the arguments against this legislation are so significant as to justify rejecting it and, therefore, we will support it.