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Thursday, 9 December 1965

Mr Allan Fraser (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Monaro) amending act which was passed earlier this year. That Act set out to restrict monopoly control of commercial television. Its effect was very limited. What was done under the act was far too little and was done far too late. Before the act was passed, Australian commercial television had already passed into the effective control of a very small number of wealthy men, nearly all of whom also had very great newspaper interests. The passage of that amending act has left the position unchanged. Control of commercial television today remains in the hands of a very few wealthy men, nearly all of whom also have extensive newspaper interests. That situation is a national disgrace and a national danger. It is a position paralleled in no other country in the world. It is the direct result of the timidity of this Government which allowed these newspaper barons to set the express will of Parliament at naught, by exploiting legal loopholes.

The amending Bill now before the House relates to a provision in the amending act whereby the Government deliberately exempts from the restrictions on television control and ownership all interests in television station licences that were acquired before 17th December 1964. Indeed, this was a case of the Government making sure that the stable door was not shut until every possible horse had already got out, laying it down that henceforth none of the existing monopoly rights established in television should in any way be restricted. I think the honorable members ought to be clear that the act which we are now seeking to amend is itself an act which, in the name of restricting monopoly control of television, has validated every monopoly expansion of television that occurred in this country up to 17th December 1964.

It might be thought that the amending act was itself pretty much of an empty gesture. But the new amending Bill we are now dealing with shows that apparently this was not entirely so. It was not entirely an empty gesture because seemingly it has been discovered that some inconvenient small restraint is imposed by the act. Accordingly this Bill, very obligingly, sets out to remove even that very small restraint imposed on monopoly television control. The act, in accepting television interests acquired before 17th December 1964, pro vided at the same time that a person who was thus permitted to retain existing widespread interests in television companies should also be permitted to be represented on the directorates controlling those companies. If that person had succeeded, by finding loopholes in the law, in defeating the will of Parliament and extending his television interests more than the Parliament would have wished, or which the legislation sought to achieve, then the Government proposed that not only should all these interests be validated and continued but that the person concerned should be permitted to be represented on the directorates controlling all those companies.

Some doubt has been expressed as to whether or not the provision in the amending act fully carries out its intention so we have this new amending Bill to remove all possible doubts in that direction. I accept the statement of the PostmasterGeneral (Mr. Hulme) that the measure does not involve any change at all of policy but is merely intended to clarify what was always the intention of the relevant section of the act. This statement is borne out, of course, by a study of the Bill, and the Opposition does not oppose this measure. One might have thought that the Government would appease the newspaper barons in Australia by this further humble offering cast in their direction, but these newspaper knights are both insatiable and implacable. In Melbourne, yesterday the " Herald " carried the attack on this Government launched by its chairman of directors, Sir John Williams, with large headlines and unlimited space, as befits a report relating to the utterances of a chairman of directors. The newspaper set out Sir John's attack upon the Government. But at least it had the sense of fitness to publish the report of his utterances on an inside page.

This morning, the Sydney " Daily Telegraph " carried a fulminating front page editorial by Sir Frank Packer written, who would doubt, by his own fair hand. His hand was apparently trembling at the injustice that this Government had done. Honorable members might not be in any doubt as to whom the injustice has been done. It has been done, of course, to Sir Frank Packer. He is very indignant about it and is using the whole force of his newspaper and his powers of mass communication to threaten and browbeat the Government in the determination that these amending provisions shall be withdrawn.

Both these giants, Sir John Williams and Sir Frank Packer, are full of fury at the Government's amendments to the television law which restricts their rights to acquire still more television stations. They are roaring dreadfully; they are pawing the ground and they are breathing fire in their attempts to intimidate the Government. They know, of course, by experience that it is utterly impossible for them to intimidate the Opposition. But they also know by experience that if they crack the whip hard enough some Government supporters at least will always dance to the newspaper tune. As sick making spectacles ought to be avoided as far as possible, I hope that no Government member will be so shameless as to do this in this debate.

I must make one distinction between these two newspaper knights. Sir John does his bullying and whip-cracking in a gentlemanly way but the good and noble Sir Frank has no such reservations whatever. Where his interests and his profits are concerned he goes in boots and all. He uses the whole resources of his newspaper, his editor, his leader writer and every member of his staff, in an endeavour to protect his interests which, apparently, in his mind coincide with public interest. The public interest is the interest of Sir Frank Packer, and the interest of Sir Frank Packer is the public interest.

In his editorial today Sir Frank Packer named a number of Federal Ministers. They have an opportunity in this debate to show that they stand hard and fast for the amending act because he has charged them with silence and with being afraid to declare themselves one way or the other. In the plainest words, be has named them and he has threatened them. He wants the amendments withdrawn and he has called upon the Prime Minister (Sir Robert Menzies) to act. He does not threaten the Prime Minister. I think he has a sort of reverent attitude towards this father or grandfather figure, but he almost pleads with him. But Sir Frank has no hesitation at all in threatening the Treasurer (Mr. Harold Holt), whom he calls upon to act, and the Minister for Trade and Industry (Mr. McEwen), whom he calls upon to act. He tells the Treasurer, in the plainest terms, that unless he acts his chances of becoming Prime Minister are very slim. In other words he says: "Harold, if you want my support - and it is my support that will make or unmake you as Prime Minister - you will have to undo this legislation because it adversely affects my interests." I suggest that the Treasurer would enhance his political stature if he stood up in this House and firmly resisted that blatant pressure.

Mr Devine - He would not be game.

Mr Allan Fraser (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Well, the event will tell. But if he remains silent on this printed challenge on the front page of today's " Daily Telegraph " then I say that the Treasurer's political stature will shrink even smaller than it is now.

Of course the Government has cause daily to be grateful to these newspaper knights and their newspapers and television stations. These newspapers and television stations very largely serve the Government's interests. If section 92 of the Act of which we are now considering an amendment were struck out, the already immense power and influence that these gentlemen have over people's minds because of their control of methods of mass communication and mass persuasion would be further greatly increased. Their power to intimidate and browbeat this Government would be far greater even than it is today. The axe wielded at parliamentary democracy on the front page of today's "Daily Telegraph" would be further sharpened if the "Daily Telegraph" got away with its demand for the striking out of this provision. I think that what we see here is an extraordinarily apposite example of the public evil inherent in having so much control of the means of mass communication and mass persuasion concentrated in so few hands.

What is it really that has brought these newspaper knights to such a state of fury as is expressed in the Melbourne " Herald " and the "Daily Telegraph" today? As I have said, the amendment made in the principal Act restricts to some extent newspaper investments in companies holding interests in television stations. Its object was to prevent newspaper companies acquiring additional interests in television companies. They have already acquired most extensive interests throughout Australia, but this was to stop them from going even further. At this point Sir John Williams says: " Because of the tremendous powers the new law assumes to take over newspaper companies' investments it is hard to resist the view that it was designed as a punitive measure against the newspapers." He complains against it on two grounds, and so does Sir Frank Packer. He complains that it is punitive and that it is retrospective in action. I would have had more respect for the arguments of these gentlemen about punitive and retrospective legislation where their own interests are concerned if I had ever seen them or any of their journals fighting against the punitive and retrospective legislation that this Government has aimed time and time again at the trade union movement. In those cases they have been silent. Their motives therefore must be suspect or it must be recognised that they are speaking solely from consideration of their own interests. They are not concerned with the principle. They have disregarded it over and over again in other fields when the legitimate interests of the people of Australia have been affected. They speak of it now and write about it now only because it affects their own profits.

How much loss of profits has caused them to reach these extraordinary heights of indignation? The Melbourne " Herald " admits to having lost £60,000 through this legislation. It made a profit of more than £2 million last year, but the loss of £60,000 through Government legislation is something to cause Sir John Williams to become almost delirious with anger.

Mr Devine - What have they done to employ Australians?

Mr Allan Fraser (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Very little unfortunately. They have done the least they have been required to do, and in their television stations this is an absolute reproach to them and their conduct of the television industry.

I do not know what the Government is going to do in this dilemma. Is it going to yield to these newspaper barons? I understand that if it does so it will offend Mr. Reg Ansett. One can see, therefore, the dreadful horns of the dilemma upon which the Government is placed. That, however, is not a matter which I suppose need worry the Opposition unduly.

Mr Hulme - I would not worry at the moment if I were you.

Mr Allan Fraser (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Quite so; the Government will resolve that difficulty for itself and I am sure the Minister will rise and state in the most forthright tones his refusal to be dominated in any way by these powerful newspaper and television companies.

Mr Kelly - I hope he does not take too long in doing it.

Mr Allan Fraser (EDEN-MONARO, NEW SOUTH WALES) - Does the honorable member want to get away? I, at any rate, do not intend to take any longer. I just wanted to point out in conclusion a very interesting paragraph in Sir John Williams's statement yesterday as showing the ramifications of these newspaper interests. This simple provision in the amending legislation which limited after 17th December 1964 the power of newspapers to hold shares in companies which held shares in television companies caused the Melbourne " Herald " to sell shares in the Hobart " Mercury " and in the Perth " West Australian " and caused the associated company of the "Herald" in Brisbane to sell shares in the Adelaide "Advertiser". That is just one minor example of the ramifications of their interests in this country.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.

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