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Backbencher says media ownership rules may need to be tightened rather than relaxed.



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MARK COLVIN:  The influential federal National Party backbencher, Paul Neville, says that media ownership rules in Australia may, if anything, need to be tightened, not relaxed, to face new media technologies. Mr Neville is chairman of the coalition backbench committee on communications, but says he is speaking as a concerned MP. He was reacting today to the new position outlined by the Chief Executive of the Fairfax newspaper group, Fred Hilmer. Mr Hilmer's call now means that most of Australia's biggest media owners, including Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer, want a scrapping of current cross-media and foreign ownership regulations. Mr Neville spoke to Alexandra Kirk in Canberra a short time ago.

 

PAUL NEVILLE:  I believe that the Fairfax submission should be treated with some caution because I think it's a totally different position from the one they adopted two or three years ago. I come from a country area, I've lived through aggregation and the promises that were made on aggregation and I've seen it deliver less diversity - perhaps more diversity of American programs, if that's what you're looking for, but if you're talking about an informed public with news bulletins and current affairs, probably less; if you're talking about radio stations that are now being networked out of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne and not from local areas, I'm a bit of a sceptic. The evidence so far, even with the Internet, is that some of the most popular pages are controlled by the existing players. The evidence is, with the 56 channels of cable and satellite that are available, they've only spawned one new news bulletin. If this is the start of this new revolution, I think it should be tested to see what it delivers to the Australian public by way of diversity, by way of making the Australian public a better informed public, before it starts to break down the barriers between the various forms of media, cross-media ownership and foreign ownership.

 

ALEXANDRA KIRK: You don't think that relaxing those rules would then lead to greater competition and greater diversity?

 

PAUL NEVILLE: Not of themselves. What's clearly the case in Australia now is that we have very little diversity and there is also, because of cost-cutting measures, a great deal of that media is centred very closely on Sydney, especially for radio and television.

 

ALEXANDRA KIRK: And you're not persuaded at all by the Hilmer submission?

 

PAUL NEVILLE: Why I've spoken now is that this report has had wide distribution - very wide distribution. That's obviously been done to apply pressure in some sections of the market and in some sections of government opinion making.

 

ALEXANDRA KIRK: And you want the government to resist that pressure?

 

PAUL NEVILLE: I want the government to move cautiously, yes. I think it's a very important time. In fact, I think there are some seminal issues for government to adopt, to approach, in the next few months, not something we should be rushing into. And I hope that we don't just have this skewed view that because three new forms of media have come on-stream, that suddenly everything is going to be sweetness and light and there will be no need for regulation. I think quite the contrary. I think there is the strongest possible case for as much of, or if not more, regulation - at least in the initial stages of this. And in fact, the Fairfax submission to the Productivity Commission, while it speaks very much in theory at the beginning, when it comes to the practice, towards the end of their submission, they're saying themselves that they don't want the cross-media or foreign ownership laws changed just yet until they have a lash at data casting and, if I read between the lines properly, perhaps a foray into free-to-air broadcasting. So there's a lot more to follow, as my leader would say.

 

ALEXANDRA KIRK: And what do you make from that, though, that they want to have a go, but for the rules not to be changed?

 

PAUL NEVILLE: I think they want it to occur in two or three steps. That might not be inappropriate, depending on how long those steps are, but the idea of the government vacating the field and hoping that competition policy will somehow solve the problems, talk to the milk industry and see what they think about that sort of approach, ask a farmer, for example, if he's getting more money for his milk, and ask the consumer if he or she is getting greater variety of milk at a cheaper price, and the answer to all three questions is no.

 

MARK COLVIN: Paul Neville, a federal National Party backbencher, speaking to Alexandra Kirk.