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Monday, 20 August 2018
Page: 7721


Mr BRIAN MITCHELL (Lyons) (13:11): I rise to speak on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Foreign Media Ownership and Community Radio) Bill 2017 as, like the former speaker, I come from a media background. It was not in radio—I'm from a print journalism background—but I do remember university. I'm of an age when radio broadcasting was all about splicing up little bits of tape. To edit, you had to get a physical bit of tape, cut it up, sellotape it back together and spool it. That's the sort of generation I come from—not like today where it is all digital and much easier.

I rise today to speak on this bill as I too believe in the value of a strong media sector and recognise the importance of diversity in media ownership. I know that a lot of people say: 'There's no media ownership problem in Australia. Look at the internet; anybody can be a media proprietor on the internet.' You've got a multiplicity of channels. You've got YouTube and community stations on the internet, but the fact is that the fragmentation of the media has been disastrous for journalism in this country and for what I like to call the 'credible voice'. There used to be a time when I and, dare I say, you, Deputy Speaker Georganas, were growing up that just about every family in Australia would turn on the six o'clock or seven o'clock news. There was this shared community of news. It didn't matter whether you were Labor, Liberal, Communist—whatever you were. There was a shared set of information that everybody got. Perhaps some people would watch 60 Minutesthat was a very-high-rating current affairs show—and others would listen to talkback radio. I'm not one to dismiss the value of choice, but there were a smaller number of channels owned by a greater number of people in corporations, so there was actually probably more diversity 30 years ago with fewer channels than there is today in terms of credible voice.

As I say, any blogger can get onto the internet in front of a microphone and rabbit on to the world with what they want to say, but who's listening? When you want to reach a greater number of people, that's where the media diversity ownership question is so important. That's the problem with getting rid of the two-out-of-three rule. It allows for fewer corporations. They are corporations these days, they're not individuals. It used to be that the local used-car salesman or a local former mayor would open up a newspaper, or a community station or a local TV station. They were people born of, and who lived in, those communities. Individuals used to own media outlets. Now it's corporations and private investment firms—groups that have no intrinsic knowledge or interest in media. They just see the balance sheet.

I think that getting rid of the two-out-of-three rule is going to be very, very bad for media diversity in this country. I think that's what's happening with Channel Nine and Fairfax is exactly what we all anticipated would happen. We're seeing a hundred years of tradition with Fairfax going down the drain. We're seeing journalists losing jobs. We'll see fewer journalists funnelling opinion, analysis and stories through fewer voices. It's going to be very bad.

One of the other key issues I've got is that it used to be unacceptable for a news outlet to represent the private or commercial interests of its owner—at least, overtly. It used to be unacceptable. It was regarded as highly unethical for a private owner to push their private agenda, their corporate agenda, through the news mechanism that they owned. Indeed, Fairfax had a very proud history in this regard. Fairfax had a charter of independence for its journalists. They were completely separate, so the owners couldn't dictate to the journalists what to write. There was a charter of independence. That's gone now. With the death of Fairfax, that charter of independence has gone. What we see with some newer entrants into the media landscape—and I won't name them, but I think we probably know who they are—is that they are strongly pushing the private corporate interests of their corporate owners ahead of the news agenda. They are shaping the news agenda to fit their private corporate interests, and that is very dangerous territory to be getting into. They're not even hiding it anymore. They're not even pretending: it's absolutely overt. That's a very dangerous direction to be going in.

Given the role of the media in our society—particularly when it comes to the coverage of politics at the local, state and national levels—and the existing concentration and lack of diversity in Australia's media ownership, it's important to ensure that smaller numbers of owners do not have undue political influence or control over the political agenda and public discussion, or have the capability to disenfranchise alternative, opposing or minority views. I'll come back to the point I made earlier, that it used to be that owners were residents in their local communities. Generally, they've always been wealthy or middle class. The people who own newspapers, television stations and radio stations, have always been relatively wealthy in their communities. But they were born of their communities and they had an interest in the issues in their community. As their outlets were gobbled up—at that stage, by smaller state-based interests, then gobbled up by bigger national-based interests and now gobbled up by big international global interests—we saw that commitment to local news diminishing at a rate of knots. We've seen the closure of local newsrooms. In the drive for higher profits we've seen the closure of newsrooms and what is called the 'synergy' of newsrooms.

In my state of Tasmania, we've seen this just recently. WIN News are not producing the TV news bulletin from Tasmania anymore. They've announced, as of this week, I think, that it's now going to be presented by their headquarters. I'm not sure whether it's in Bendigo or in Sydney. I think it's in regional New South Wales that they have some sort of headquarters where they do this from. The journalists are in Tasmania and they cover the stories. They ship those stories off to the mainland and then the news is presented from the mainland.

You might say, 'That's an efficient use of resources', but the problem is it means fewer staff in Tasmania and, critically, it's a diminished service. That's because at that headquarters, where they're doing it in regional New South Wales, they aren't just reading the news for Tasmania; they're reading the news for a number of other bulletins as well, and to fit into the roster the Tasmanian news, which doesn't hit the airwaves in Tasmania until five or six o'clock in the evening, is actually read out at two or three o'clock in the afternoon. Then it just sits there until it's time to be aired. So half the day's news doesn't get covered. It used to be that if there was a late-breaking story you'd rush into the newsroom with your material, you'd madly type it up and you'd get it on air. You can't do that now, because they don't have the facilities or the ability. This is what happens when the bottom line dictates the news judgement. It's very bad for journalism. That's just one of the results that happens when you consolidate your media assets in such a way that you don't really care that much about local news production or local news content; it's really just part of your business model.

Media in Australia is not just like a factory producing widgets. The media in Australia is about news, current affairs and the production of drama. That's another way that we reflect our society upon ourselves and tell our own stories. All of these things are critical to a properly functioning society. They shouldn't be treated in the way that other sectors of the economy are treated. It's more important than that. It's part of our culture. I think we need to treat media with much more respect. At the moment, treating it with just an economically rationalist argument about the bottom line is very bad. This government, in the way it treats the media, particularly with its awfully cosy relationship with One Nation—it's very dangerous territory the way it's treating the media in this country. As the member for Whitlam mentioned, the jihad on the ABC, with the government and One Nation joined at the hip in waging war on the national broadcaster—it's all part of this agenda. It's very dangerous.

The topic of media ownership and diversity is not a new issue in Australia. The concern in conversation on this started with the arrival of television when, in 1953, then Prime Minister Menzies, the father of the Liberal Party, gave Australia's first television licences to the men—they were men—who already owned the country's newspaper companies. So right from the get-go we've had media concentrated in the hands of the few. To be fair to Menzies, he would have come under a fair bit of pressure from the then almighty press barons. The same people kept the ABC in the freezer for decades, because those press barons also prevented the national broadcaster from establishing its own news service independent of them. Not many people may recall this, but the ABC used to be forbidden from having a role in the press gallery and from actually producing its own news. The ABC used to only be able to report news that came from the newspapers. Over the air, it would be 'Such-and-such newspaper reported today'. They were prevented for a long time from having their own independent news service. I shudder to think where this country would be today without an independent news service produced by the ABC. Imagine if the ABC today had to rely on the news that it presents coming from The Daily Telegraph and The Courier-Mail and Sky News? What a disaster it would be for this country. I think it's a disaster; perhaps those opposite have a different view.

In the 65 years since Menzies granted those licences, the parliament has modified the law numerous time, sometimes to stem the power of the media barons. I know some people are critical of former Prime Minister Keating. He made his famous statement, 'You can be a prince of the print or a queen of the screen, but you can't be both'. He tried to stem the power of the barons by saying you can either own broadcasting assets or print assets but you can't be in both. That's since gone. We know there's got to be change and progress, but the progress all seems to be going the same way under the Liberals. It all seems to be about concentrating media ownership in fewer and fewer hands, which makes fewer and fewer people more and more powerful. That's not a good recipe for democracy. It's not a good recipe for democracy when you have fewer people and fewer corporations getting more and more power.

Each time, we're told that companies have to get bigger to compete with international competitors, whether it's Time Warner, Disney, CNN or MSBN. To be honest, I don't even know if some of those that I've listed are now under the same ownership. For all I know, two or three of those could actually be under the same corporate ownership, I just don't know—I haven't kept up with it. I don't see the need for companies to get bigger. I don't see how Australian companies in the Australian market need to concentrate to the degree that those opposite dictate in order to remain competitive.

Something that we don't talk about too often is the nexus, the link, between journalism and advertising. It's always been the case that advertising revenue pays for journalism. The ads come in and that's what pays for the journalism. The only reason the press barons had journalists on staff was to fill the space and convince people to buy the paper, because there was something to read, so they'd see the advertisements. It was a symbiotic relationship, but that's been broken with the internet. The internet has broken that relationship, which is a great shame. The ads have gone online, but quality journalism hasn't followed. We commend this bill to the House. We won't stand in the way, but we do think there are some issues still to be resolved.