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Thursday, 22 March 2012
Page: 4104

Mr NEVILLE (HinklerThe Nationals Deputy Whip) (11:30): I am not going to follow as technical an argument as the minister and the shadow minister have. I just want to review this story of regional radio, because it is a very interesting story. I have been committed to regional radio for most of my life. I have taken a great interest in it, and that became no less so when I entered parliament.

To hold a radio licence is a privilege, and we should recognise that it carries obligations. I think it would be fair to say that in the period leading up to 2006 there was ample evidence that the responsibility aspect was being diluted. We saw the concentration of ownership of radio stations. Although you could not own more than two radio stations in a market, there was still a buying-up of radio stations into corporate groups. The London Daily Mail—the DMG organisation—was a big purchaser. The Grundy organisation, RG Capital, was also a big purchaser. There were also a number of activities going on in the capital cities while this was happening in the country. Those ownerships then came together, especially DMG and RG Capital, under the banner of Macquarie Regional Radio, which was a particularly big group. And as it then owned more than two stations in some markets, that caused some divestment, and other groups formed. Today, even the merger of Southern Cross and Austereo has resulted in another group of 70 radio stations. That is 70 out of 260-odd. That means that one company or group owns over a quarter of the nation's radio stations. I do not say that with any criticism, but I would like to flag it so that we are all aware of what concentration of ownership of media can mean.

There has also been a tendency, leading up to 2006, when the original legislation was put in place by the Howard government, to strip country radio stations of a lot of their services, their staff and in some instances even the physical hallmarks of a radio station. In fact, I know of one particular town in Queensland where the new group moved in and even removed the control desks from the studios. For someone to say, 'We're still going to provide localism, and we've taken the desk out,' is tantamount to saying, 'We're not.' That sort of thing was happening, and that is when I and a number of others started to agitate, as the shadow minister has just said, to put some regulation into ownership and into what ownership was going to mean into the future. As I said, the control of a radio licence carries with it both privilege and obligation. Australians have grown up with radios since 1923, and it has been a particular part of the development of regional Australia. That is not a motherhood statement; there is a real, live connection between radio and how the bush developed, from all sorts of points of view—in particular, the cohesion of communities, and within that things like local information, sporting information, local news, local rural broadcasting and commodity prices. All those things became part of the fabric of the town, and the radio station became a very important beacon to those communities—perhaps more so than in the capital cities, where there has been a choice, even in the early days, of five or six radio stations. The ABC, to its credit, developed along similar lines, with its network of capital city stations and then regional stations. In more recent times it has gone out into other fields, like FM, Fine Music Radio, Radio National, 24-hour news and the like. And then there is triple J, of course.

All these things were very important, but the commercial country stations and the ABC regional stations were very much a part of the fabric of regional and remote rural life. When these big stations then became networked—when these conglomerates were bought up—there was a tendency to hub the stations, to put this cluster of 20 or 30 stations through a capital city or a provincial city. This, too, is not said with criticism. There were hubs in places like Townsville, the Gold Coast, Albury and Bunbury, and various networks operated out of these hubs. There was then a tendency to hub the news, and we saw some terrible examples of the wrong news going to the wrong areas and journalists not understanding the geography of these bigger areas. That goes on even today—silly statements that do not truly reflect what is going on in a community.

When I was the chair of the communications standing committee some years ago we held an inquiry into regional radio. That revealed some very interesting things, one of which was the absolute paucity of community announcements, especially in times of trouble. We received evidence of incidents in which people had to break into radio stations, when they were hubbed back to the capital city or to the hubbing network, so that they could make a local announcement. In one instance, in a provincial city, there was a very dramatic event—if I remember correctly it was a petrol tanker or chemical tanker turning over—and the local manager of the radio station could not be found, so the phone call eventually went to the hub station. The response, from a very junior staff member, was, 'No, we never break into a network program; you ring up your local SES'—to be so dismissive of the community in a dangerous situation like that was quite frightening. Before we had finished that inquiry the ABC, commercial radio interests and a third body, of which I forget the details, all got together and developed a code of practice for emergency broadcasting. I am sure that was because they wanted to have their hands clean by the time the report was tabled. That is just another illustration of the sorts of things that regional radio can do.

In this concentration of radio stations, there were also some very poor practices. One of those was to use section 61 of the Broadcast Services Act, which allowed someone to own more than two radio stations in a market for a short period of time. In that time, when they might have held the three or four licenses on a temporary basis, instead of allowing the residual stations that they did not need to continue as radio stations they removed them. They eliminated them as competition. One way, of course, was to sell them or lease them to the TAB networks, which meant they effectively went out of the competitive market. There were practices like that going on as well. That is when the coalition came in—and I played a prominent part in it, I still make no apology for it—to get some rules in place that defined what a regional station would still be required to do. Amongst those was three hours of locally devised and presented broadcasting and 12½ minutes of local news of weekdays—about the same thing as the ABC was doing. It included weather bulletins and emergency warnings. They also had to give ACMA a local content plan of how they intended to run the station.

To make this happen, the department came up with the idea of a trigger event. As has been explained when ownership moves from one entity to another that causes a trigger event. That trigger brought into place those various obligations. I will admit that some of them have become onerous. For example, if there is an inheritance problem, where the ownership is moving substantially to the same family entity—someone has died but the son is taking over the business, or something like that—that should not cause a trigger event. I am prepared to concede that. Also, one of the provisions of the 2006 legislation was that radio stations could not just move in and gut a radio station. They had to maintain the staff levels, the character of the station and of the broadcast facilities of the station. That too has perhaps become onerous in this sense, that with the digital economy, with high-speed broadband, production does not necessarily have to occur in every radio station everywhere. It can now be done over the phone or the internet line. So in this 24-month window that the amended bill contains, it will allow radio stations at that end of that period to rationalise some staff measures.

I make the appeal to the radio stations, that that should not be a signal for gutting radio stations and for a new wave of hubbing. If that was to occur, that would be a betrayal. That would be a betrayal and I do not think it would enhance the quality of radio. There have been some great regional radio operators who have been very close to their communities and have been great citizens in those communities. I would hope that that would continue. I think too that hubbing should be treated judiciously. There have always been syndicated network programs. I am not criticising those. You can go back to the days of the quiz shows of Bob Dyer and Jack Davey, the Lux Radio Theatreand Mobil Quest. All those sorts of things. They were all good. They were networked. No-one denies that. Nor is it wrong to have a regional network—I am not saying there is anything wrong with that either—or even a national network, providing that that is not to the exclusion of localism and always providing that the community is well informed. It is important that the radio station, as we have said, for at least those three hours a day on the weekdays, with 12½ minutes of news, is engaging with its community and being part of the vibrant life of that community. I thank the minister for maintaining most of the things that I have always cherished in this bill. There is one little thing to be sorted out, and he has given me an understanding that that will happen. I hope that this regional radio will go on to serve this nation well as it has for the last 19 years.