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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
18/03/2013

REID, Mr Campbell, Group Editorial Director, News Limited

SUCKLING, Mr Adam, Director, Policy, Corporate Affairs and Community Relations, News Limited

WILLIAMS, Mr Kim, AM, Chief Executive Officer, News Limited

CHAIR: I now welcome representatives of News Limited. Thank you for talking to us today. Mr Williams, would you like to make a brief opening statement? If you do so, can I ask you to keep it to about five minutes maximum, thank you.

Mr Williams : Certainly, Senator. As senators and law makers I know that you appreciate that it is this parliament's duty and that of its hard working members to meet the endless challenge to produce good, workable, constitutionally compliant law. We believe that the News Media (Self regulation) Bill seriously breaches the implied constitutional freedom of political communication. This bill proposes something unconstitutional because it will undermine freedom of communication about government or political matters. I implore the committee to carefully consider this issue in addition to the other serious matters of public policy raised in the bills.

These laws propose direct regulatory intervention in and control of print and digital media and invoke sanctions not seen outside of wartime. They not only offend the constitutional freedom of political communication but also are a direct assault on the independent operation of Australian journalism.

A lot has been written and said since last Tuesday. I think it is in all of our interests to examine the materiality of the bills. The introduction of the Public Interest Media Advocate and its ability to declare and revoke declarations of self-regulation bodies is fundamentally inconsistent with the free press.

The proposed PIMA appointed by and beholden to government will decide whether press standards bodies operate to its satisfaction in its sole and absolute judgement. If the PIMA believes there has been a change in relevant circumstances or community standards, the exemption afforded to journalists in privacy law can be revoked with reference to no one.

It is worth recalling what the Privacy Act, one of the world's most stringent, does. It regulates collection, storage and, most relevantly, disclosure of personal information. The exemption allows journalists to identify people and without it they could not do their jobs. For example, if we had a story about a minister's secret investments then without the exemption we would need to tell them what we had and get their consent for publication.

In short, exemptions from certain provisions of the Privacy Act allow journalists to do their job. It is fundamental and was recognised as being fundamental at the time of the private sector Privacy Act provisions being extended in 2000.

Furthermore, it is deeply troubling that the legislation lacks any detail on how the PIMA would determine what are relevant circumstances and community standards or what changes would warrant the PIMA's intervention. The only reasonable conclusion is that a single person, the government-appointed PIMA, can remove at their whim the most basic rights on which journalists depend to do their jobs.

The Public Interest Media Advocate will also decide if media mergers and acquisitions of national significance cause no substantial lessening of diversity of control of registered news voices. But the news media diversity bill contains no definition of what constitutes diversity.

What is of particular concern and contradicts the government's own convergence review is that it is now incumbent upon the applicant to satisfy the PIMA that there is not a lessening of diversity. This deliberate reversal of onus of proof is unworkable and the convergence review explicitly recommended against it. Clearly proving a negative is virtually impossible and logically flawed at law. It is the opposite approach adopted by the ACCC, for example, on mergers and acquisitions.

In what is an active disincentive for innovation, publishers may also need to obtain the PIMA's approval if they want to start a new publication which is likely to be popular. This can also happen after a publisher establishes an online service associated with its news publications. A bill that potentially imposes a criminal offence on a failure by an existing Australian news business to get approval for an increase in the number of voices in the market has to be seriously flawed. And the PIMA's powers are so vast that companies will have to seek its approval for internal restructures, even if they do not cause a change in the number of voices. For instance, our recent reorganisation and merger of divisions and changes at news.com.au would likely have been caught by this provision.

The PIMA will be a single person with absolute powers whose decisions cannot be appealed on the merits. This is a staggering and, I hope, unacceptable disregard for fundamental rights at law. Unbelievably, the government will give the PIMA retrospective powers to overturn deals that took place before these new laws come into force, if they do. This is dangerous policy that removes certainty for businesses which have already had investments approved.

In other words, the government is proposing to appoint a single part time member who will be assisted by a department with no expertise in adjudicating and enforcing the law, who will have wide powers and discretion, given key terms in the bills are wholly undefined, who will not have to follow long-established law or principle in relation to the onus of proof, who can seemingly make decisions retrospective and whose decisions cannot be appealed. This is a modern-day star chamber—no more, no less.

To summarise our position, we believe these bills must be rejected. We say so not, as the minister says, in hysterical reaction but rather because the proposals will affect every Australian and the quality of their democracy. This is bad legislation with a bad process which can only have a bad, severely detrimental outcome.

The PIMA is an unnecessarily novel and unique statutory creation. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the Australian Communications and Media Authority and the Foreign Investment Review Board already have extensive powers to enforce diversity and ensure competition. Independent press councils have been considerably strengthened, providing effective vehicles for the public to seek redress for media coverage without fear.

These bills breach constitutional rights, equate to direct government intervention and regulation of the media and are a direct attack on free speech, innovation, investment and job creation. If the minister's serial misrepresentations on the inadequacy of the Australian Press Council, the operation of the Irish Press Council and existing law on mergers and acquisitions, which he advanced on the ABC Insiders program yesterday, is the basis on which this Senate is meant to adopt these laws, we have clearly abandoned regard for fact and reason.

I believe that journalism and the community it serves deserve better.

CHAIR: Thanks, Mr Williams. Firstly, let me say, Mr Williams, I find it absolutely breathtaking to be lectured by the Murdoch press about the privacy laws; I really do. I think the hypocrisy is huge, in coming here and lecturing the Senate about privacy laws after what the Murdoch press did in the UK.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: If I were doing this you would ask if there was a question.

CHAIR: There will be a question. The issue in the UK was about privacy. The issue in the UK was illegal activity. The same debate has taken place in the UK. The same arguments are being run in the UK by the Murdoch press about why there should not be some regulation in the UK. The public interest has not been mentioned in your statement but the public interest is the key issue here. It is not about whether you can make money. It is not about whether you can actually go out and say what you like to say, but there is a public interest. You are in a special position as a newspaper, and surely you should have mentioned the public interest. Where is the public interest in your submission and where does the issue of commercial interest give way to the public interest?

Mr Williams : It would be interesting, Senator, to find a definition of the public interest contained within the bills before you. There is no such definition. It would be interesting to find a definition of diversity inside your bills. No such definition has been provided. It would be interesting in fact to find any kind of explanatory memorandum guidance as to the purpose of the bills in terms of what they are seeking to redress.

My company has, in its Australian operations, already undertaken comprehensive reviews under Justices Vincent and Teague over 14 or 15 months ago, with two independent auditors who had access to every aspect of the company to review all expenditures of the company in the spirit of independent inquiry after the outcome of the investigations in Britain. Both justices were satisfied that no such activity had taken place in Australia, and I find any suggestion that such activity took place in this country not borne out by any facts at all. So if you have some facts, please put them on the table.

CHAIR: I know. But these lectures—

Mr Williams : You have made some very serious allegations.

CHAIR: Mr Williams, these submissions were made to the British inquiry as well. It was quite clear that, firstly, there was not a problem; secondly, there was a rogue journalist; thirdly, there was a rogue newspaper; then it was more than one newspaper. So just bear with us if we are a bit sceptical about all of these issues that you raise here today.

Mr Williams : Respectfully, Senator, that wholly misrepresents the conduct of the company before Justice Leveson in Britain where the company freely acknowledged mistakes that had been taken, freely rendered all of the materials of the company available to Leveson and to the police and was fully compliant in every possible way in actually suspending its own normal, natural rights in a spirit of complete disclosure to all of the investigating authorities. No one is defending what has happened in Britain, Senator.

CHAIR: What do you say the public interest is?

Mr Williams : The public interest is as long as a piece of string, Senator. I think the public interest is often used as a term which means many things to many different people; it is in the eye of the beholder.

CHAIR: If that is your position, why is it a definition in your professional conduct policy?

Mr Williams : I beg your pardon?

CHAIR: Why is there a definition of the public interest in your professional conduct policy?

Mr Williams : We endeavour to set out all of the things that we consider to be germane to having a good and sensible approach to our social responsibilities as a company.

CHAIR: Well, take me to—

Mr Williams : I have the editorial director of News with me, Campbell Reid. Campbell, you might like to comment on that.

Mr Reid : The definition of a public interest is dependent very strongly on who is leading the conversation at the time. Your definition as demonstrated by—

CHAIR: Mr Reid, I am asking you about your company's definition. I am not interested in a lecture from you.

Mr Reid : I thought we were answering the question.

CHAIR: I am interested in your company's definition. Do you know what it says in your professional conduct policy?

Mr Reid : I have the professional conduct policy here in front of me.

CHAIR: Go to that and tell me how you see the public interest definition. Do you want help to find it?

Mr Reid : No, I have the document here. Let me turn to the—

CHAIR: Do you want me to tell you where it is? It is on page 3. It is after—

Senator BIRMINGHAM: You could just tell him rather than playing games, Chair.

Mr Reid : I have before me, which is perhaps more germane, the editorial professional code of conduct policy. Is that what you are referring to?

CHAIR: It is your professional conduct policy for News Limited newspapers.

Mr Reid : Could I have a look at that? I have the editorial professional code of conduct policy, on page—

CHAIR: It is March 2006, published by the group editorial development.

Mr Reid : Senator, the code of conduct that we currently operate was completed last year, and it is the one that I have.

CHAIR: Does that have a 'public interest' definition?

Mr Reid : Not in this document. It sets out the professional standards of our journalism that we require under the headings: 'accuracy', 'mistakes', 'privacy', 'covert activity', 'confidential sources', 'harassment', 'discrimination', 'grief and distress', and so on.

CHAIR: What standing does this 2006 policy have?

Mr Williams : It has been superseded by the document that was published last year.

CHAIR: So 'public interest' has been superseded as well?

Mr Williams : All of the categories of relevant domain to journalism are set out in considerable detail in this statement.

CHAIR: You were telling your journalists back in 2006, 'This is the definition of public interest'. Then we have Piers Akerman, when talking about what PIMA considers, saying, 'Anything at all, including meaningless terms such as "public interest".' So, on one hand, in 2006 you are telling your staff that public interest is important. Yet you have the Akerman principle here which says it is meaningless. Can you explain why in 2006 it was not meaningless, and now it has gone?

Mr Williams : I think the term 'public interest', as I have already said, is not defined in the bill itself—probably because of the very great difficulty involved in arriving at a uniform and consistent definition of that which constitutes the public interest. Therefore, what we have done is to set out inside the code of conduct with journalists the relevant issues in terms of accuracy, mistakes and how they are dealt with, misrepresentation, privacy, covert activities, confidential sources

CHAIR: Let us not go through all of it, Mr Williams; we have limited time. Could you table that document?

Mr Williams : Certainly.

CHAIR: Good. Thanks.

Mr Williams : But you have to allow me to answer the question, Senator.

CHAIR: I don't have to allow you to take our time and stop us from asking questions.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: It is part of a long answer, Chair.

CHAIR: I think Mr Williams can look after himself. He doesn't need sycophantic support from you, Senator Birmingham.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thank you for your gratuitous commentary, Chair.

CHAIR: Have you finished?

Mr Williams : I haven't said anything.

CHAIR: You asked me to let you finish.

Mr Williams : I was going to give a recital, but we will table the document, Senator.

CHAIR: Good.

Mr Williams : I didn't come here to have a chemically difficult discussion. I came here to assist the committee to actually look at the legislation.

CHAIR: Oh, thanks. All the chemically difficult issues are done in your press. You are aware of Professor Ken McKinnon?

Mr Williams : Yes; he is a friend of mine.

CHAIR: He is a friend of yours. Has he ever raised with you the issue of being told by one of the media groups that if he dropped off some of the claims and allegations that were being made against the group, the group would double its

Mr Williams : No, he has never raised that with me.

CHAIR: Are you aware of that claim?

Mr Williams : I became aware of it yesterday when I heard the minister give that recital. We have conducted an investigation to the extent we could since yesterday.

CHAIR: To the extent you could, has anyone from News Limited taken that position with Professor McKinnon?

Mr Williams : The answer is no, but Campbell will provide some extra detail.

Mr Reid : I have reviewed what Professor McKinnon said at the Finkelstein inquiry. He didn't say it was a company's position. It was a recollection of a discussion he had over lunch in which an editor made the remark that if positive findings were delivered, the subscription might be doubled. That was not included in Professor McKinnon's main body of evidence to the Finkelstein inquiry, nor did it spark any follow-up. Editors at News Limited don't decide whether the company is a member of the Press Council. They are not on the Press Council, and to my investigation today nobody at News Limited has ever had a conversation with Professor McKinnon about that incident.

CHAIR: Can you take it on notice and find out if anyone who has previously been an employee of News Limited made that comment to Professor McKinnon?

Mr Reid : Professor McKinnon was chairman of the Press Council for the better part of a decade. He might have had lunch with lots of editors over that time. Are you proposing that I interview every editor he may have had

CHAIR: Why don't you ask Professor McKinnon who said it to him?

Mr Reid : Why didn't Professor McKinnon add more detail when he raised it?

CHAIR: Maybe we will ask Professor McKinnon.

Mr Williams : Senator, I am perfectly happy to ask Ken McKinnon about that.

CHAIR: Excellent.

Mr Williams : I am perfectly happy to do that, and I am very confident of the answer: the answer is no. In any case, I hope you had regard to what Campbell said. He said, 'No editor is in any position to make any commitment to the Press Council as to money being given to the Press Council. It's simply not true.'

CHAIR: Hmm—

Mr Williams : It's not true.

CHAIR: That's your submission.

Mr Williams : That happens to be the truth

CHAIR: If that's your submission, that's fine.

Mr Williams : That is the way it operates.

CHAIR: That is fine. Professor McKinnon made the statement that somewhere it will come out who it was. Every group is denying it was them, and you have joined the list. That is okay. I am not arguing. I am not denying your position. You indicated that the Press Council had improved its standards. Why did it take 37 years for it to improve its standards?

Mr Williams : There is a long, and certainly very convoluted, history attaching to the Press Council. Our company has no apology to make for the very vigorous interventions that we have made to upraise the quality of standards, the quality of funding and the quality of commitments that are made to the Press Council. We have been very vigorous in that regard. Campbell is a member of the Press Council; I am happy to have him to speak to it.

CHAIR: So walking away and crippling it financially—was that designed to improve it?

Mr Williams : We have never done that, Senator.

CHAIR: You have never?

Mr Reid : There have been occasions in the past, I think, Kim, when some of our papers have withdrawn at times. Interestingly, so has the MEAA

CHAIR: Who has got it right: Mr Williams or Mr Reid?

Mr Reid : I have got it right.

CHAIR: You have got it right?

Mr Reid : I have a longer history of dealing with News Limited's editorial behaviour than Kim has. However, can I make the point that in the last decade or more, News Limited has been a steadfast member of the Press Council. With its current chair, Julian Disney, in renovations which pre-date the UK phone hacking scandal, we set out to renovate the council, root and branch. We doubled its funding, we increased the permanency of its membership and we have, in our code of conduct—which we will table—a commitment of our journalists and editors to uphold its standards and to publish its adjudications with accuracy and in the prominence that the Press Council requires; a commitment we have not breached.

CHAIR: I will finish on this, then. I will go to Senator Birmingham. What is the problem with the Press Council setting its own standards and, like many organisations, having an overview that those standards are being met, given the history of the Press Council and the special relationship that the press have to deal with the public interest?

Mr Reid : The Press Council does set its own standards. The Press Council is an organisation which is dominated by public membership, not publisher membership. Because of that dominance of public membership, where the public membership is led by an eminent Australian, that self-regulation and self-setting of standards to which the major publishers sign up is self-regulation in its pure form. Government intervention on top of that contaminates that self-regulation, no matter what form that government regulation takes.

CHAIR: You indicated that some of your newspapers had walked away from the Press Council. Was that because the Press Council had required them to correct some statements and you refused to do that?

Mr Reid : I can't recall it. This is going back somewhere between 25 and 30 years.

CHAIR: But this is the history of the problems with the Press Council, where individual organisations can threaten the viability of the council by walking away.

Mr Reid : Yes.

CHAIR: Yes.

Mr Reid : Chair, if you would like to let me finish, up until 11 months ago, when the Press Council, with agreement of the major publishers, put in place three years rolling funding and four years of notice to withdraw from the Press Council. If you give notice to withdraw from the Press Council you are still bound for three more years of funding and four more years of upholding its standards. We would argue that that is about as permanent an arrangement as you can get between any organisation and its self-regulator in almost any jurisdiction in the world.

CHAIR: Okay. Senator Birmingham?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Thanks very much, Chair. Gentlemen, thanks for your time today. Firstly, what do you believe is driving the government's reforms?

Mr Williams : I struggle to understand what is driving the government's desire other than to corral and gag the media. There is no way to read down the provisions for the public interest media advocate in any way other than to see it as having recourse to muzzle the media. The sanctions that are given to this regulator are genuinely of an extent and force which have no precedence in Australian law.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Mr Williams, Senator Conroy claims that there are fewer and fewer voices in the media landscape today. Do you believe that is an accurate statement?

Mr Williams : I think that is a wholly inaccurate statement and I think it is unusually mischievous on the part of the minister responsible for broadband in this country, because clearly the internet is responsible for a massive increase in the diversity of voices that are available in this country and the access to information, not only from domestic Australian resources, but from international sources. For example, yesterday when Senator Conroy brought up the—quite fallacious, as it proved to be—citing of the Irish Press Council, with which I was not familiar, I immediately went onto the internet. I downloaded all of the materials of the Irish Press Council. I downloaded the history of the creation of the Irish Press Council. I downloaded the operational rules of the Irish Press Council. I was able to establish to my absolute satisfaction that (a) it is completely free of government; (b) it has an operative system where an ombudsman is appointed by a special appointments process under their operation; and (c) it has no punitive arrangements for journalists in the event that journalists or media organisations are not members of that body.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Just as the capacity for growth in online news or new news services through different mediums has expanded, what do you believe has occurred to the capacity for the general public to actually engage as media critics and to highlight failings or problems or lack of balance or fairness they may see in the media?

Mr Williams : The power of social media, in particular, is something which is of striking force in our community now and where people have clearly self-initiated redress in any number of ways in terms of lodging their complaints. With the Australian Press Council it is a very simple process. With our own company there is a simple process. We have a permanent editorial position that is allocated exclusively now for processing any complaints that attach to anything that we publish, whether that is online or in print form.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Some in the broadcasting sphere would suggest that at present the slow and often tedious approach of ACMA to regulation is far less a threat to the operation of their businesses than a social media revolt, as we have seen in some instances. Can you see a similar trend emerging for your business in terms of Press Council rulings versus a consumer uprising that has an effect on your advertisers and your revenue stream and your business operations?

Mr Williams : That is generally true. I think reputational risk and all that attaches to it, or social media commentary in a wide variety of forms, is something which all corporations are acutely sensitive to now, and has very real and immediate impact on a company.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Mr Williams, you highlighted the issues potentially in relation to the constitutionality of these proposals. Can you address for the committee briefly why you believe there are particular issues there? Would it be the intention of News Limited, were this legislation to be passed unamended, to consider a High Court challenge on this matter?

Mr Williams : Obviously, I am not going to share my legal advice with the committee; I would not compromise the basis of that advice. In the event that we need to activate action on the basis of advice, we clearly will need to keep our advice confidential. We are confident that this approach in creating the public interest media advocate and the powers that are rendered unto it and the sanctions that are rendered unto it are very much offending against the free flow of political communication in our society. We believe that will be a matter, in the event that the laws come into being, of very real interest to the High Court.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: So News Limited is reserving its position in regard to whether it would go to the High Court and challenge the viability of these laws?

Mr Williams : In the event that these laws are passed we will immediately be seeking leave to appeal to the High Court.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: You would immediately be seeking leave to appeal to the High Court? That would suggest that your legal advice is relatively clear-cut, one suspects, Mr Williams.

CHAIR: He will get the advice he wants.

Mr Williams : I can't believe you said that.

CHAIR: You can't?

Mr Williams : No.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Senator Cameron likes to cast reflections and aspersions and all manner of people.

CHAIR: You are paying for the advice. If you are saying you want to go to the High Court, you will get advice that will take you to the High Court. You know that.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I am pretty sure Mr Williams will not waste his shareholders' money.

Mr Williams : You and I operate in different worlds, Senator.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Mr Williams, to the detail of the legislation: firstly, to the appointment of the public interest media advocate, Senator Conroy has sought, in terms of his rhetoric, to create the impression that there are complete guarantees of independence surrounding the appointment of this advocate. What is your reading of the legislation in terms of what is required and what guarantees of the independence of this advocate exist?

Mr Williams : I have today sent an open letter to the minister. The minister has at no stage engaged with my company or, to the best of my knowledge, with other media companies in any aspect of the legislation. Therefore, given the haste with which all of this process has been conducted, I thought it best to send an open letter which has been sent to every parliamentarian and has also been shared with the media. Inside that I have drawn reference to a number of things that I think are particularly egregious in the legislation. One of the things that really took my notice was that the minister is able to receive confidential information from the public interest media advocate for no reason at all. To suggest that a sole and absolutely powerful individual who is appointed on renewable terms and who has as the administrative resource the minister’s department, will be free, clear and separate from the minister is preposterous.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: After the election this year when she ceases to be a member of parliament, for example, would there be anything in this legislation that prevents the government of the day from appointing, say, Nicola Roxon, as the public interest media advocate?

Mr Williams : Absolutely nothing whatsoever.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: In terms of how the advocate works, it provides wide-ranging powers, it would seem, in terms of the capacity to assess privacy, fairness, accuracy, the effectiveness of complaints handling processes and whether standards reflect community standards. In terms of those particular proposals, do you believe there is a clear definition for any of those?

Mr Williams : The advocate is unfettered, as far as I read the legislation, in terms of the quality and breadth of the domain the advocate can choose to engage with and pass comment on. The advocate is unfettered in their capacity to find fault with the operation of independent review bodies, and in fact to immediately take sanction action in the terms described in the bill.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: And yet there are no rights of review.

CHAIR: Senator Ludlam has the call.

Mr Williams : There are absolutely no rights of appeal contained within the bill. There is no merits review.

CHAIR: Mr Williams, Senator Ludlam has the call.

Senator LUDLAM: Thanks for coming in this afternoon and giving your evidence. I have put this question to a few of the proprietors—most recently Mr Stokes, who also has interests, obviously, in print media and, as you do, in electronic broadcast media. He came with a very similar contention to yours—that this is outrageous, extraordinary, historic and unprecedented. I want to hear, in your words, why having your electronic broadcast outlets regulated by a statutory authority appointment by the minister, who can pull your licence at any time—which is a fairly severe penalty and many have argued that there should be intermediate penalties rather than that as the only sanction—is any more or less onerous than having a part-time public interest media advocate who does nothing more or less than accredit press councils? I'll ask you separately about his or her other function in terms of the test, but in terms of accrediting press councils, how does that muzzle the press?

Mr Williams : It is a particularly important question and it highlights one of the great distinctions between broadcast media and unlicensed media. Print and digital media do not operate subject to a licence from government, whereas broadcasters use a publicly owned asset—the radio frequency spectrum—which is licensed to them on a very limited basis and where they have security of not having competitors in that space. Therefore, a public benefit bargain is entered into between the government or its representative agency in the form of ACMA and the licensee as to a number of rules attaching to the use of that public resource. That is quite different from the operation of the way in which print and digital media operate, which are not subject to any government licence.

Senator LUDLAM: But you have pay TV assets. They do not operate on publicly owned airways or spectrum.

Mr Williams : They operate on the radio frequency spectrum with satellite, admittedly not in the broadcasting services band, but there was a legal requirement from the time that subscription television was brought in with the original Broadcasting Services Act—

Senator LUDLAM: It does undermine your point, somewhat.

Mr Williams : that you had to get a licence from ACMA and the licence would have a number of conditions which attach to it.

Senator LUDLAM: Do you think your broadcasters product is politically skewed through the presence of ACMA?

Mr Williams : ACMA is not in any way analogous to the public interest media advocate. For a start, all of the decisions of ACMA are available for merits review through the court system—through the Federal Court, the Full Court and the High Court.

Senator LUDLAM: That was not the point that you were making, though. You were making the point that a political appointee on a renewable tenure is going to inevitably skew—

Mr Williams : I'll make a further point: ACMA has many members; it has a variety of different views. But those members are not all appointed by the one government. They actually travel over time in terms of changes of government. They reflect a diversity of skills, a diversity of ages, a diversity of genders and a diversity of perspectives on the operation of our society. That is profoundly different from a single individual.

Senator LUDLAM: Do you think a converged regulator, as was canvassed in the convergence review, is the proper place to do this, then? Do you think that we should roll print into ACMA or whatever ACMA's successor organisation is?

Mr Williams : I think the basis for regulating the print media is yet to be made by anyone.

Senator LUDLAM: Okay. Do you think it is appropriate that entities—and Senator Birmingham canvassed this a little—at any time can without much notice virtually jump out of the Press Council, as Seven West has chosen to do in WA, and set up their own organisation? Do you think that that is an effective public policy outcome?

Mr Williams : I do not think it was a public policy outcome. It was a self-regulatory outcome that related to the situation in Western Australia. I am sure that that was spoken about this morning.

Senator LUDLAM: But the public has an interest in effective self-regulation of the press. I would hope you would concede that. This is not purely a commercial interest.

Mr Williams : I would have to say that I am not enormously familiar with the operation of system in Western Australia, but as I understand it is operating to the satisfaction of complainants.

Senator LUDLAM: It is certainly operating to the satisfaction of Seven West. But that is not the point that I'm making. At any point yourselves or Fairfax could walk and the Press Council could fragment. You can set your own up.

Mr Williams : The new rules of the Australian Press Council, as Mr Reid indicated, do not allow for that. There is a requirement that there be a four-year notice of quitting the Press Council and during that four-year period there is a continuing obligation both to fund and to comply with all of the rulings of the Press Council and all of the other policies that are attached to it.

Senator LUDLAM: And you are legally obligated to do so?

Mr Williams : Correct.

Senator LUDLAM: What would happen to you if you did not—if you just left because of some irreconcilable difference that arose?

Mr Williams : Frankly, I have not contemplated that. We live by our contracts.

Senator LUDLAM: Well, we have to contemplate that. There is nothing actually preventing that organisation from fragmenting and forming multiple press councils at this time.

Mr Williams : I do not want to digress in terms of the nature of the operation of law in here, but these bills contemplate a situation where I would think it is perfectly conceivable that you would have individual press councils by state or even by publication because of the nature of the sanctions that would apply across all of the respondents to a press council.

Senator LUDLAM: And I am very concerned about that. And it is good that you have pointed that out. Do you think that there is too much diversity in the Australian media landscape? We have two corporations that effectively own nearly 90 per cent of the Australian press?

Mr Williams : The figure is not as high as that, as I am sure that you know.

Senator LUDLAM: What is the figure? Between yourselves and Fairfax it is around the 87 per cent mark.

Mr Williams : It does fascinate me that at a time when print media is clearly under challenge in terms of changing ways in technology and behaviour on behalf of consumers, and when there is an enormous rise in the diversity of media that is digitally provisioned to Australian consumers, that people wish to focus in on one element of the media. There has never been more media in Australian history. There has never been a greater diversity of voices in Australian history. There has never been a wider variety of opinions and materials made available to Australians about their society and about the world.

Senator LUDLAM: Okay. So you do not think that there is any need for any check on any further consolidation of media corporations at the big end of town?

Mr Williams : I think that there are very adequate checks that already exist in prevailing law under the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, under the Foreign Investment—

Senator LUDLAM: You do not think that they have totally failed?

Mr Williams : Review Board and under the Australian Communications and Media Authority, all of which have extensive powers.

Senator LUDLAM: Extensive powers which have left us with the most concentrated media ownership structure in the industrialised world. So you think that framework has worked very well?

Mr Williams : Senator, if you want to slice and dice and choose a narrow definition in terms of what constitutes media, you will see that the company that we are from operates 63 per cent of the print production in Australia. It certainly does not have 63 per cent of the internet provisioning of information in Australia. Its share of internet provisioning is at a modest percentage of that.

Mr Suckling : The other thing is that ACCC knocked back Seven West’s application to acquire the Consolidated Media Holdings assets of Fox and Fox sports.

Senator LUDLAM: Yes, they are very upset about that.

Mr Suckling : And the Commissioner of the ACCC, as you know, has said that he would have an issue with News acquiring Channel Ten.

Senator LUDLAM: Is it the view of the whole News Limited stable that the Australian Greens should be destroyed at the ballot box or is that just the view of the Australian?

Mr Williams : I think to import views for individual publications as being a corporate view of the company wholly misunderstands the way in which media companies operate.

Senator LUDLAM: So it is just the Australian, is it?

Mr Williams : Editors are empowered to form the editorial policies and judgements that are affected through that publications.

Senator LUDLAM: Well, I am pleased to hear. I gather that you are confirming that it is not the view of all of News Limited that the Greens should be destroyed.

Mr Williams : You know that yourself, Senator, because you will know that the Hobart Mercury has always had an extremely strong and cordial relationship with Bob Brown, with Christine Milne and with the policies of the Greens in Tasmania, given that clearly a large number of Greens in Tasmania support that political party.

CHAIR: Senator McKenzie.

Senator McKENZIE: I want to go to issues around regional media. Part of the convergence review is maintaining diversity at a national level. Do have any comments to make about how the local reality plays out looking at diversity from a national level?

Mr Williams : We are a company that is clearly committed to local media on a quite granular level. We operate newspapers in Darwin, Alice Springs, Cairns, Townsville, the Gold Coast, Brisbane, Sydney, Geelong, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and in Hobart. We also operate community newspapers in many outlying regions from those primary metropolitan centres. The cities I recited are where we have paid media. We are committed to being a local voice in all of those places and we have very spirited relationships with the community in each one of them.

Senator McKENZIE: So when the Finkelstein report outlines that the adequacy of new services in regional areas is of concern and it urgently needs to be addressed in the immediate future, do you think the government's response to that report and the convergence report is adequately dealt with within the legislation before us in terms of those regional issues?

Mr Williams : The irony of the government adopting what might be described as an armoured approach to diversity of media and at the same time advocating the removal of the 75 per cent reach tool on broadcast licences is not lost on me. So on the one hand the government is saying that it is absolutely in favour of diversity and on the other hand the government is saying, ‘But not when it comes to broadcast television.’ Go figure.

Senator McKENZIE: I think we are all going and figuring. In terms of the issue Mr Reid was talking about—a 30-year-ago scenario being played out—I go to part K in section 7 where the body corporate can go to where the funding arrangements are sustainable for the body corporate. Would you suggest as businessmen that having forward funding for four years guaranteed whether you are in or out is a sustainable business model?

Mr Williams : It is a pretty tough discipline on us. We have no guarantee in a forward sense of our revenues. But our obligation to the Press Council is absolute. Not even the parliament has a four-year guarantee. I think the forward estimates go three years into the future, don't they?

Senator SINGH: Mr Williams, in a speech last week you claimed that these reforms “turns a deliberate blind eye to the fact that all Australians have access to more diversity in news, opinion and commentary than at any time in history.” How do you reconcile that claim when we know in history, if we go back to the 1950s—and I raised this with Mr Hywood earlier—that we had 15 national and metropolitan papers with 10 owners and today we have 11 papers with three owners, one of those being, of course, News Limited, which is incredibly influential. Now, if you think that bloggers and various other commentators—as you talk about in the quote that I have just taken from your speech—represent diversity, where are they getting their information from? They are getting it from one of the most influential media owners, which is News Limited. On top of that, you raise this issue of News Limited being in newspapers all across the country and you listed them. I know that in my home state of Tasmania, the Hobart Mercury, as you referred to, has had its staffing numbers cut dramatically. Surely that must be the result of setting up subbing hubs and dropping sections from a central point into all News Limited papers around the country, rather than having a strong diversity of views if you are cutting staffing numbers to be able to tell those stories in those regions. So what do you actually mean in your speech that there is "access to more diversity in news and opinion" as one of only three owners of media now in this country?

Mr Williams : I will shortly past to Mr Reid. You cannot deny, Senator, that back in the time you were invoking, in the 1950s, that there was a 15 minute news bulletin in the evening on the ABC—I actually remember it—there were occasional news bulletins on terrestrial broadcasts and there was a very limited AM set of radio networks that had networked news. Today there are 14 independent news channels, none of which, not one of which, is under the control of Foxtel, available on Foxtel. The ABC has ABC News 24, there are substantial news and current affairs operations with each of the broadcasters across the length and breadth of Australia. In terms of internet provision, there are huge numbers of services. I would encourage you to examine the number of sites that Australians visit and to look at the top 10, top 20 and top 30 sites that Australians actively use. You would find that the BBC is the fourth most popular news provider in Australia from Australian consumers.

Senator SINGH: Your answer is talking about everything other than newspapers and everything other than ownership, which are the two points of my question—newspapers and ownership.

Mr Williams : Senator, you cannot in one and the same breath speak about convergence and then say, ‘Let's just talk about the newspapers.’

Senator SINGH: No, but my question went to bloggers, it went to commentary and where they get that information from.

Mr Williams : You asked me as to the basis on which I was saying that Australians have access to more news and information sources that at any time in their history, and I was endeavouring to tell you why and how. If my answer is unsatisfactory I apologise.

CHAIR: Thanks, Mr Williams, for being here this afternoon. I now call Network Ten.