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Thursday, 10 March 1932

Mr GIBSON (Corangamite) .- As Postmaster-General I was associated with the inauguration of wireless broadcasting in Australia at a time when the science was comparatively new, and was in operation in very few countries. Such blunders as occurred in the first few years were only to be expected of a huge service that was to serve 3,000,000 listeners. Whatever control we may institute now will be subjected to criticism by millions of people in Australia, and it will be impossible to satisfy the wishes and tastes of everybody. The right honorable member for North Sydney (Mr. Hughes) has stated that the scheme propounded by the Government bears not the faintest resemblance to the British Broadcasting Corporation. We cannot expect that it will do so for many years. If the twelve national broadcasting stations in Australia were situated in Victoria, broadcasting only within that State, and enjoyed an annual revenue of £2,000,000, the people of Victoria could have a service almost equal to that in the United Kingdom. But Australia's twelve stations are separated by thousands of miles, and are endeavouring to serve, amongst others, outback communities nearly 3,000 miles distant from them.

The main purpose of this bill is to transfer wire-less broadcasting from private control to a board, and I agree with the right honorable member for North

Sydney that that body should be free of political control. I had seven years experience of administration of the Postal Department, and I know the trouble that broadcasting involves. Broadcasting should be as free from political control as the Commonwealth Bank. is. If we keep the broadcasting board as independent as the Commonwealth Bank Board, it will be able to function for the benefit of all sections throughout Australia. In transferring from private control to a public board, the Government proposes that the profits earned by the service shall be paid into a fund,, which, I hope, will be ear-marked for use by the board in the extension of its operations. Scores of people in Northern Queensland, the Northern Territory, Western Australia, and even Tasmania cannot receive wireless programmes to-day. What the profits of the system will be we cannot estimate. The balance-sheets of the private companies for the last two years show that they lost £4,000 in one year, and made £6,000 in another year, but we do not know what their overhead charges were, and what payments were made to directors and staff. Prom every listener's fee 12s. is to be paid to the board for broadcasting purposes, and I am sure that these payments will accumulate a large fund, to be used, I trust, to establish new stations in distant centres for the service of people who receive only a weekly or fortnightly mail.- Because of the curtailment of train services during the last three years, wireless is the only means by which the country people can obtain daily news of the outside world. The district in which I live is fairly advanced, and had enjoyed a daily mail for 52 years, but now on three days of the week we have to rely on wireless news. I trust that the new service will he operated in such a manner as to relieve- this isolation of the men outback.

The bill proposes that the chairman of the board shall receive a salary of £500, the deputy chairman '£400, and tlie other members £300 each. The right honorable member for North Sydney has found fault with this remuneration as inadequate. I remind him that the directors will n&t be full-time servants of the Commonwealth, hut will attend meetings of the board when required, as the directors of the Commonwealth Bank do. Sir

Robert Gibson, who is practically the financial adviser of Australia, receives only £800 a year. The function of the board will be to prescribe the lines on which the system shall be operated, and upon the manager, a full-time officer, will devolve the responsibility of carrying out that policy. If the Government is wise in its choice of directors, the scheme will operate successfully, and I hope that no man will be chosen who has a bias towards any particular broadcasting section. The directors should be business men, who will regard the wireless system as a commercial undertaking, intended to give service throughout the length and breadth of Australia. Doubtless in time television will be in operation. The Postmaster-General predicted that in the near future people will be able to see from their own firesides horse-racing, and other public events. The day is not far distant when a page of a newspaper will be transmitted, and persons in the Northern Territory will, by merely operating a switch, be able to read the news of the day published in Melbourne or Sydney. The general manager will require to have special organizing ability, and some understanding of public opinion. One section of the public wants to hear on Saturday afternoons nothing but horse-racing, which to another considerable section is abhorrent. Any mau who endeavours to satisfy both sections must fail.

Clauses 17 and 18 empower the commission to distribute certain publications. That is essential, and I hope that the programmes issued by the organization will state in detail the times at which the various items will be broadcast. Persons who do not subscribe to the magazines published by the broadcasting companies to-day have to rely on the newspaper advertisements, which state merely that between stated hours certain items will be broadcast. A farmer cannot afford to sit at his receiving set for several hours to get the weather forecast or the market reports. The right honorable member who referred to the sponsored programmes provided for in clause 22, seems to think that they were some form of advertising stunt. I take it that sponsored programmes are those provided by business firms at their

Ifr. Gibson. own cost, the firms being permitted only to state that they are responsible for the programmes. Unless steps are taken to control the activities of B class stations, it would be possible for one of them to secure for, say, £3,000 the exclusive right to broadcast, a test cricket match between English and Australian elevens, and the A class stations could not then broadcast a word about it except as a news item. The B class stations would also obtain control of broadcasting from all the racecourses in the country. The right to broadcast the results from Flemington might be acquired by one company for £3,000 or £4,000, and all other stations would be excluded. This sort of thing must be guarded against, and the provision with regard to sponsored programmes is designed to that end. No detailed advertising would be permitted, but merely a statement that the programme was provided by a certain company.

Only a year or two ago, the United States of America, which has no national broadcasting system, had altogether 700 broadcasting stations. They got into such a mess that it was found necessary to cancel the licences of 400 stations. Even now the service there is not so good as is provided in Australia. I agree with the honorable member for Kalgoorlie (Mr. A. Green), that the position in regard to B class stations is unsatisfactory. Some time ago licences were granted to 46 B class stations, and no other person or company may now receive a licence, because no wave length can be allotted. That is not fair. It is not right that the first 46 applicants should have the exclusive right to operate B class stations. I have nothing against these stations ; many of them are excellent; but no government should give a few licence-holders a monopoly of this service. Some of them are making so much money that they do not know what to do with it, while others, situated in country districts where they can obtain little or no advertising, are not doing well. Many of the B class stations provide good programmes, but. their power is so weak that they cannot be heard in country districts during the day time, though at night they can be picked up well. The licences granted to B class stations are limited to three years, and it might be a good idea to call fresh applications every three years. Considerable revenue might accrue to the department in this way. It is not fair that two or three newspapers which, in the early stages of broadcasting, acquired licences to operate B class stations, should have a monopoly of this work to the exclusion of all others.

The news service provided at present over the wireless is not so satisfactory as it might be. The newspapers are merely giving to the people over the air what they put on their posters as an inducement to the public to buy their papers. It is very nearly as sketchy and limited as that. A good news service should be provided for the benefit of the thousands of licence-holders in country districts, many of whom receive their mail only once a week. The commission ought to be able to take steps to improve the news service. If the newspapers are not prepared to give a better service, the commission might establish its own news service for the benefit of licence-holders.

I do not think that the present licencefee of 24s. is too much. That fee is divided into three parts; 12s. is to go to the broadcasting division, and I feel sure that the commission ought to be able to carry on with that and have something over. Out of the 12s. which the commission is to receive, it must pay performing right fees. What that will come to nobody seems to know. To the ordinary person, the charge made by the Performing Eight Association seems preposterous, and I trust that the Government will take action to limit the charges which this association may make in respect of rights which, in many instances, it may not, perhaps, possess.

The post office receives 9s. out of each licence-fee, in return for which it provides technical services involving sometimes considerable sacrifice. The department must supply telephone facilities all over Australia for relaying purpose. Programmes broadcast in Victoria may be relayed to Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, and even Perth. These relays sometimes involve t he use of 3,000 miles of wire. Over such long distances a complicated system is employed, comprising the use of valves and repeaters at various points along the line. Large staffs are also required, and while the broadcast is in progress, the telephone lines are not available for ordinary purposes, and the department loses revenue in consequence.

The remaining 3s. of the licence-fee goes to Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited.


Mr GIBSON - It is very hard to say. During the last four years, this company has received £52,000 a year.

Mr White - Did not the company buy the patent rights in the first instance for £4:0,0001

Mr GIBSON - I do not know what it paid for them, but I know that those patent rights are valued in the company's own books at £90,000. An agreement was entered into between the Government and the Amalgamated Wireless Company in 1927 in respect to royalties for patent rights, and one clause of that agreement is as follows : -

The company agrees to prosecute as expeditiously as possible to judgment the actions which have already been instituted by it in Australia for infringement of patent rights, which actions it is agreed are for infringement of patent rights substantially important in connexion with wireless broadcasting.

The action which was pending at that time was against David Jones and Company of Sydney. The company lost that case, which was to test the validity of certain patents. Therefore, that action did not assist the company to establish its claim to draw royalties. I admit that it lost the case on a technical point, but, nevertheless, it lost. The company was then supposed to take action against the Government of New Zealand, which had put itself in the place of its people, and said that if the company was going to sue anybody in New Zealand, it must site the Government. The company then proceeded against Myers' Emporium in Melbourne. This firm said that it was not going to defend the action. It took the "view that it did not matter to it whether it won or lost the case, as the Government had entered into an arrangement with the Amalgamated Wireless Company to pay royalites in respect of all patent rights. The Amalgamated Wireless Company was given a verdict by default. The company had already begun an action against the Government of New Zealand, but, in view of the fact that it had won so easily against Myers', it withdrew the action against New Zealand.

I am anxIous to know whether the patent rights claimed by the Amalgamated Wireless Company really exist. The agreement between the Commonwealth Government and the company was entered into for a term of years, which will expire in November next. The Government has the right to cancel the agreement by giving twelve months' notice. I should like to know whether the last Government, or the present Government, gave the company the necessary notice to terminate the agreement. I trust that the PostmasterGeneral will take steps to determine definitely whether or not the Amalgamated Wireless Company possesses the rights it claims. Already it has received from the Government, in royalties, £165,000, in respect of alleged rights valued at only £90,000. The managing director of the company, Mr. Fisk, in a recent speech reported in the Melbourne Age, claimed that his company was just such another as that in which Disraeli purchased shares on behalf of Great Britain. He compared the action of the right honorable member for North Sydney (Mr. Hughes), who obtained an interest in the Amalgamated Wireless Company on behalf of the Commonwealth Government, with that of Disraeli, who bought for Great Britain a controlling interest in the Suez Canal Company.. Disraeli's purchase gave Britain control of the waterways of the world; Mr. Hughes' purchase gave rite Commonwealth an important measure of control over the airways of the world. In this speech, which was a most admirable one from the point of view of Mr. Fisk, he said, "During the past year we have handed over to the Commonwealth £117,000 ", and he led his hearers to believe that the Commonwealth had benefited to this extent at the expense" of the company. But that money represents terminal rates on telegrams and cablegrams which the company was bound to collect just as the cable companies collect rates and hand them to the Government. There is not a shilling of revenue in the whole £117,000 that was earned by Amalgamated Wireless Limited, but that company received £165,000 clear money from the Postmaster-General's Department for the use of its patent rights.

Mr Hughes - Of which half was returned to the Government.

Mr GIBSON - The licence-fees in Australia provide Amalgamated Wireless Limited with £52,000 per annum, and a glance at the figures prepared by the Auditor-General will show that the Government does not receive half of £52,000, but only £21,000.

Mr Hughes - The Government receives half of the profits.

Mr GIBSON - If Amalgamated Wireless Limited were to close its doors, dismiss all its employees, and allow the post office to pay this money into its banks, the Government would receive £30,000 per annum. That is the difference. The Government is associated with an undertaking that must be making a considerable loss on its manufacturing side. No member of the Government nor anybody on this side of this House stands for government enterprise competing against private enterprise, yet that is exactly what is happening to-day in respect of the operations of the Amalgamated Wireless Limited.

Mr Thorby - It is turning out a good article.

Mr GIBSON - I am saying nothing about that. This company has a monopoly of wireless transmission overseas and a concession in rates of 20 per cent., which enables it to obtain practically the whole of the wireless traffic overseas. It pays nothing for that concession.

Mr Fenton - Is the honorable member referring to the Beam system?

Mr GIBSON - Yes. At one time the British Government operated the Beam system in Great Britain, but when the Imperial Communications Company took over the cables it paid Great Britain £250,000 annually for the right to-operate the Beam system. The Amalgamated Wireless Limited have a similar concession for nothing, and it is the most profitable side of its business. If it were to carry on broadcasting, with its revenue of £60,000, and the profits on the Beam system, the Government, as a partner in the concern, would be on a good wicket, but as the position is to-day, the only inference one can draw is that Amalgamated Wireless Limited is making a huge loss on its manufacturing side, notwithstanding that there is a total embargo on the importation of wireless sets.

Mr Hughes - That is not so.

Mr GIBSON - That is my view. The urgency of this bill must be apparent to every honorable member. The commission is to be appointed to take control of national broadcasting, and to start operations on the 1st July. It has no organization, and has issued no programmes. It has nothing with which to make a start on the 1st July. It is absolutely essential, therefore, to appoint at once a manager and the staff to provide the programmes. The public must be acquainted with the nature of the programmes at least one month before operations commence. It is not an easy task to get together a huge staff at such short notice.

I agree in the main with this bill. Several alterations might be made to it in committee. It is essential to take the control of this undertaking out of the hands of the Minister.

Mr Makin - The British Cabinet has jurisdiction over the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Mr GIBSON - I believe that the system proposed in Australia is similar to that of Great Britain, except that the commission here will be advised by the Minister, which should not be so.

Mr Fenton - The honorable member would be surprised to know the power that the British post office has over the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Mr GIBSON - I want a control like that which this Government exercises over the Commonwealth Bank Board to be exercised in this instance. That control is negligible. I hope that this undertaking will soon commence operations, and will be successful. I hope that it will stand to the sponsored programmes. That is absolutely essential if we are to safeguard national broadcasting. I feel sure that the commission will be able to get together a. staff which will give to Australia a better service than before. I am not complaining about the present service. We view it from different stand-points. What satisfies one does not satisfy another. I trust that the Government will provide sufficient money to enable the commission so to extend its operations as to enable the whole length and breadth of Australia to be well served by this national broadcasting system.

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