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Wednesday, 11 October 2006
Page: 8

Senator GEORGE CAMPBELL (9:55 AM) —I should apologise to Senator Joyce before I start my contribution to this debate; I chased his cheer squad away by intervening and taking my position on the speaking list. You can tell Senator Nash to come back in about 10 or 15 minutes, Senator Joyce, and she can listen to your debate then.

The Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006 and related legislation present yet another ill-thought-out policy that will be rammed through this place without any concern about its impact on the Australian people. Prime Minister John Howard himself has said in the past few days that these reforms are not top priority for the government, they are not top of the agenda and he can take them or leave them. If that is true, why are we seeing such policy on the fly? That is exactly what it is—policy on the run, on the fly. Some people may be more unkind and say that this is a fly policy.

On Monday the debate was on, then it was off. Then yesterday it was on, then off and then back on. Since Monday we have been held in a state of animated suspension, wondering when we were going to get to have a sensible debate about these issues.

Whether we like it or not, we are here to debate some of the biggest media ownership changes that this country has ever seen, yet the government made a deal only yesterday afternoon to secure the passage of this legislation. The deal was not made with the opposition. The deal was not made with the media industry. The government did not reach an accommodation with the media industry. The deal was made with the National Party. The deal to secure the passage of this legislation through the chamber was made with three or four senators from the National Party. And that is why we are debating this legislation now—not because of extensive research about the media and content in Australia. Rather, it was a research exercise into what The Nationals would stomach in terms of media reform.

I heard Senator Nash’s speech last night. I sat and listened to her contribution for 20 minutes and I was amazed. I did not think it took 20 minutes to apologise to your constituents for selling them out. But she took the full 20 minutes to tell her constituents that she was sorry, that she had sold them out, but that it really was for the greater good. I do not know whether there is a female ‘Wacker’ hanging around New South Wales who may be going to give Senator Nash a bit of a touch-up in the next preselection battle in that state, but she certainly took great pains to apologise to her constituents for her sell-out on this bill. I look forward with interest to hearing Senator Joyce’s contribution today to see just how far he has gone along the road of selling out his colleagues in Queensland on this media issue.

And what is it that The Nationals were prepared to stomach to support this legislation? It was 12½ minutes of local news a day on local radio. And what guarantee exists to ensure that that 12.5 minutes of daily news content cannot be produced centrally and simply ripped and read? None—absolutely none. It can be produced anywhere in the country.

I want to draw senators’ attention to a word that has been noticeably absent on the other side of the chamber during this debate. It is a word we have consistently had rammed down our throats in many debates in this chamber, and that is the word ‘choice’. Remember the debates about superannuation and the need for choice? ‘People should have the right of choice.’ Do you remember the debates about industrial relations? ‘People should have the right of choice—they should be able to choose an AWA; they should be able to choose a collective agreement; that should be their right.’ And the people on the other side of this chamber are constantly, in debates in this place, ramming down our throats: ‘You are the party that wants to dictate a uniform approach to everything for everybody. We are the party who is prepared to give individuals choice.’

Isn’t it interesting that in this debate the issue of choice is glaringly absent? And it is not coincidental, because if the government could use it they would. But they cannot. That is because this bill removes choice—something that the government have always claimed to champion. The bill will remove choice, particularly from regional and rural Australia in terms of the extent of diversity they are able to get in the news that is presented to them.

The reality is that these changes will have significant impacts on the quality and content of local news, particularly in regional Australia. While limiting choice of media sources might not matter to the government—who have the luxury of accessing national media, thanks to the taxpayer—it does matter and it matters to the people of Australia.

The internet—in response to Senator Parry’s comments—is not an adequate reason to dismantle an effective regime of cross-media laws. Are other senators convinced that it is all going to be okay because we can download videos from YouTube? I am certainly not. Let us be clear about this: the internet is not a replacement for real local content or genuine local media diversity. Being able to read the New York Times does not equate to local media diversity. Convergence is no good reason to water down protection.

There is no evidence to suggest that the internet is increasing diversity of news. The existing major media players completely dominate the market for online news, with something like 84 per cent of hits on news sites occurring on major media players’ websites. The content remains the same; only the way it is accessed is different. This is not a recipe for diversity—it is a recipe for more of the same. A majority of Australians are able to gain access to the internet. However, those who cannot will be further disadvantaged by these laws. Some cannot afford a computer or internet access, while others in regional areas, as we know, often have trouble getting the internet, especially high-speed broadband. These are the people who will be most disadvantaged.

Let us look at local radio content. In any given market, one player could potentially own two out of three outlets while another outlet might be a pop music radio station. This means that editorial coverage could still, in effect, be dominated completely by one player—never mind the ludicrous situation where a local music radio station is treated the same as talk radio, a newspaper or a TV station; each counts equally as a competing voice in the market. And now one proprietor can own only two of the three media types in a market—newspaper, radio or television. But I could be in a position where the two outlets’ editorial content were essentially the same and where that was the only editorial content available to my community. In fact, competition is narrowed as a result of this process.

Already we have issues with local media diversity and already local communities struggle to get news that is relevant to them. People will not be able to exercise choice in the market and reward providers of genuine local content because there will not be any. For this reason I find the comments made yesterday by Senator Ian Macdonald, senator for Queensland, ridiculous. He said:

I do not have a disregard for country people. I think country people are clever enough to know what they want from commercial radio, and they will express that by either turning on or off the particular local commercial radio station. If the radio station is not providing the content that the listeners want, the listeners will turn off. If the listeners turn off, the advertisers will turn off. If the advertisers turn off, the radio station will go into liquidation, and it will no longer be.

Well, I am sorry, Senator Macdonald—it will not be that simple. People in rural areas will not have the luxury of turning off just because they do not like it. They will have no choice of news sources or opinion by turning off the offending station. What will they be left with in those circumstances? Nothing. They will be left with no information if they take Senator Macdonald’s course of action. Regional people will be further isolated from their local community and from the rest of the country. The senator last night told regional Australia that they could like it or lump it. That is unacceptable and it does show disregard for people in regional Australia.

So where are the benefits to ordinary Australians here? Where is the community interest? Ordinary people are not desperately hoping that media moguls can go on a regional media shopping spree. We do not see any clamour from regional Australia to get Fairfax, PBL or News Ltd to come and buy up their local newspapers, radio stations or TV stations. Ordinary people are not hoping for the number of competing voices in their media markets to be halved. This is a government that is yet again pursuing the interests of the elites and the plutocracy over that of ordinary people and local communities.

Senators who saw the Media Watch report a couple of weeks ago which looked at regional media would have seen what I am talking about. Take, for example, the town of Griffith, which used to have its own bulletin on WIN TV. Now it has an amalgamated Riverina bulletin put together from Wollongong and then put out from 500 kilometres away. There is no competing local TV station, so the citizens of Griffith have no stick to wield in the market to punish this, no matter how annoyed they are. And believe me, they are annoyed. Take Mayor Dino Zappacosta’s comments to Media Watch as proof:

The incorporation of Griffith news into a bulletin that encompasses Albury, Wagga Wagga and surrounding regions has already impacted on the community and its identity.

The isolation of Griffith and towns surrounding the city, including Hay and Leeton, means that the local news broadcast provided local information for local people at a local level.

It provided cohesiveness in the community, which engaged all residents including minority and disadvantaged groups.

With the transfer of news and production facilities to Wollongong, there has not only been a loss in local information but a loss of up to nine jobs in the city.

It is estimated the drop in local news content exceeds 50 per cent, with an average of two Griffith news stories broadcast in the bulletin.

                  …         …           …

Griffith City Council and Griffith businesses have been staunch supporters of WIN-TV and the community has been angered by what appears to be a blatant disregard for that support.

That was Councillor Dino Zappacosta’s statement to Media Watch. This will only get worse. The situation in Griffith is going to be repeated across regional and rural Australia. It will get worse under this new regime. This is a problem that we have already, which will only be made worse as we cut down the diversity of sources. Matthew Ricketson, in the Age, said:

The ability to buy two of the three media forms can still lead to mega-media companies and, as far as I can see, does not prevent many, if any, of the major deals that bankers and media executives have been snooping around.

These deals include the possibility that if the proposed amendments were passed, Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd, controlled by James Packer, could buy John Fairfax Holdings, owner of The Age. Or that Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited, Australia’s biggest publisher of newspapers, could buy a TV network, such as Ten.

People will be left with less choice and fewer options to turn to. These changes continue this government’s attack on media diversity.

Let us look at the ABC. Over the past 10 years this government has constantly criticised its ABC, claiming that it has left-wing bias. We have been treated, at estimates hearings, to government senators, Senator Santoro and Senator Fierravanti-Wells, who have come along with tomes of information about where the ABC has shown particular bias. They spend hours reading through transcripts from radio stations all round the country who use this word or that word to describe the government, which they say was a bias against the government. And what has been the government’s answer? It has been to stack the board of the ABC with as many of its avid supporters as possible. You could not find a board in this country, even of major corporates, with as conservative a group of people running the show as you now have with our ABC—the hope being that ABC content will be shaped according to this government’s agenda, rather than being shaped by independent investigation, reason, research and thought.

In fact, what this government is seeking to achieve with the ABC is to make it a propaganda arm of the government in the same way that News Ltd in the United States during the Gulf War became the propaganda arm of the Bush government. It did not produce news on its nightly bulletins; it produced propaganda, and it was blatantly exposed by media watchers in the United States during that period. The government would not be attacking media outlets such as the ABC, and it would not spend $55 million advertising its industrial relations reforms if it did not think that public opinion was important to monitor and influence.

Should a dominant media company take a certain point of view, it will now have the means to control or limit the extent of what is perceived as popular opinion or the correct side or thought on certain issues. These changes are not healthy for diverse public opinion and in turn are not healthy for democracy; they are not healthy for regional Australia and they are not healthy for the Australian people. I urge the chamber to reject the bill.