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Wednesday, 18 May 1960

Mr FAIRHALL (Paterson) .- Mr. Speaker,we are called upon to give urgent consideration to this important bill in order to obviate delay in the issue of licences in phase three of television expansion in this country. I say that because the Australian Broadcasting Control Board can hardly deal with the applications betore it in the absence of this measure. It knows what the Government has in mind, but it has no legal power to make recommendations which will agree with this bill. In this situation, the responsibility clearly lies with the Australian Broadcasting Control Board. I want to make it clear that, for myself, I take no pleasure at all in criticizing the board or any of its officers, who cannot answer back. Nevertheless, 1 believe when the public interest demands it, a member of this House should stand in his place and say what appears on good grounds to deal equitably with this sort of situation. It is rather a pity, to my mind, that the Australian Broadcasting Control Board cannot answer back. For myself, I would like to hear the defence that would be put up to the sort of things that I shall bring before the House in the next ten minutes or so.

We face in Australia to-day, on this question of television, an extraordinarily serious situation, which I believe has been brought about wholly by lack of foresight on the part of the board. It is the board's responsibility to make recommendations to the Government on the issue of television licences, among other things. It is also the responsibility of the board to set the conditions under which these licences shall be operated. I want to deal with two important aspects of this matter. The first of them, with which I have dealt on previous occasions, relates to the technical field. Over a long period of years - since 1953. indeed, when the Government set up an inadequately equipped royal commission to deal with this subject - I, and many others, have been urging the Government and its instrumentalities - the Postmaster-General's Department and the Australian Broadcasting Control Board - to deal with the important question of channel allocation, but in every case we have been met with a round " No ". The board has failed to deal with this matter, despite the fact that, since 1935, in its annual report it has been publishing - a knowledge of its own responsibility in this field.

It is particularly unfortunate that we have to wait until applications have been called, and until they have been given a good deal of expensive consideration, before the Australian Broadcasting Control Board will move for the holding of the technical inquiry without which, on its own admission, it cannot proceed to recommend the issue of licences. All this adds up to a delay in the extension of stage three of television in Australia, which will be related particularly to country services.

Now, Sir, I want to move on to the question of the ownership of companies licensed to operate television stations. In this field, the advantages of multiple ownership surely began to appear in broadcasting as early as the 1930's. It seems that any prudent administration, knowing this, would have understood quite clearly that the conditions which developed in commercial broadcasting would, for the same reasons, appear in television at no distant date. If that prudent administration had done the right thing, it would have settled long before this the matters to which the House is turning its attention to-night; but the result of the failure to foresee that development is that we must pass this bill before this sessional period ends, or there will be another insufferable delay in the extension of television in Australia.

Mr Wheeler - That is bad enough as it is.

Mr FAIRHALL - That is quite true. If delay were the only consideration, the position would be bad enough, but there is another much more serious matter to which I direct the attention of the Government, because I cannot believe the Government has given it enough study. Certainly, I should like to direct the attention of the House to this proposition: For the past six months, applicants for licences have lodged applications with the Australian Broadcasting Control Board and have supported them "in many cases on a basis which will be pre- included from consideration by the board as a result of the passage of this bill. Proposed new section 92e provides -

A licence shall not be granted to a company where the circumstances are such that, upon the grant of that licence to that company, a person would be contravening section ninety-two or ninety-two C of this Act or the condition specified in the last preceding section would be contravened.

So I should like to know from the PostmasterGeneral (Mr. Davidson) whether it is a fact that, on the passage of this bill, the Australian Broadcasting Control Board will not be able to give further consideration to a number of the applications that are now before it, as they will be found to be in contravention of this legislation. How does the board propose to deal with this situation? Does it propose to re-assess the evidence and apply some figure of merit created by itself to the evidence and so correct the mistakes? Is it going to invite those who have applications before the board and have supported them most expensively to take them away and rewrite them?

Surely that sort of situation would lead us to believe that the only equitable way to deal with this matter would be to wash up the whole procedure in respect of those areas - and indeed those States - where the applicants contravene the provisions of the measure by having a series of applications before the board which would give them more than 15 per cent, of control in more than two stations. If we invite them to rewrite the applications, surely the evidence should be heard all over again, because if new applications are to be admitted, they must be on an entirely different basis from those that the board has been considering for six months. I question whether, at the end of this exercise, there will be any real occasion to believe that the matter has been dealt with fairly, reasonably or in a business-like way.

Before leaving this matter, I want to go back to this technical side. The Australian Broadcasting Control Board is at present, I believe, in the closing stages of a technical inquiry which I. for one, hold to be unsatisfactory. However, putting that aside as only a personal view, it will be recalled that from 1953 onwards, we went into television in Australia on the basis of using the ten channels in the very high frequency spectrum. It was popularly supposed and stated that in those ten channels we would have enough to provide television services for the reasonable future. The fact is that a few years after the introduction of television services, we have found ourselves running out of frequencies. We must have a technical inquiry.

Now I come to this point: I know that there are before the Australian Broadcasting Control Board at this time proposals that some extensions of television should go into the ultra-high frequency spectrum, where there are 50, 60 or more channels available, but of lesser technical value than those in the very high frequency section. On behalf of my constituents in the Hunter Valley, and perhaps, for the same reason, on behalf of the thousands of television viewers along the south coast of New South Wales, I want to know what protection will be given to them and to the proposed television stations in Newcastle - and in the Hunter Valley - and the south coast of New South Wales if they should be given a licence to operate in the ultra-high frequency section. If that should happen - and it is a possibility - we would find ourselves in the position that was reached in the United States of America in 1948.

Having believed that they had enough room in the very high frequency channels to provide a national competitive service, the Americans discovered in 1948 that they were wrong, just as we are finding that we are wrong. In 1948, the Americans were obliged to put down a four-year freeze on the issue of television licences because it was shown that, where there was an attempt to mix ultra-high frequency and very high frequency stations, the ultrahigh frequency stations went out of business because they had no audiences. People could not be persuaded to spend the amount of money required to change their very high frequency sets. In Newcastle at this moment, it is estimated that there are 14,000 sets capable of responding only to very high frequencies. If there is a move to licence a Newcastle station to operate in the ultra-high frequency section, it will be immediately robbed of a major part of its audience.

Mr Howson - How much does it cost to convert the sets?

Mr FAIRHALL - I do not know; it might cost £20 or £30, depending on the manufacture of the set.

If the Government is going to tolerate the sort of incompetence - I use the word advisedly - inherent in the past behaviour of the Australian Broadcasting Control Board, and if it intends to amend the provisions through this sort of legislation, which was brought in during the last hours of the sessional period and which we are asked to pass with completely inadequate time to consider it properly and without time for interested parties to put before members or the Government their points of view on matters that vitally affect them commercially and which deeply affect the public interest, the Government will be responsible for the near chaos that may well result in the telecommunications field, and we will be found to be accessories before and after that particular fact.

I should now like to deal with the rest of the bill. The changes affecting the powers of the board to control, or to exercise greater control, over hearings before it in the future will, I hope, be entirely beneficial, although for myself I have not had time to look at the full import of them. However, anything that will preserve this country from the fiasco that we have enjoyed through two sets of television licence hearing surely must be of benefit, and I hope that the board will really take control of future hearings.

I should like to refer to that portion of the bill which deals with the changed conditions for the Australian Broadcasting Commission under which, in general, the Public Service Board will have some say in the conditions under which the commission's staff is engaged. I understand that the commission will be rather happy about that, because it will have certain benefit from the advice of the Public Service Board, and I make little pronouncement about that. However, I want to refer to the arrangement under which the Postmaster-General's Department provides and maintains the technical facilities for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. I understand that a situation of that kind which operates in sound broadcasting has been broken down a good deal in television, in that the commission has control of its studio technical facilities. For my part, I believe that the Australian Broadcasting Commission should be a self-contained authority and should have complete control and responsibility for the provision, the maintenance and the operation of its own technical equipment. There are certain advantages to come out of that, but I do not think that I need deal with them here. I have an idea that this subject is under discussion between the commission and the Government. However, I would urge that if the commission wants that sort of control of its facilities, the Government should hasten to agree with it.

I am very glad that the PostmasterGeneral is in the House. I have raised this point because I have been complaining for some time about the technical services available to my constituents in the Lower Hunter from the national stations 2NA and 2NC. This situation was to have been rectified almost twelve months ago by the erection and operation of a new radiator. That radiator has been standing up in the air at Beresfield for some six or eight months. I have asked the Postmaster-General on a number of occasions when it was proposed that this radiator would come into service and when my constituents might expect some better national broadcasting. Up to now. the radiator still stands there, it is still inoperative, and I am still wondering who is responsible. The Australian Broadcasting Commission will not accept responsibility; it does not own the radiator. I have been singularly unable to obtain any information from the Postmaster-General's Department, and from the PostmasterGeneral himself, I have received only assurances that leapfrog from month to month that the radiator will soon come into operation. I ask the Postmaster-General to look into this matter urgently. I do not know what the trouble is, but whatever it is. it ought to be rectified so that my constituents can obtain the sort of radio service that I believe they are entitled to receive.

The hard core of this legislation, of course, is the prevention of the development of monopolies in television. The motive has not been particularly stated.

However, if we want to prevent the development of a commercial monopoly, that is one thing and I am certainly in favour of it. But I believe that the real motive - it was suggested in the Postmaster-General's second-reading speech - is to prevent the centralization of the control of this means of mass communication in a few hands. That is a process which is well developed, and I certainly applaud any effort aimed at preventing such growth. What we must look at is the question of methods. How do we propose to bring this about? The bill suggests that the 15 per cent, shareholding will henceforth constitute control for purposes of licences and for purposes of the restrictions mentioned in the bill. I am particularly in favour of this, with one question only in my mind. 1 shall deal with the programme side in a moment, but the question in my mind is whether that limitation is sufficient to prevent the commercial control, the effective control, of more than the two television stations that any company or individual is entitled to control.

One point on which 1 should like some clarification is whether the 15 per cent, referred to as control for the purposes of licences extends from proposed new section 92b to proposed new section 92d. On an examination of these provisions, I doubt whether we have provided for the retention of control of Australian broadcasting in Australian hands. I freely admit that the proposed new sections are a little involved. There are more words there than 1 care to juggle with, and perhaps my interpretation of them is wrong. However, the PostmasterGeneral might be good enough to deal with this point in the committee stage.

Sir, whenwe come to the question of programme control, I want to express my complete opposition to the provisions on two grounds. The first is that I believe these provisions to be completely unnecessary, and the second is that I believe that they represent an invasion of private property rights. It is quite clear to me that the Government is considerably scared of evidence given by applicants before the Australian Broadcasting Control Board on these section 3 applications. I think everybody knows quite well that the licensees of existing television stations did not hesitate to let it be known amongst other hopeful applicants that they could not look for assistance from city stations if in turn they did not allow the city stations to have an interest. I am not going to argue whether that is legitimate or not. I merely say that by the provisions to which I have referred - that is the limitation of ownership in television licences - the Government has taken care of that situation so that monopolies cannot develop.

If there was a dearth of programme material in this country, the move to force people in the way we propose in the bill might be acceptable, and I underscore the word " might " in that context. But I am yet to be convinced that there is not an adequate supply of material in this country. At this present moment, programme agencies are hawking a very considerable volume of programme material around licensees and those who hope to be licensees. The proper approach to this will surely be for the Government to make certain that every possible assistance is given to ensure the availability of an adequate supply of programme material. Of course, if we are going to talk about cornering programmes and monopolies in programme holding and so on, I think we must be realistic. We are not dealing with radio programmes that may cost £100, £200 or £300 an episode to produce; we are dealing here with films that cost tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of pounds, and, in some instances, millions of pounds to produce, and, of course, the hire of them in this country will be on an equivalent basis. I just do not believe that any commercial television station in Australia could corner enough of these programmes and that the results would be economically satisfactory to it. I offer the opinion that when further licences are made available, television stations now holding materials will hasten to do a deal to offload some of their programme costs and thereby reduce their operating expenses.

But the whole bill seems to overlook the fact that there are other programme agencies in the country. I understand that at the present time there are quite a number of American agencies, either producers of television material or retailers of it who are expecting to open offices in this country or have already done so. In this context I should like to look at the provision contained in proposed new section 105a (5.) which is part of clause 28. It reads -

Any person who, either in or outside Australia, acquires (whether by purchase of the film or otherwise) power to grant rights to the use of a television film for television purposes in Australia shall not--

And I will leave out a few words - at any . . . time make an agreement that could prevent him from granting such rights to the licensee of a television station on reasonable terms and conditions.

If I read this provision correctly it means that if Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, a great producer of television programmes, who acquires the ownership of a programme by production and therefore the right to offer it in Australia, cannot make an agreement for the wholesale distribution of his output in this country. In other words, under this bill he cannot make an agreement which would prevent him from dealing individually with any licensed station in Australia. This is surely a gross interference with the ordinary channels of trade in this particular field and I believe ought not to be accepted.

Time will not permit me to go into these proposed new sections in detail, and indeed the committee stage may be a very valuable opportunity in which to discuss it more fully. It seems to me that the provision contained in proposed new section 105a (7.) (a) gives power to the Australian Broadcasting Control Board to act in saving the issue of an order to deal in a particular programme, but this will depend on the interpretation of the word " serve " in relation to a television service, and also the words " substantial extent ". The legal fraternity may tell us that these words are used every day in court and that they are easily and reasonably interpreted by courts. But in this particular field we are dealing with broadcasting coverage which can be measured most precisely and if we are to save ourselves future trouble in the administration of this particular provision we would be wise to use some very specific terms with which to state what is intended.

Paragraph (b) of the same sub-section calls for the same consideration, because the expression " reasonable opportunity " will have to be interpreted. In other words the Broadcasting Control Board may not force the owner of a programme to release it until he has reasonable opportunity for it to be used. There may be vastly differing interpretations of what constitutes a reasonable opportunity. The board is not likely to suffer any loss if it makes a mistake but the owner of a programme who may be preserving it for a period of years, as often happens, until a national sponsor buys that programme for release all over the country in connexion with some national advertising campaign may suffer if the integrity of that programme is broken because he is forced to sell it to one outlet. Its value would thereby be grossly impaired. I hope the Government will give some consideration to that particular matter.

When we talk about dealing with programmes on the basis of whether one station covers the territory of another, a very explosive situation might well develop, particularly on the New South Wales central coast where there could be a good deal of intrusion by three stations into each other's territory. I am referring to the stations of Wollongong, Sydney and Newcastle. At the moment, Newcastle hears Sydney so well that something like 14,000 people there have licences. But when the Newcastle station is established on the spot which I believe will be suitable for it, there is not the slightest doubt that Sydney will be able to get from Newcastle reception comparable to that which Newcastle is getting from Sydney to-day. There will be a good deal of over-lapping of territory and consequent difficulty in interpreting this particular provision. I believe that this provision dealing with programme material might well interfere unnecessarily with administration and I hope that it might be dropped completely.

On the question of the licensing of hired receivers, there is only one point. From the definition of " lodging house " and also of " receiver " - which means a broadcast receiver or a television receiver - it appears to me that private hospitals will be called upon to have an individual licence and pay a licence fee for every loudspeaker or pair of headphones attached to a radio receiver. Hospitals, and particularly private hospitals, are not profit-making institutions as far as I know and I hope that either in this bill or in some other appropriate measure the Government will be able to relieve private hospitals, already doing a magnificent job from this unwarranted impost.

I now come to another matter which is the last I shall mention, but I think the most important, particularly for country areas. This is the provision contained in proposed new section 130a under which the Post Office, rather reluctantly, I am afraid, is surrendering its exclusive rights to the use of telegraph lines. This will enable the operation of community antennae and the development of a system which is popularly known as re-diffusion on a smaller or greater scale. However we arrange our frequency channels in Australia, there must inevitably be a greater number of people living in what are called " fringe " areas with inadequate signal strength to provide a good service. There must also be a considerable number of dead spots. All I can hope is that the board, in its recommendations, and the department in its approvals, will not be niggardly in allowing country areas the means of getting improved service.

This brings me to my last point. There is one important matter not mentioned in the bill. This is other means of boosting television coverage in country areas. This is achieved by the use of a system of translators by which the signal picked up from V.H.F. transmitters can be amplified and re-radiated for purely local consumption by a television station on the V.H.F. section of the band. This may be a very workable and indeed a very necessary part of the machinery to bring television service to the scattered population of a vast country like Australia. But as I have pointed out there is no provision for this in the bill. In other words, we will have to go all over this ground later. The reason that this has not been included in this bill is that the board has not yet been able to make up its mind on this matter. Therefore I repeat that I am unhappy about quite an amount of this legislation. Many people would have been much happier if the board had earned the greater confidence of this House and of the people of Australia by exercising considerably more foresight than it has evidenced up to date.

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