Local, Independant and Effective

Media reform has two years to prove value to rural and regional Australia

Posted December 02, 2016


Ms McGOWAN (Indi) (12:13): In beginning my comments on this piece of legislation, I would like to acknowledge some constituents who are with me in parliament today: to the Fraser family, how fantastic it is to have you here—to Brian, Mary and Annie, thanks for making the effort.

I rise to speak on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Media Reform) Bill 2016 and I will be supporting this bill in the House. Australia's regional media has seen a serious decline in recent years, and the rise of digital media has put pressure on all traditional media focusing companies to seek savings, cut jobs and services, and centralise production in capital cities and larger centres.

In my electorate of Indi, there have been some dramatic cuts to media. In 2015, Fairfax Media cut 62 journalists from its papers in regional Victoria, including 23 staff at The Border Mail in Albury-Wodonga. And, as recently as this month, there has been another reduction of five advertising production positions at The Border Mail, with ongoing outsourcing of work overseas.

These cutbacks mean a loss of extensive corporate and local knowledge from among those staff who leave these publications and diminishing career paths for journalists and media professionals in regional areas. There is also the difficulty of maintaining skills when work pressure is enormous, and we are hearing fewer voices with less experience. For the communities affected, there is a loss of connection with their newspapers and/or masthead and an impact on how many local stories can be told.

In recent years we have also seen a consolidation of resources within electronic newsrooms. Prime has shut broadcasting studios in Albury, Tamworth, Orange and Wagga in New South Wales, while Southern Cross sacked more than a dozen staff in Canberra and undertook to renew services in Tasmania and regional South Australia. Bulletins have been centralised in Canberra, Ballarat and Wollongong. We have seen WIN Television withdraw its licences from the Riverland and Mount Gambier regions in South Australia, leaving these regions without a dedicated local news service. WIN has also closed bureaus in Albany, Geraldton and Broome in Western Australia.

I would like to take this opportunity to do a call-out, a thank you, to local media. I want to pay tribute to the expertise and professionalism of the many who are involved in local media within my electorate. There are so many journalists who continue to tell the local stories within Indi and with whom my office and I have built ongoing relationships as we share the region's issues and positive news stories. So thank you to Jamie Kronborg and Leah Tindill at the Wangaratta Chronicle; to Shana Morgan at The Border Mail; to Jan Deane and Erin Somerville at ABC Goulburn Murray; to Monique Kuzeff at Albury Wodonga News Weekly; to Mark Blackman and Ashlee Charlton at WIN Television; to Josh Matthews and Helen Ballard at Prime; to Paul McSweeney and Andy Walker at Radio 2AY; to Matt Griffith at River FM; to Libby Price at the Benalla Ensign; to Anne Richey at the Alexandra Standard and Yea Chronicle; and to Pam and all the team at Mansfield Courier. That is just a few that I have named. To all the editors, the production staff, the marketing people, the camera people and all the people who, day to day, ring my office and help us to sort things out: we really appreciate your work and we acknowledge your skill and your professionalism.

This bill, the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Media Reform) Bill 2016 will amend the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 to repeal the two-out-of-three rule, which provides that a person must not be in a position to exercise control of more than two of the three regulated media platforms—commercial television, commercial radio and associated newspapers—in any commercial radio licence area; to repeal the 75 per cent audience reach rule, which provides that a person, either in their own right or as a director of one or more companies, must not be in a position to exercise control of commercial television broadcasting licences whose combined licence area population exceeds 75 per cent of the Australian population; and to introduce new local programming obligations for regional commercial television licensees, where, as a result of change in control, they become part of a media group whose combined licence area population exceeds 75 per cent of the population.

These changes are aimed at addressing the media control and ownership rules that were developed in an analog era, last century. There is a desperate need for reform of these laws, as my colleagues have said, to ensure that the media laws remain relevant and enable media businesses to compete in a changing media landscape. The proposed changes to the control and ownership rules will, I believe, enable Australian media companies to compete in an environment where new services and platforms are growing rapidly and are not subject to existing regulations.

It has become increasingly evident that the rise of online services has had a significant impact on Australia's media sector. The recent report by the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee examining this bill noted how the increase in online advertising services is affecting the advertising revenue on which media companies have traditionally relied. Chief executive officer of the Prime Media Group, Ian Audsley, commented that, while online news sites such as The Guardian, Crikey and SMH.com.au may keep consumers up to date with what is happening in our capital cities and around the world, they 'don't tell the residents of Launceston, Mackay or Ballarat'—or many in my electorate of Indi—'about what is happening in their home town.' He told the Senate inquiry that, 'without some form of consolidation' those living in regional Australia are going to see less local information and less diversity in the voice from our regional areas. Professor Rodney Tiffen told the same inquiry that the 75 per cent reach rule 'is not just outdated; it never made sense,' explaining that preserving 25 per cent for others to own 'did nothing for media diversity and little for localism' and 'it is well and truly time for that provision to be knocked back or dispensed with'. I agree.

The WIN network, one of three covering regional Australia in my electorate, alongside Prime and the new configured Nine-Southern Cross partnership, offered its opinion at a previous inquiry, saying that the two-out-of-three cross-media control rule 'is as outdated'. The WIN network further said that, although the aim of the two-out-of-three rule is to protect diversity of voice, in effect 'all it is doing is constraining the three traditional mediums of TV, radio and press'.

CEO with Fairfax Media, Greg Hywood, told the most recent Senate inquiry that the removal of the two-out-of-three rule would be beneficial as, in the face of declining revenues and the implications of this for supporting journalism and local content, companies could consider restructuring to achieve a better financial result. From Fairfax Media's point of view, Mr Hywood said:

… the extent to which these organisations, based offshore, are diverting advertising revenue away from and undermining Australian media companies that invest in local content and journalists and which pay taxes is one of the prime justifications for abolishing the current two-out-of-three restriction.

The Labor Party has indicated its support for removing the reach rule but has said it does not support removing the two-out-of-three rule. It believes doing so would likely reduce the number of owners in the media and risk reducing the range of voices in Australian media. Again I refer to Greg Hywood from Fairfax Media who, when asked about whether the abolition of the two-out-of-three rule could potentially lead to a loss of media diversity, replied:

That horse bolted years ago. I mean there is not anybody that has access to the internet that cannot access instantaneously a range of diverse opinions.

Today I would particularly like to talk about the regional response. I acknowledge the important point made during the inquiry by the New South Wales Farmers association, which highlighted how the media needs of those living in regional Australia differ to those in metropolitan areas. New South Wales Farmers said:

… a lot of submissions took as assumed that the media landscape had changed substantially for all Australians, and therefore that the old style of media ownership did not have the same reach or importance for consumers.

I agree with the association's observation that, while in regional and rural Australia we seek to be part of the digital age, often communications in the bush are more 19th century than 21st century. Traditional media platforms such as newspapers, radio and television continue to have strong penetration in our regions. We listen to the radio, we watch TV and we buy and read newspapers. The Senate committee shared the New South Wales Farmers association's concerns about the ability of regional consumers to access adequate telecommunications services and noted that improved data capabilities will help regional media consumers engage in the online environment. In this area, I would particularly like to acknowledge the work of my local newspapers to pick up the online presence in my electorate and how important it is becoming, with Facebook and Twitter linking into the regional local papers. It is having a huge impact, but not everybody in my electorate has access to the internet and, until that day comes, we need to rely on the newspapers.

Among the recent changes and decline in regional media, there has been much good news. Earlier this year, Nine and Southern Cross announced a new programming affiliation agreement. As a result of this agreement, they have announced that they will broadcast 15 dedicated local Nine News bulletins from early 2017 to regional markets in Queensland, southern New South Wales and regional Victoria. More than 110 staff, including five in each of the centres at Albury-Wodonga, Ballarat, Bendigo and Gippsland, will be employed by Nine in its regional news division. The one-hour Monday to Friday news bulletins will contain local stories focusing on local communities, dedicated local sport and weather reports, together with state based, national and international news. This is a win for regional Australia, with the Nine News brand extending into country areas for the first time, at a time when regional news services have been under significant pressure.

I would also like to talk briefly about the ABC. While operations within the ABC are not the focus of the reforms outlined in this bill, since 2015 the government has imposed cuts on ABC funding of almost $200 million. The ABC has come under fire for cutting regional radio broadcasts and state based current affairs, as well as the closure of regional reporting posts and television production houses in Adelaide and Hobart, further centralising production in Sydney. We have in recent years lost the wonderful Bush Telegraph radio show and the 7.30 program has been nationalised. This year, local radio programming formats were changed so that local news headlines are not broadcast between 9 am and noon. The ABC has confirmed it is pushing content away from traditional radio and television to online content. The problem is that a lot of people in rural, regional and remote Australia do not have adequate access to the internet and we will not be able to zoom in to this new online digital content. So, on behalf of the people of Indi and rural and regional Australia, I take this opportunity to call upon the ABC board not to make its savings on the back of rural and regional Australia. Further, I am asking the ABC to plan its push to digital to match the capacity of its audience to access these technologies.

In closing, the broadly held view is that the media environment has changed so significantly since the introduction of the 75 per cent audience reach rule and the two-out-of-three cross-media rule that both rules are now outdated and do not meaningfully contribute to media diversity. In fact, these rules now act to restrict certain media companies from being able to better service the sector. The abolition of these rules will best serve the industry's future. However, at the same time, we must be mindful of concerns about the character and quality of local content broadcast following any mergers that will take place and the Australian Communications and Media Authority's ability to police compliance with local programming requirements. The bill provides for a review of local programming requirements within two years of the commencement of its provisions. I hope and believe that this will serve as the means to ensure the quality provision of local media and that its coverage of the stories from our regions continues to best service our regional and rural communities.

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