It is a delight to be able to contribute to the debate on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Broadcasting Reform) Bill 2017. Like many of those who have spoken on the debate already, it is important to start off by pointing out that the reforms we’re debating here that are included in this legislation are indeed landmark reforms, not only in respect of the changes that they make to the legislative regime that applies to this part of the economy and to this form of communication, but also the fact—and I think this is more important—that they have the unanimous support of the Australian media industry. That in itself is a massive achievement. I have to commend the Minister for Communications, Senator Fifield, for his amazing efforts in being able to secure this agreement and support right across industry. Without that, these reforms would not be the landmark set of reforms that they are.
In debating this, we have to recognise that the Australian media landscape has indeed changed significantly over recent years, and also over the longer term as well. It’s important that regulation that was designed for a specific set of circumstances and a specific type of technology that was available at the time keeps pace with the technology that has evolved since laws were put into place. The rules, the laws and the regulations need to be dynamic, like the technology available to the media sector itself is.
The important point, going back to the ability to achieve consensus in the industry on this legislation, is the fact that the government has been listening and has undertaken extensive consultation with industry and the community in preparing this legislation. I think that is an excellent example to be set in terms of how to bring about landmark reforms. The fact that we have listened means we do now have a package that will genuinely modernise regulation for this industry. As I’ve stated, given that technology has changed and, therefore, the laws need to now reflect that, it’s important that, looking forward, we ensure we have legislation that is able to keep up with changes into the future. This is not a static thing; it’s a case of being able to manage the dynamic environment, the changing environment, and the changing technologies in this sector into the future. We can’t just make laws for now; they have to be futureproofed as well.
Turning to the elements of the package of legislation in the broader media reforms, these are the abolition of broadcasting licence fees for TV and radio, the introduction of spectrum use pricing, the ban on gambling advertising during sports broadcasts and children’s shows, the anti-siphoning amendments scheme and list, the review of the Australian and children’s content, and the $30 million fund for broadcasting women’s and niche sports, which I was delighted to hear Senator Macdonald speak at length about just yesterday. He spoke about the importance of investing in both of those areas to develop both women’s sports and niche sports, which don’t receive the media attention they otherwise could. That is an exceptionally important part of this entire package.
This bill goes to abolishing two of the five media cross-ownership rules and providing stronger local content protections for regional TV. Australia’s media cross-ownership and control rules date back to the 1980s, a period when many great things occurred—including my birth!—but they haven’t been substantially updated since 2006. That is why this piece of legislation today is so important. The laws as they stand, unamended, reflect the historic media environment, the traditional mediums and platforms available to media—TV, radio and print media—which of course are still important; no-one can deny that. But the laws as they stand today don’t reflect the current environment, which now encompasses a great many more technologies in the way of social media, internet and the like. So we need to take stock of that and, again, this is why this legislation is so important.
We’ve seen massive changes in the ways Australians access information. The online world is where most people seem to turn to access their news, and social media is a significant part of that. Even many in this chamber would turn to Facebook and Twitter for breaking news rather than the TV and radio of days gone by, because it is more instantaneous, it is unfiltered and it is direct. That is a reality we have to accept, and that’s why the amendments being proposed are important.
The challenges that face traditional media and how revenue is generated on audience shares is placing a burden on traditional media, which is leading to an uncompetitive situation. The ways in which our traditional providers of media operate and use of the existing platforms in this field do need updating so that they can remain competitive with these new and emerging technologies that are competing with traditional forms of media. A little bit later on I will come to the importance of these traditional mediums to regional Australia. Most of Tasmania is considered to be regional—almost its entirety. That’s why they’re important to my home state of Tasmania. Another reason it’s important that this bill is passed is that it ensures that Australian media companies can compete against global media giants and maintain the local jobs, which is of particular importance, especially when you look at some of the smaller entities around Australia, and so that these companies can continue to provide the local content—again, something I will touch on in more detail when reflecting on the importance of local media to regional communities.
This bill will, as is the government’s intention, strengthen regional local content requirements to ensure that communities continue to have access to local news and content that is relevant to their communities and to their lives and to ensure that the information they’re receiving actually does provide some benefit to their daily lives. That’s something regional media has been able to do over many years and will, under these laws, continue to be able to do. It’s important, though, that we do strengthen the operating environment for regional broadcasters to uphold the regional content requirements, and, as I said, the bill before us is something that goes a long way to doing just that.
Turning to the media ownership and control rules and the current situation, we currently have five rules in place that limit the control of commercial broadcasting, being TV, radio and newspapers. These rules are somewhat outdated and don’t reflect, as I’ve said before, the contemporary digital media environment which we now operate in. All of us have these great things, these smartphones and tablets, which provide us with so much more information. But the rules, while they need changing, also need to ensure that the traditional forms of media are protected and supported as well.
The rules as they stand, though, were developed in an analog environment that was dominated by only three platforms, as I’ve mentioned—free-to-air TV, free-to-air radio, and print. This was a time before smart TVs, internet radio and the technology of smartphones and tablets. The current control regime and the ownership rules regulate only those three platforms and are based on geographical areas, boundaries that have since been broken with the advent of the internet and the many other channels used to distribute and access online content.
The bill will repeal two of the five current rules, the 75 per cent audience reach rule and the two-out-of-three cross-media control rule. The 75 per cent reach rule applies to TV and prevents a person, either in their own right or as a director of one or more companies, from exercising control of commercial TV broadcasting licences whose combined licence area exceeds 75 per cent of the population of Australia. The rule was first introduced in 1987 as a 60 per cent rule and later increased in 1995 to a 75 per cent rule, obviously to reflect the changes at that time.
As at October of last year, the figures for combined audiences were as follows: Channel 7 covered 74.51 per cent of the population; Channel 9, 73.96 per cent; and Channel 10, 67.31 per cent. For regional networks, which are generally affiliated with these larger metropolitan counterparts, the audience coverage in 2014 was, for the Prime network, 24.33 per cent; WIN Network, 25.15 per cent; and Southern Cross, 34.11 per cent. Tasmania, my home state, is covered by the WIN Network and Southern Cross, which I have to say do an excellent job of providing very relevant local content in their news bulletins and other programming as well.
The rule has the practical effect of preventing mergers between any of the metropolitan networks, being Seven, Nine or Ten, and any of the regional networks, being Prime, WIN and Southern Cross. Any merger under the current arrangements would substantially exceed the 75 per cent rule, and the rule as it stands does little to support media diversity, as regional viewers—those who live outside of our metropolitan areas—essentially receive the same commercial TV programming as their metropolitan brothers and sisters due to the affiliation or content supply agreements.
In the changing media landscape, with broadband internet and the proliferation of tablets, smartphones and other devices, the rule is largely redundant. The ABC and SBS now are streaming their channels online to 100 per cent of the population, if they choose to access it, right across the country, including into regional markets where metropolitan networks don’t currently broadcast other than through affiliates. The repeal of this rule would remove one burden on broadcasters, allowing consolidation and change in affiliation and ownerships, making such changes to relevant competition laws, as with most other industries. It would provide broadcasters the opportunity to build operations on a greater scale and compete in an environment where audiences can already access premium content online.
Going to the two-out-of-three cross-media rule, the rule provides that mergers can’t involve more than two of the three regulated platforms of TV, radio and newspapers in any commercial radio licence area. This rule tightly regulates just TV, radio and newspapers and doesn’t take into consideration the changing media landscape and the substantial online media offerings we have today, including the alternative news sources that exist. We’re also seeing traditional providers now moving into these more modern platforms. A lot of our newspapers run things through social media newsfeeds and the like. They are doing their best under the current arrangements to compete, but it is important that we do support this legislation to give a truly level playing field. This rule is not suited to a contemporary media environment and it does restrict the diversity of content offered to consumers. It was introduced in 2006, which is 11 years ago, and we have to reflect on the technology we had back then versus the technology we have now. Smartphones, tablets et cetera were all in very juvenile stages of development and not as widely available to every man, woman and child as they are today.
There are three rules to remain. Firstly, the five-four rule applies to TV and radio and is known as the minimum voices rule. It is a requirement that at least five independent media operations or media groups are present in mainland state capital cities, and at least four must be present in regional commercial radio licence areas. Secondly, the one-to-a-market rule specifies that a person must not control more than one commercial TV broadcasting licence in a licence area. Finally, the two-to-a-market rule specifies that a person must not control more than two commercial radio broadcasting licences in the same licence area.
It is important to also point out that these specific broadcasting requirements, mergers and acquisitions in the media sector are subject to the general prohibition of anticompetitive acquisitions outlined in the Competition and Consumer Act 2010. So we can see that this sector is highly regulated—there are rules everywhere. The point is that these rules are to remain dynamic, to remain relevant and to foster growth in this area, to ensure that our media industry is operating at optimum levels in a competitive way, ensuring that all audiences—regional and metropolitan—get the content they are after. The operating environment for free-to-air commercial TV and radio broadcasters has changed substantially and is expected to continue to do so over the next five to 10 years, and I suspect well beyond that as well. The current rules on control and ownership constrain the ability of Australian media outlets to change the structure of their businesses and to respond to changes in the media environment. That’s not okay in 2017. The sad reality is that that does have an impact on jobs.
In the time remaining to me, I will briefly turn to the matter of regional content, which is an important issue; it is close to my heart. As I said before, Tasmania is almost entirely a regional community, perhaps with the exception of Hobart. Online media services do provide a useful product for consumers, but they are no substitute for local broadcasters. Australia is a very vast country, with many, many diverse and disparate communities across its land, and Tasmania is no exception to that. We are small geographically, but we are broken up into many subregions: the north-west; the west coast, which is an entirely different community with different news needs and different activities taking place; the north-east, which is within a couple of hundred kilometres of the population centre of Launceston but, again, a very different community with different needs when it comes to news and current affairs; and then, heading south, within the Hobart region, there is the Derwent Valley, the Huon Valley, the south-east and the east coast. All these areas have their own unique communities and a requirement for specific news in each of those communities.
The local broadcasters that we have—be it our TV broadcasters in Southern Cross, WIN or indeed the government broadcasters, being the ABC predominantly, and also the radio networks and print media—do a great job of providing tailored local content, which is so important for local communities. Indeed, in times of natural disaster and emergencies, it is the local TV and radio that really do assist these small communities. Again, being close to one another doesn’t mean they are the same communities. The Derwent Valley, a half-hour to 40-minute drive from Hobart, may be subject to emergency warnings that Hobart is not. That’s why it’s important that we do have regional content available through our local broadcasters.
Of course, local programming supports much-needed jobs in regional communities. This is also through advertising through our commercial broadcasters. It’s amazing when travelling around the state of Tasmania—going into any workplace and hearing the local radio station blaring in the workshop, bakery or news agency. Local businesses advertise on local radio. It provides local jobs; it supports local jobs. That’s why it’s important. Local programming may be at risk where regional broadcasters merge operations and there are strong expectations of cost savings. You end up with syndicated content, which is not good because that is not what these small local communities are after.
It was disappointing to reflect on one of the iterations of the committee report a Senate inquiry has done into this legislation and note the dissenting comments of opposition and Greens senators to this, because it really shows that they don’t have an understanding of what regional communities require when it comes to media, when it comes to local content and, indeed, as I’ve just demonstrated, when it comes to local jobs. I think it is incumbent upon senators in this place—opposition, Greens and anyone else—to support the measures contained in this bill: to support the Australian media to catch up with the 21st century, to ensure we have the best regulatory regime that we possibly can and, most importantly, to support regional communities and regional content and those who produce it to make sure our regional communities are not left out because of the inner-city Labor and Green people in this place.