House debates

Monday, 20 August 2018


Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Foreign Media Ownership and Community Radio) Bill 2017; Second Reading

4:08 pm

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to also contribute to the debate on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Foreign Media Ownership and Community Radio) Bill 2017. This bill is the direct result of a series of utterly desperate deals done by our Prime Minister with Senator Pauline Hanson in order to pass his 2017 bill. There is little doubt that that will skewer media diversity in this country. I think we need to be up-front about this from the get-go.

Already, this legislation has opened the door for the multimillion-dollar takeover of Fairfax Media by Nine, a seismic shake-up of the media landscape that has grave implications for jobs, for consumer choice and, in particular, for the future of regional newspapers. I'll come back to that issue. The ACCC is currently inquiring into this deal, and I hold every hope that it will find what the government refused to acknowledge—that is, that this deal poses a very real threat to journalists, to consumers, to regional communities and, indeed, to the very health of our democracy. With the looming loss of Fairfax, we can't give up the fight to protect strong, independent journalistic voices in this country. Media diversity is the antidote to propaganda and misinformation.

But the craziest part of this whole mess is that, at the very time that the Turnbull government is taking a sledgehammer to media diversity protections, it's also waging a war on our national broadcaster. In order to get support for its attacks on media diversity, this government has also agreed to implement a number of measures for One Nation that are intended to cripple the ABC. So now we have the so-called competitive neutrality review. Have you ever heard of anything more absurd? And, to this, there is yet another efficiency review. And then, of course, there are the $84 million cuts to the ABC from the 2018 budget that just came down. The cuts were levied at the same time that this government was arguing that, as a nation, we could afford to forgo $80 billion worth of tax revenue in order to give big businesses a tax cut.

Of course, this government didn't need much convincing to wage a war, a vicious vendetta against our national broadcaster. In fact, they've maintained a barely concealed contempt for the organisation for many years. But Labor won't stand by and let this happen. This means doubling down on our efforts to protect ABC and fight for strong, independent journalistic voices. As The Washington Post ominously put it in its recently adopted tag line, 'Democracy Dies in Darkness'. We mustn't let that happen in Australia.

As I mentioned earlier, the legislation before us today is yet another relic of the cosy relationship that has seen One Nation become the government's most ardent supporter on the Senate crossbench. In return for signing away important media diversity protections, the Prime Minister acquiesced to a number of demands from One Nation, including the measures contained in the bill before the House today.

I'll say up-front that Labor won't be opposing these specific measures, which are designed, after all, to provide greater protection for community radio broadcasters. Labor understands that the community broadcasting sector needs all the help it can get, especially given the uncertainty around funding and spectrum access that we've seen under this government. The first measures in this bill propose a change to the criteria for assessing radio licence applications and renewals to better match community expectations. Labor supports this change, although we agree with the contention of the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia that the wording could indeed be better and we encourage the government to address these concerns.

The bill would also establish a register of foreign ownership of media assets, which would be considered in applications to establish or renew community radio broadcasting licences. It will mean that foreign persons would need to provide ACMA with more information about their company interests when they exceeded an ownership threshold of 2.5 per cent. Again, Labor doesn't oppose this measure, but it's worth noting the measure's utter hypocrisy given it was the Howard Liberal government which removed all media-specific foreign ownership and control limits back in 2006.

But nothing in this bill compensates for the smashing of media diversity that One Nation gladly waved through this parliament last year. These measures don't come close to making up for the loss of the two-out-of-three rule, which was designed to protect the diversity of media voices by preventing any one company from owning TV, radio and press outlets in the same media market.

There's a very good reason that Labor opposed the removal of this rule: media outlets aren't like other businesses. They do far more than entertain and sell us widgets. In fact, they have a critical role to play in shaping our understanding of and our response to the world we live in. The reality is that virtually everything we know about the world is mediated. Very little of our knowledge comes from firsthand experience, and that is fine, as long as we have a diverse range of strong, independent voices to help us make sense of the world. With too few voices, individual agendas or perspectives can easily gain undue influence, and diversity is the remedy to this.

Australia already has one of the most concentrated media markets in the world, with only a handful of companies and family interests controlling much of what Australians hear, see and read. Under the dirty deal done with Senator Hanson, this legislation opened the door to even greater concentration, and that has tangible, real-world implications. As I mentioned earlier, we're now seeing some of the consequences of the Hanson-Turnbull stitch-up playing out in the proposed conglomeration of the Nine Network with Australia's first publishing outlet, Fairfax. While this deal is being referred to in some polite media commentary as 'a merger', it is, to all practical intents and purposes, a takeover. After more than 100 years of publishing quality content through first-rate publications, like the Melbourne Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, and the Australian Fin Review, the Fairfax name will soon be subsumed into the Nine Network, creating Australia's largest media entity.

This is more than nostalgia over the loss of a fine Australian company. There are some very real concerns about the form the new company will take and how seriously it will take its responsibility to investigative journalism and editorial independence. We mustn't forget that Fairfax has broken some of the most important stories of our time. Think of the mass worker exploitation at 7-Eleven, the outrageous ripping off of older Australians that has been rife in aged-care facilities, and the dodgy lending practises and scandalous behaviour of financial institutions—all broken by Fairfax. Consider the horrific evidence of systemic child sexual abuse in the church that built the case for a royal commission—another product of Fairfax's dogged investigative journalism. These stories matter. They shine a light in the dark crevices of our society, they hold the powerful to account and they force change.

There are many questions about what a post-Fairfax world will look like. Will Nine sign up to the Fairfax Charter of Editorial Independence? Will Fairfax outlets be given the resources they need to continue their dogged pursuit of the truth? How much will Nine be willing to invest in critical, long investigative projects that, in the cold light of commercial considerations, deliver a much greater social return than a financial one? There are still many things we don't know about the consequences of the merger, particularly to the quantum and shape of independent journalism in this country, but there are critical cultural differences between these organisations that should give us cause for concern, especially when Nine will be the dominant culture. Where Fairfax tried to inform us, Nine focused on keeping us entertained. Where Fairfax dedicated resources to investigative journalism, Nine invested more in the chequebook type. And where Fairfax shone a light into the dark corners of our society, holding powerful institutions, organisations and individuals to account, Channel 9 was nearly absent.

Another question that is particularly pressing for me is the role that the regional mastheads will play in the new organisation. This has a very direct and personal implication for me as the Newcastle Herald is one of the regional newspapers that could be facing existential threats. When asked directly to guarantee that the Newcastle Herald would be maintained in the new world, Nine failed to give a direct response. On every measure, the Herald punches above its weight. It's broken a string of stories that are critical to our region and are of national importance. But it's not just about breaking stories; it's about the critical role the Herald has played in defining and reflecting the unique character of our community for decades. If this is lost, the entire region will be the poorer for it. But, whatever shape the final merger entity takes, there is one thing that we can be absolutely sure of: jobs will be lost. Journalists will go. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance has estimated that 2,500 journalists' positions have gone in Australia since 2011. How much more can we hack at this professional body before the capacity to dig and get to the truth fails us entirely. On this and other matters, I agree with Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance president, Marcus Strom, when he said, 'The ACCC should hit the pause button on this takeover until it has guarantees on editorial independence and the future of regional and rural mastheads.'

In the face of this grave threat to journalistic capacity and diversity in media outlets, you'd imagine that the Turnbull government would respond by bolstering the other beacon of independent journalism, the ABC. Regrettably, you'd be wrong. In fact, at the very same time that he's junked the media diversity protections, Mr Turnbull and the Liberals have ratcheted up his war against the ABC in earnest. Those opposite went to the 2013 election with a very clear promise that there would be no cuts to the ABC or SBS. They went on to cut $254 million in 2014 and another $28 million in 2016.

In the face of rapidly contracting media voices, surely even the Liberals can see the importance of a strong, independent national broadcaster. Sadly, no. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, the government has been busily ramping up its attacks, under the direction, of course, of Senator Hanson. Aside from the bill before us today, we've had the competitive neutrality inquiry. There has been a further efficiency review. But it hasn't stopped there. In the most recent budget, a further $83.7 million worth of cuts were levied on the ABC. News director Gavin Morris was very clear about the damage this will do to the organisation and its ability to fulfil its charter when he said, 'Make no mistake, there is no more fat to cut in ABC News. From this point on, we are cutting into muscle.' Just in case it wasn't absolutely crystal clear that the ABC is under direct existential threat from this government, the communications minister himself has busied himself writing a steady stream of complaint letters to the ABC, which he dutifully shares with Newscorp and other media outlets. The very role of a minister is to argue for greater resources and to fight for agencies in their portfolio, but when the ABC has a sworn enemy controlling the purse strings, what chance does it stand? As opposition leader Bill Shorten said in a recent speech to this parliament, 'This government has neither an agenda nor any real authority, but it does do good vendettas.'

Labor understands that public broadcasting has never been more important in this country. We will stand up to this government's attacks and defend the independence of the ABC. That's why we will reverse the Liberals' cuts. We understand that, despite the faux outrage of conservatives, the ABC is one of the most trusted institutions in this country. Labor will always fight to protect our public broadcasters. A world without the ABC or SBS isn't worth contemplating.


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