Monday, 9 November 2020
Broadcasting Services Amendment (Regional Commercial Radio and Other Measures) Bill 2020; Second Reading
I rise to speak on the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Regional Commercial Radio and Other Measures) Bill 2020.
Local media obviously matters, and the decline of local media in this country should concern us all. Let's not forget that media isn't just a business. Media is also a vital community service, and we need to legislate and regulate it with that in our mind. We've all seen the lovely little stories in our local papers about the child under the Christmas tree the day before Christmas, the local sporting champions having a big win or the much-loved local personality or character. This stuff matters to our community. It matters a lot, and the more our regional media is diminished and centralised in control centres, even interstate, the more those lovely little local stories that really matter to the community are disappearing from our TV stations, from the radio stations and from our print newspapers.
Scrutiny of local issues is even more important. In terms of media in regional areas—and let's face it, all of Tasmania is a regional area, in many ways even, including the capital, Hobart—as our local media is diminished then the scrutiny of, for example, local government and state government is also diminished. The member for Lyons would be well aware of the controversy at the moment in Tasmania over the COVID-19 hardship grants and the very serious allegations being levelled at the government that it ended up being just another slush fund for the state government to bankroll favoured regions or favoured organisations. The only reason we know about that is because our local media, which has a good understanding of the local political situation, has taken a real lead on this—in particular The Mercury newspaper in Hobart. The more we diminish our local media the more we diminish our capacity to have hot topics like that and to really get to the bottom of what's going on in our local community.
Local knowledge is important, and it's important that the local media know what's going on with these hardship grants I referred to, but it's perhaps even more important in times of crisis—when there's a flood or a bushfire. Of course, Tasmania has had some shocking episodes of bushfires over many decades, including earlier this year when there were some very nasty bushfires in the north of the state. If you're relying on newsrooms or news coordinators from elsewhere or flying in news crews from elsewhere, how on earth can they cover those stories properly? How on earth, when it's an emergency broadcaster like the ABC, can they properly inform the local community about the situation, give reliable warnings about preparations that need to be made and evacuation routes that need to be considered or, heaven forbid, used?
We need local journalists on the ground who understand the local situation, especially in times of crisis. I make the point again: the more that Tasmanian news is coordinated through a control room, for example, in Canberra, then the capacity to provide that vital public service is more and more diminished.
Of course local jobs are important, and that's something we're seeing firsthand in Hobart. Over the last decade or so, The Mercury newspaper has really been gutted of jobs. You see it when they do the editing interstate and you get the most silly editing mistakes. Our local commercial TV and radio have been gutted over the last decade. The ABC has been gutted more than most. Those of you who have been to Hobart might have noticed the ABC building, near what we call Railway Roundabout. It's two stories—quite a large building. It wasn't that long ago that that was full of ABC staff doing really important local media for the whole of the state, including producing some very important programs. If you go there now, the ABC inhabit a part of the ground floor and the other floors are full of everything from the college of GPs to even a commercial TV station—even that has got a presence in that building. That reflects a whole lot of jobs—very important, specialised and technical jobs—that are now gone from the state. I again in this place lament the fact that the ABC has become Sydney centric at the expense of places like Hobart and, in fact, the whole state of Tasmania.
Local content matters. It really does matter. If I could talk not just about regional media but really about media more broadly across the whole country—it's simply not good enough that media in this country now, when they're required to produce local content, they'll put a news bulletin on the telly, they might broadcast a footy game and they might have some pretty trashy cheap reality show, and they'll say: 'That's our local content, done and dusted. We've complied with what the government requires.' That's not good enough. The government really should be looking to legislate the type of local content that Australian media buys in and broadcasts, especially drama. It's not good enough that, for drama in this country and the movies, you turn on the telly and it's something out of the UK or something out of North America. Of course a lot of that is very good and very entertaining, but it means that our own arts sector is just withering on the vine when it comes to that sort of production.
This goes to the cost of production. Of course it's cheaper for the ABC to rerun, for the seemingly thousandth time, Yes Minister, and it probably costs them next to nothing—
An honourable member: A very good show!
It's a very good show, and sometimes I think it's more of a documentary than a comedy, a bit like The Hollowmen. All jokes aside, if you allow our media to just show what they want, then they will buy the cheapest they can get away with and it means our arts sector is all the more diminished. We need a carrot and a stick. We need a carrot to incentivise local production, but we also need a stick to make sure that our Australian media has an adequate amount of local content to ensure that our arts sector thrives and does well and we become an exporter of quality content to other countries.
Just recently, I was reminded of the challenge that our production houses have in this country while talking to one of the co-owners of a company in Hobart that provides children's TV content, and, in particular, animation. It's a very good outfit. They do a very good job, and they produce content very efficiently to a very high quality, but they're saying that a production house in India or the Philippines can produce the same animated content to a reasonable standard for one-tenth of the cost. That's not a criticism of the production houses in India or in the Philippines or in Hobart; it's just a fact of life that their production costs are so low.
So do we want our children increasingly to be watching something produced overseas somewhere like that? It might be good content and it might be educational, but it's not us. It's not Australia. It doesn't reflect our country and what's going on in this place. You can only watch so many reruns of Sesame Street before you're craving something from Australia. Of course, we're all of a generation—or some of us are of a generation—that grew up on Skippy and all sorts of other good shows. But we're not seeing that sort of thing produced in this country, and it's up to the government to shape the media landscape to ensure that sort of production occurs now and in the future.
We also need a level playing field—while I'm on a bit of a roll here. One of the problems we have for our local content producers and media companies is that it's not a level playing field and they're competing with the streaming services, for whom there aren't any effective local content requirements. I met recently with Minister Fletcher to discuss this, and he, to his credit, is alive to the issue that we really need to see the streaming services that are coming into this country lift their game if they want to continue to have almost unrestrained access. I impressed upon the minister that we really should be talking about not just improved local content requirements for Australian media but also introducing mandatory Australian content, not voluntary Australian content, for the streaming services.
In closing, I just say to the government that we've touched on a number of issues here. First and foremost, let's not forget the value of our regional media. It's very important to this country. It's very important to communities in the bush and in regional areas, and it's very important to my own community in Hobart. The media is increasingly concentrated and increasingly capital-city-centric, and it's up to us in this place to arrest that and to ensure that that public interest role of the media is fulfilled. Sometimes it can be with a carrot, with incentives, but sometimes it's got to be with a stick. Sure, there are extra challenges on Australian media at the moment on account of COVID-19, but the fact is it's part of a longer trend as well. The media needs to reinvent itself, and we need to ensure that, as it's reinventing itself, it remembers its important role and serves regional areas.
I've also touched on the broader issue of local content and doing everything we can in this place to encourage increased local content but also quality local content—for example, drama—so that the young people who want to be actors or other performing artists have a pathway to learn their trade, to do work, to earn an income and to realise their potential. It's just not good enough for the government to throw around hundreds of millions of dollars to encourage foreign production companies to come out to, say, Sydney and make something with foreign actors. I think that's missing the point. We should be spending the money that's required to ensure Australian production companies, using Australian actors and Australian facilities, are making the world's best content for TV, for radio, for print and for streaming services.
Talking of streaming services, I make the point again that they're getting a free ride in this country and it's crucifying companies like that company I referred to in Hobart, who are producing real quality animated children's content for the media but can only fight the good fight so long. We in this place need to do everything to give them a hand to make sure they can survive and prosper. When our arts sector are given a fair go, they produce content as good as or better than content produced anywhere else, and there's no good reason why we can't be a significant exporter to other countries, but it's going to need help from governments to achieve that when you are up against production costs like those I mentioned in India and the Philippines, where the production costs for animated content are a tenth of the cost of producing it in Australia.
We have a wonderful arts sector, and this is another example of where we in this place are missing the opportunity, and governments are missing the opportunity, to celebrate and to support that arts sector. I tell you what: when some parts of our world are gone—in particular these production houses and our regional media—we'll miss them and we'll wonder how on earth we were so silly as to let them go.