House debates

Monday, 20 August 2018


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

3:59 pm

Photo of Meryl SwansonMeryl Swanson (Paterson, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I fear that, when we distil our media voices down to a select few, we jeopardise that common humanity that unites us as Australians. We risk accepting infotainment ahead of robust, independent journalism. We risk losing access to analysis from commentators from different points on the political compass. We risk knowledge. We risk truth. We risk the dumbing down of our nation. I fear that the Turnbull government would love a media landscape where it was not called out and not called to account by the media—a media landscape where a friendly press did nothing more than regurgitate press releases and ask Dorothy Dixers. But that's not what real journalist do. It's no secret that this government has waged all-out war on the ABC and SBS, subjecting them to ever-shrinking budgets, efficiency reviews and consistently objecting to or intervening in editorial policy. How can we let this happen? It benefits no-one. How can we allow news to become propaganda? That's what will happen if we silence the ABC, SBS and Fairfax. This assault from the Turnbull government on our most robust media companies is not just a war of ideology; it has human casualties.

In the Hunter region and the area of Paterson that I represent, the ABC news rooms have been gutted. Fairfax has been cut to its very bone. Just last month, we received the sad news that the internationally acclaimed Fairfax printing press in Beresfield, which lies in my electorate of Paterson and employs around 70 people, will close in mid-September. The media people affected are people who, in their own way, serve our community, as I do. Many of those affected are my former professional peers. As many people might know, in my former life, I was a television and radio presenter. Television, I admit, was a long time ago—in the late eighties and early nineties. When my employer at the time—the great NBN Television, which had been owned by the Lamb family—was aggregated with Channel 9, it was the start of many big changes across the media landscape.

This brings me to my position on the amendment requested by the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia, which is part of the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Foreign Media Ownership and Community Radio) Bill 2017 that I speak on. There's a self-promoting radio advertisement that I keep thinking about in relation to this bill. It says that radio is word-of-mouth, and so it is. It's a two-way conversation. Long before journalists were being trolled on Twitter or there were articles being dissected in great Facebook comments, there was talkback radio. That was my bread-and-butter for over a decade. I was a local woman, a wife, a mother, a daughter and a businessperson. I pursued local issues through local channels and I spoke with lots and lots of local people. My listeners were able to call in and have their say. It truly was a two-way conversation. One of the most endearing memories I have of working in talkback radio was an elderly lady who phoned me one day and said: 'Meryl, I feel like you're my daughter. You're in my kitchen every morning when I put the kettle on. I often tell you what I think, and some weeks you're the only person who I actually speak to.' Radio is an incredibly personal medium, and community radio is perhaps the most personal of this very personal medium.

In the ever-changing media landscape, more and more radio newsrooms are being pared back. Content is being syndicated and shared. That local flavour is becoming more and more watered-down. Listeners are losing that channel of connectivity. In doing so, they're losing that sense of being part of a close-knit community—of sharing common goals, hopes, fears, dreams, gripes and loves. They are the things that unite us regardless of income, colour or culture. They are the things that help us appreciate difference and feel empathy for those who we share our streets and communities with.

I am agreeing not to oppose the broadcasting legislation amendment, but in doing so I note that the community broadcasting peak body, the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia, has requested an amendment to the bill to help ensure we keep the 'community' in 'community radio'. The amendment will encourage more local issues, more local talent and more local jobs producing and hosting. It will do so by requiring the Australian Communications and Media Authority to provide new assessment criteria for applications for and renewals of community radio broadcasting licences. These criteria will relate to material of local significance, and work to ensure our radio services match the community's expectations.

The amendment I'm supporting would clarify the language around these criteria. They will create a definitive link between the amendment, the local content requirement and the assessment tools used when considering which licence applications and renewals are progressed. The proposed amendment would see the rewording of section 84(2)(b)(a) to read, 'In the case of a community radio broadcast licence—the extent to which the proposed service or services would provide material relevant to local communities and the community interest served by the licence.' It would also insert a new subsection, 84(3), that specifies that material will be considered of local significance if it is hosted in or produced in or relates to the licence area of the proposed licence. We believe that this amended wording will ensure that the Australian Communications and Media Authority's implementation of the new criteria will match the government's intention to strengthen localism in community radio broadcasting. This in turn will give the sector more certainty. Every sector of every industry needs certainty to attract investment and talent, and to continue to thrive.

I just want to add that, in community radio, localism is so important. Being a local host, having your finger on the local pulse is such an important thing. I do want to give a shout out to 2NURFM, my most recent employer. I, in fact, volunteered at that radio station and was fortunate enough to be offered a full, paying position as well. I love that station. Although it is a community radio station run out of the University of Newcastle, it is as professional as any media organisation in Australia could be and has the listening audience to prove it.

Our community broadcasting sector needs all the help it can get right now. This amendment and its small piece of certainty may be some comfort. Certainty is something that has been, sadly, lacking in recent times. The Prime Minister and his government have offered nothing of the sort—no certainty around funding, and no certainty of access to spectrum for community television either. The bill is not, however, any substitute for the void left in the media landscape last year, when the Turnbull government and One Nation repealed the two-out-of-three cross-media control rule.

We are a big country but a fairly small nation, with just around 25 million of us. Even before the Turnbull government's 2017 move, we had one of the most concentrated media markets in the world. Now we risk even greater homogenisation of media voices and narrowing of diversity. This is not good for any of us, no matter where you sit on the political spectrum. It is not good, and I appeal to this government to really think through the ramifications of what it's done.

While I choose not to oppose the bill, I place on the record my disgust at this government's backroom machinations with One Nation, which allowed the government to navigate the damaging repeal of the two-of-out-three cross-media control rule. I say to you: diversity in the media, truth in reporting and truly good questioning of all of our judgements and values is the only way we stand to live in a nation that is worthy of good representation and good governance.

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.

4:23 pm

Photo of Anthony AlbaneseAnthony Albanese (Grayndler, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased to be able to make a contribution to this debate on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Foreign Media Ownership and Community Radio) Bill 2017. In particular, I'm pleased to follow the member for Newcastle and support the amendment that's been moved by the member for Greenway. When I say 'following the member for Newcastle', of course it's unusual for Labor members to follow each other. Normally what happens procedurally is that we have a government speaker and then an opposition speaker, and you have a debate through both sides of the chamber. But what is extraordinary about the state of chaos in the coalition is that they've given up on governing. They have no speakers provided for this legislation except for the minister who introduced it. Not a single member could be found to stand up and defend this deal with One Nation, which is how this legislation came about. Not even the member for Reid, who normally is not stuck for words, is prepared to defend this dirty deal that was done over in the other place with One Nation.

That deal was about the abolition of the two-out-of-three rule on media ownership. We have already seen the results of that with a further concentration of media ownership in this country, a nation that already has a lack of diversity in its media ownership. The two-out-of-three rule prevented a person or entity being in a position to control more than two of the three media—commercial radio, commercial television and newspapers—in the same license area. But that change went ahead, with One Nation's support. And now we have legislation before us which requires the release of more information about levels of foreign ownership in media organisations.

Other provisions in this bill encourage community radio broadcasters to provide greater coverage of local issues and to increase opportunities for local participation in producing and hosting radio programs. We know that community radio is already doing this. So we certainly support the call, in the second reading amendment that was moved by the member for Greenway, for the Turnbull government to end its war on media diversity. Today I want to concentrate my contribution on the enormous contribution of community broadcasters to diversity and cultural development in this nation. But I do want to take the opportunity to outline my concern about the government's ongoing attempts to undermine public broadcasting in this country.

Responsible governments understand and nurture a free, diverse and vigorous media environment. Responsible leaders understand that, while a free media can be an inconvenience when it comes to day-to-day political management—I'm sure members of the government regret opening up the plastic wrapper that is often on a newspaper on their doorstep every morning at the moment, because what they read about is the chaos that is occurring on that side of the House—a vibrant media is absolutely necessary for our democratic processes and for an informed society. We know what can happen when you don't have proper information getting out there in a coherent way.

One of the things we know about this country is that, in spite of the sometimes hysterical response of the right wing of the Liberal Party and the National Party and other fringe dwellers, the ABC and the SBS are very much trusted media organisations compared to the commercial media organisations. They play a particularly important role in regional Australia. They play an important role in the day-to-day life of residents and communities, who may be vulnerable to natural disasters like fires. The ABC and the SBS inform the community, particularly through radio bulletins, of what is going on in those local communities. So the ABC and the SBS are cherished institutions.

Yet, in spite of the fact that the government came to office under the first prime minister—it appears we're going to get three in just a couple of terms—Mr Abbott, the member for Warringah, who very clearly promised, just the night before he was elected, 'no cuts to the ABC or SBS', what we've seen since 2014 is that ABC funding has been cut by $366 million, and 800 staff have lost their jobs. This year alone, the government has cut $83.7 million in ABC funding and launched two damaging public broadcasting inquiries, and it has three bills before the parliament to meddle with the ABC charter—all inspired by the deal with One Nation.

So, beyond the cuts, there is the ongoing culture war. The government has used public broadcasting as a political whipping boy so that MPs on the extreme right have something to keep them busy. If the Prime Minister or his ministers don't like a news report on the ABC, they complain to the board or to the CEO. They don't do that publicly; they go, sneakily, around the back and put in those complaints. Quite clearly, that is all aimed at undermining public broadcasting.

We did expect that from a culture warrior like the member for Warringah when he became Prime Minister, but when the member for Wentworth, who has a background in the media, became the Prime Minister, in the first coup of this government, we expected a little bit more, and I think the Australian public expected more. What we got, though, was just more of the same. We shouldn't be surprised, really, because, while the Prime Minister said he cared about the ABC and SBS and the ABC's independence, he of course has trashed it.

He said he understood the National Broadband Network. He claimed to have invented the internet, according to his predecessor, and yet what we have is a copper based, outmoded system, a hybrid that's all over the shop, whereby, depending upon which side of the street you live on, you might be getting a first-rate service or you might be getting a Z-grade service. And we've seen Australia go backwards when it comes to our ranking on internet speeds. The only thing we're going forward on is our purchase of copper, which is going extremely well. It's just a pity that this is the century of fibre, not copper, and that the government is left behind. And this week we've seen that played out in the absolutely diabolical position of the government on climate change.

When it comes to community broadcasting, it is a great force for good in this country. There are more than 450 not-for-profit broadcasters. Five million people tune in each week. It provides a platform for communities that aren't served by commercial broadcasters—Indigenous Australians; ethnic communities; educational services; religious communities; local music and the arts—and for gay and lesbian communities, through radio stations like Joy FM.

Community broadcasting also provides a great entry point into the media. Radio stations in Sydney, like 2SER, 2FBI and Radio Skid Row, play a really important role in and around my electorate in providing young people, people who are still students, with that hands-on experience of running radio programs and of being able to broadcast, in many cases, really valuable and unique material.

They also provide an opportunity for people involved in the arts, particularly young musicians. So many bands and performers have had their material played on community radio stations before they've been picked up by triple j or by commercial radio, and that can provide a really important service as well. Community radio can be raw. The truth is that sometimes it can be a bit hit and miss, but that's a good thing. That's a very good thing. Certainly many bands get their start on these radio stations. Without them, we might never have heard of Nick Cave, Hunters & Collectors, the Saints or many other bands.

One of the bands that certainly got a run was Radio Birdman, and I take the opportunity to once again call for the ABC to reconsider its decision not to purchase the broadcast rights to the Descent into the Maelstrom documentary that outlines the history of this important band, started in Sydney by Deniz Tek and Rob Younger in 1974. Radio Birdman started in Sydney at about the same time as the Saints in Brisbane. They played a critical role in the alternative music scene in those two cities and in the nation—and, indeed, internationally. These bands were important in having an impact on the musos who followed them in the decades to come.

I conclude by talking about where I was yesterday—Henson Park at the Reclink Community Cup. There you have a game between the Walers, a musician based team, and the Sailors, a media based team. A lot of that media based team are people associated with radio stations like FBi and 2ser in particular. That is raising money for disadvantaged youth who get funding through the Reclink organisation, which tries to take young people who've been marginalised from the mainstream of society and include them back in by connecting them through arts and sport. It's a great example of how the community can reach out to give people a lift up and get them back into mainstream society—people who've been engaged with drugs, alcohol or homelessness—making sure that they're not just left behind.

Community radio getting involved, as they do, and now the community cup, which is a major fundraiser for Reclink around the country, are great examples of how people who are engaged in community radio are also engaged in their communities and make a difference. You'll find the people involved in community welfare will be the same people who are involved in community radio, which is why it's important that the government do more to support community radio throughout this nation.

4:38 pm

Photo of Craig LaundyCraig Laundy (Reid, Liberal Party, Minister for Small and Family Business, the Workplace and Deregulation) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the members who have contributed to the debate on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Foreign Media Ownership and Community Radio) Bill 2017. The two measures in this bill—the establishment of the Register of Foreign Ownership of Media Assets and a change to the criteria for assessing community radio licence applications and renewals—are just two measures forming part of the government's broader reform package.

The first measure—the establishment of the register—will enhance the transparency of the levels and sources of foreign investment in Australian media companies. The public relies on the media to set the news agenda of the day, and the media sector's influence in shaping public discussion on important matters is well established. In this context, measures to establish transparency about foreign investment in our media are appropriate. The register proposed in this bill will achieve this outcome whilst also ensuring that the Australian public is not left in the dark. The register will complement existing regulatory frameworks governing foreign investment in Australia, including under Australia's foreign investment review framework, the Australian Securities Exchange and under the Broadcasting Services Act 1992. To an extent it has been modelled on the national Register of Foreign Ownership of Water or Agricultural Land, which has already significantly increased the public's knowledge of the levels and sources of foreign investment in our agricultural sector.

The second measure, being the amending of criteria for allocating and renewing community radio licences, will require the Australian Communications and Media Authority to specifically consider the extent to which the applicant will provide material of local significance. Material of local significance is defined as material that is produced or hosted in the relevant licensed area or which relates to the licensed area. Community radio plays an important role in informing local communities and providing community members with the opportunity to have their views heard. This will ensure that broadcasters are required to consider how they can boost local participation in creating programs or how they can provide more coverage of topics and issues that are relevant to their local communities.

The government also moved an amendment to add a third measure to the bill. The third measure will address an anomaly arising from the application of the local programming requirements to a commercial television broadcaster in regional Western Australia. It will ensure that local programming obligations apply in an equal way to the two commercial television broadcasters who broadcast to the same geographic area. Local programming is important, and this amendment maintains the requirement that relevant licensees broadcast a specified amount of local content after a trigger event but will ensure that these requirements apply more fairly across the regional Western Australian licences. I call on all members to support the bill.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.