Monday, 24 June 2013
Broadcasting Legislation Committee; Report
I present the final report of the Joint Select Committee on Broadcasting Legislation.
by leave—I move:
That the Senate take note of the report.
The parliament established the committee at the same time as the government released its broadcasting legislation reforms in March this year. The government's package of bills was its response to two thorough, high-profile reviews: the first being the convergence review into the policy and regulatory framework around converging media and communications; and the second being the Finkelstein review into codes of practice, convergence and the production of quality news. The committee's terms of reference centred on three potential policy changes that the government considered could also be implemented: abolishing the 75 per cent audience-reach rule for television; providing that a program supply agreement alone could indicate control of a broadcaster; and giving the Australian Communications and Media Authority the power to require on-air reporting of its findings.
The committee held a public hearing into the first term of reference on Monday, 18 March 2013 in Canberra. It received submissions on all three terms of reference from 13 organisations. The committee supports the first policy proposal because the reach rule is becoming redundant with the advent of the internet and converging media. However, there was concern at the hearing about whether local regional news would continue if the reach rule were abolished. In recognition of this concern, the committee's support for the proposal is based on two conditions: one, that there should be legislation on legally enforceable undertakings to support local content in regional Australia; and, two, there should also be a clear definition of local content to ensure that regional viewers have access to appropriate levels of high-quality, locally devised and locally presented programs.
I note that, in relation to legally enforceable undertakings, Nine Entertainment Co. Holdings Pty Ltd tabled a draft undertaking to the Australian Communications and Media Authority, pursuant to section 205W of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, in the form of a legal undertaking. This undertaking committed Channel 9 in the event of a merger to producing no less than 22 minutes of news that relates directly to the licence area and no less than 16.5 minutes of news that relates directly to the local area. Channel 9 Chief Executive Officer David Gyngell further committed during the hearings to amendments to the undertaking to make them 'sturdier' if required.
It is interesting to note the diverging views put to the hearing in relation to the benefit of broadcasting local news in regional areas. Prime Media Group indicated that they have a large investment in local news and that it generates substantial commercial returns, both directly and indirectly. They went on to say that they do about 140 local news and weather updates every day and that they did not believe that local news would disappear with a change to the 75 per cent rule. They said
The reality is that local news services deliver audiences well in excess of 40 per cent and 50 per cent of the total audience, and any broadcaster that took the blade to local news services would suffer from an audience point of view. Whether the revenue comes directly into local news programs or other parts of the schedule is really irrelevant because it is a bit like the AFL: you get a halo effect in revenue and audience from having local news.
So Prime are unequivocal in relation to the benefits of having local news in regional areas. WIN stated the opposite. They said:
WIN spends probably three to four times the amount of revenue it actually generates to produce those news services. There is no commercial gain for WIN in producing so many news services.
In my view, the arguments from Channel 9 and Prime are more persuasive than the arguments from WIN.
The committee does not support the second policy change. There was no support for it during the inquiry. However, it may be appropriate to revisit this issue at a later date, especially given that the government and the parliament regularly review and change broadcasting policy.
The committee supports giving the Australian Communications and Media Authority the power to require on-air corrections, clarifications and directions based on its findings. The authority demonstrated to the committee that there is a gap in the sanctions it can impose on broadcasters. Industry expressed a range of concerns during the inquiry about on-air reporting of regulatory findings; however, these issues can be addressed, and doing so will ensure that the measures will be fair on broadcasters. A key example of the need for this provision is a recent breach of the commercial TV code of practice by WIN TV when it failed to broadcast factual material accurately. WIN TV compounded the breach by refusing to comply with an ACMA recommendation that they make an on-air statement concerning ACMA's findings. WIN broadcast a statement by a representative of the curiously and some would say deviously named Australian Vaccination Network. WIN claimed this broadcast was in the interest of balance. What was broadcast from the Australian Vaccination Network was:
All vaccinations, in the medical literature, have been linked with the possibility of causing autism, not just the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine.
If ACMA cannot enforce the broadcasting of a correction to such a blatantly wrong and dangerous statement the committee believes it should be given legislative power on this issue.
I thank the organisations that assisted the committee during the inquiry through their submissions and their participation at the hearing. I also thank my colleagues on the committee and former chair Senator Matt Thistlethwaite for their contribution to the inquiry and report. As always, I am grateful for the excellent and professional work carried out by the secretariat.
I join Senator Cameron in taking note of this report and of the inquiry that was undertaken. I of course join Senator Cameron in thanking the many participants to this inquiry and acknowledging the important subject matter that the Joint Select Committee on Broadcasting Legislation has considered as part of the report that has just been tabled.
I would note that this was one of the more unusual Senate committee processes that I have been a part of in my six years in this place. It was unusual not because of the conduct of the inquiry by Senator Cameron or his predecessor as chair Senator Thistlethwaite but because it was a committee established by the government's mandate in a great hurry as part of a government attempt to undertake sweeping review reforms and yet also push off to the sideline a few issues that the minister had put in his too-hard basket.
It is easy, given all of the chaos that we see from this government on a regular basis, to forget the chaos of a few months go that was of course Senator Conroy's ill-fated attempt at media reform. It is easy to cast that to the back of your mind as you contemplate the chaos that envelops the government today. Many will recall when prompted that Senator Conroy attempted to ram through this parliament in the space of one week some of the most sweeping media reforms the nation has ever seen.
Senator Conroy apparently failed to consult most of his cabinet colleagues and caucus and, in doing so, created a diabolical situation for the government, where it was pitched against most of the nation's media outlets, who were aghast at the proposed reforms that were about to be laid upon them, the heavy handed nature of those reforms and the threat to free speech that was inherent in Senator Conroy's approach. Having cast aside all proper process et cetera, he demanded sweeping legislative reforms to establish a new public interest advocate who would have sweeping powers over regulation of newspapers and regulation of media ownership, and he demanded that these substantial measures should be dealt with by the parliament in the space of one week.
The inquiry into that legislation—several bills, as I recall, with many pages of new legislation and substantial changes—had barely a day or two to report, assess, consider, hear from witnesses, take submissions and all of the usual things. There were several days, at most, for consideration of the same package of bills by both houses of parliament before Senator Conroy's self-appointed deadline to have those sweeping reforms enacted by the parliament.
In contrast, there were a couple of issues that Senator Conroy parked in his too-hard basket. So, rather than dealing with those that he found too hard—which had been, in some instances, considered and assessed by the convergence review—he established a joint select committee. This joint select committee is, of course, the one that reports today and concludes its work. It had several months to undertake its work. It had several months to consider and assess the specific proposals before it, compared to what Senator Conroy was trying to do with the sweeping changes he wanted to ram through the parliament in the space of just a week.
The oddity of the process comes from the fact that the only public hearings this joint select committee undertook were held in the same week as the great media reform debate—essentially in conjunction with, simultaneous to, or just after, the hearings of the legislation committee of the Senate, which looked at the broad issue of reforms. Why was it done in that nature and in that time frame? Because Senator Conroy, despite giving the committee many months to report, hoped to have this committee report on at least on some of these issues in the space of days, to have them bolted onto his ultimately ill-fated media reforms.
Thankfully, Senator Thistlethwaite, and later Senator Cameron, rejected those approaches of Senator Conroy. They rejected his desire to get a blank cheque, in a sense, to go forward with even wider media reforms, and at least let this process run its course and allowed proper deliberations of the committee. I pay tribute to Senator Cameron for his work in the committee in trying to come up with a sensible resolution and recommendation when it came to the reach rule, which was the most contentious part of the committee's deliberations.
The coalition has made a number of comments in addition to the report, but I would say that in principle the broad thrust of Senator Cameron's recommendations—and the committee's recommendations—in relation to the reach rule are consistent with the coalition's position. And I think they are accepted across the parliament. The reach rule is a rule that limits how much television market any one television broadcaster can own rights to access. It applies a 75 per cent cap in place, which means that no one television broadcaster could have licences to broadcast across all areas of Australia. You can only access some 75 per cent of the populace.
This rule, in many ways, was designed to try to ensure that we had a commitment to local or regional content. However, it really is an anachronistic rule. Regulating ownership and placing restrictions on ownership does not provide a guarantee of local production or local content. What is important is that we have the right legislative safeguards in place for local production and local content, instead.
The committee has found that considering abolishing the reach rule—as was referred to the committee—is putting the cart before the horse. What we should be doing, if either side of this parliament contemplates, in government, abolishing the reach rule, is, first and foremost, assessing what we expect regional content to be, and ensuring we have appropriate regional content legislated, regulated and in place.
I acknowledge, as Senator Cameron alluded to, the undertakings that Mr Gyngell suggested could be made as part of Nine's proposal for enhanced acquisition of broadcast reach, should the reach rule be abolished. That would be a step in the right direction, but it should really be the parliament, as the appropriate determinant of what the public interest is, that sets in place what level of regional production, regional content, local production and local content is appropriate. Then and only then could you get around to considering the abolition of the reach rule and opening up the ownership market. That is not going to be an easy process. The coalition acknowledges, in its additional comments to the report, that there would be many different views about what appropriate local content levels are. However, we think it should be done in the right order, not the wrong order, as Senator Conroy was contemplating.
Very briefly, I note one other recommendation of this committee, which relates to requiring or providing a legislative capacity for the ACMA to require on-air corrections. The coalition's view is that the case has not been made for such legislative change at present. There should be a persuasive case made before the parliament agrees to improve the powers of a regulator, and we believe that it is important in that context that there should be a fuller consideration of those issues, with appropriate arguments put for and against, rather than what was, in many ways, a side issue of this committee's deliberations when compared to the deliberations around the reach rule, which received far greater prominence.
With that, I commend the committee's work and, in particular, draw attention to the coalition's additional comments. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.
Leave granted; debate adjourned.
Sitting suspended from 18:30 to 19:30