Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Media Reform) Bill 2016

29 November 2016

I rise this evening to speak on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Media Reform) Bill 2016, which calls for a relaxation of media ownership laws in Australia to meet the needs of a changing marketplace. We understand it is a changing marketplace. Despite strategies by various governments over the past decades, Australia has one of the most concentrated media environments in the world. But in recent years the media landscape has changed, and it continues to change.

Traditional media operators—television, radio and newspapers—have protested that the majority of government regulations now no longer fit the changed landscape. They say the conditions are onerous and have not just restricted their business but stifled their business Since the advent of the internet, with greater diversity of sources, diversity of voices and innovative practices, traditional media say they can no longer compete. They argue that the removal of these rules is necessary for their survival, and it is a compelling argument. We have seen job losses throughout all sectors of the media, and those losses have, in turn, impacted on their and our communities. Despite the freedoms of the internet, many of us still place great faith in traditional and established media outlets. We trust them for our news; in fact, they are one of the first things we turn to when we have learnt that things might go bad. This is especially the case in the regions.

A diversity of ownership means a diversity of voices. In my electorate of Paterson, which crosses the Hunter Valley and Port Stephens, we are fortunate to still have strong, local independent media voices. We have a strong local Fairfax Media newsroom, which produces the Newcastle Herald, Australia's best regional daily newspaper, and a host of other free weekly, bi-weekly and tri-weekly papers throughout the Hunter, each with a focus on unique local content and each with their own websites.

We have a strong local television station in NBN which, although now owned by the Nine Network, still has a strong regional and local focus and covers local events that matter to the community in its remaining hour-long news bulletin, which is so important and informative to our community. We have a strong local ABC radio station in 1233 Newcastle, an award-winning emergency broadcaster and a sound source of news and comment for many people of the Hunter region. We have several other radio networks—Southern Cross Austereo, the Super Radio Network, the University of Newcastle station 2NURFM—all with their own newsrooms that add to the diversity of voices. And we have a multitude of smaller independent newspapers in micro markets that serve their communities very well.

I understand the value of strong local media because I have worked in it as a broadcaster. I have worked in talkback radio, where the discussion of local news and issues is vital to communities and the individuals who make up those communities. I have worked on the radio when bushfires have raged across our area, and I have personally directed people around alternative routes to try and get home safely and be with their loved ones. I understand the regional media market. Strong local and regional media is a vital cornerstone of Australian society, of Australian democracy, and, most importantly, of local stories, the very fabric that keeps us all connected. People in regional and rural communities do not want to see reflected on their TV screens, across their airwaves and in their newspapers only pictures and stories that are generated in big cities, for big cities and about big cities. They want their own stories.

There are tensions and difficulties in the new digital landscape, and it would be foolish and counterproductive to ignore that. Labor does hear the voices of those media outlets who say they are struggling, that the laws are outdated and that they need to merge to survive. But we are also compelled by the strong need for strong independent media, especially in our regions, and we are compelled by the need for a diversity of voices. We are compelled by the ability to hear and tell the stories of the bush, the regional towns and the cities like my own. Labor does not oppose removing the 75 per cent reach rule. It had been Labor's policy to get rid of that anyway, so we are in agreement there, but we are unconvinced that removing the two-out-of-three rule is a good thing. Getting rid of the rule may help create scalable media businesses, but it does nothing to protect and promote the diversity of voices, which are just so critical.

The government says that Labor is holding up media reform by not passing the two-out-of-three rule, but Labor is willing to meet the government. We are willing to meet the government by over halfway—two-thirds of the way, in fact. We will agree to the removal of the 75 per cent reach rule. We will agree on improving local content rules. We will agree on reducing licence fees. But we will not agree on removing the two-out-of-three rule. The government has not made the case to remove that rule, and there is, as I have said, a solid argument against it. Removing the two-out-of-three rule risks further concentration of media ownership in a few hands, and that is not something that would be of benefit to regional Australians, particularly those who still need to have their stories told.

Splitting the bill is the pragmatic approach, and it is the one that we have suggested. It will ensure that the government gets some media reforms through the parliament this year. That will be pleasing to the media companies, who can at least say there is some progress towards reform, and pleasing to the people and the communities of rural and regional Australia, who want to ensure their stories continue to be told. We know that this is an important issue.

When these restrictions were put in place in the 1980s and nineties the media landscape did look very different. Now we have a whole range of new players—internet-based players—who have entered the market. It really makes no sense to have the 75 per cent reach rule. We get that. We can get rid of that this year, if the government agrees to split the bill. We can make some progress on that. We can do that right now. The minister cannot continue to hide behind the furphy that the failures of this bill are Labor's fault. They clearly are not. The minister can at least get some reform through by talking to Labor and by splitting the bill.

There have been two Senate inquiries on media reform this year and in both cases the abolition of the 75 per cent reach rule received unqualified support, so there is no argument there. We are meeting you more than halfway on this. The pragmatic course—the sensible thing to do—is to repeal the 75 per cent reach rule, ensuring local content is bolstered following a trigger event and providing immediate licence fee relief to the commercial broadcasters. We agree on that as well. Once the impact of these changes can be assessed, the question of media diversity safeguards should then be considered properly as part of holistic and genuine reform.

The internet has altered the media landscape, but it does not justify discarding important diversity safeguards. Let's be clear and frank about this. Let's not forget about the problems with internet access Australia-wide thanks to the second-rate NBN and its botched rollout.

Mr Tim Wilson interjecting

Ms SWANSON: Not everyone can get the NBN. Not everyone can dip into this feast of internet-based television and internet-based radio. We just cannot get it. That is one of the critical arguments. Everyone says: the internet has made such a difference. It makes a difference if you can actually get it. It is all very well for you to scoff, but if you are spending half your life watching a buffering circle it can be very frustrating. This is particularly so in the most remote areas thanks to the stuff-up—that is all it is—of satellite internet.

Australians support diversity of media. They do not support changing media laws to allow a single controller to own a newspaper, a TV network and a radio station all in the same licence area. Labor must oppose removing the two-out-of-three rule, because it would achieve very little at potentially great cost. Further media consolidation and a reduction in the diversity of voices across the media landscape is not what we need. The parliament must support diversity in the control of our media for the effective functioning of our democracy. The Australian public deserves better than a government that is condemning important media diversity safeguards to the scrap heap in the name of so-called reform.

The media landscape continues to undergo dynamic change. We need a comprehensive vision and the execution of sound principles-based policy to ensure our media laws support both a thriving democracy and a competitive media sector. We will have neither under this government. What we must have are those stories from our local regional area, because they are the stories that truly link people together. They are the stories that build community—and it is through community that a great Australia is built and continued.