NEW reforms passed the federal Senate last week to deliver a package of measures aimed at modernising Australia’s media laws to deal with major business disruption caused by internet publishing.
Changes include moves to improve regional media coverage and enhance diversity but also to formally increase the ABC’s focus on rural based reporting and stronger accountability measures.
Labor and the Greens opposed the historic reforms but the Coalition government secured a deal at the last minute, with the support of the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) and One Nation, in the negotiations led by Communications Minister Mitch Fifield.
The NXT component of the reform package will see a $50 million Regional and Small Publishers Innovation fund created; a regional and small publishers program to support 200 cadetships; and 60 regional journalism scholarships.
An Australian Competition and Consumer Commission inquiry into the impact of the new digital environment on media will also be conducted.
The deal with One Nation - with leader and Queensland Senator Pauline Hanson and other party members highly critical of the $1 billion per year public broadcaster’s perceived bias - will see reforms implemented, as put forward by Victorian Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie, to enhance the ABC's focus on rural and regional Australia.
The One Nation component of the deal will also deliver a competitive neutrality review of the ABC and SBS and a $12m community radio package.
Regional Australia Institute CEO Jack Archer said the media reforms “had to happen”.
But said he couldn’t see how the mergers to now follow would give any certainty for the availability of quality local media in regional areas, in the long term.
“The investment that Xenophon secured will be useful in the short term for some small media companies but there’s no way it’s a game changer,” he said.
“In reality no-one knows what the regional media landscape is going to look like in five to 10 years.
“We can get information about local sporting results and community events on Facebook but can we rely on these platforms for scrutiny of local decision makers or to tell the local stories about life for people in the bush?
“Once the coming wave of mergers and restructures in corporate media are finished, government will need to take a hard look at whether regional people have good access to independent, quality sources of local news and information.”
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the changes would bring Australia’s media laws into the 21st century.
“This is all about protecting Australian jobs - this is all about ensuring that our media industry is able to compete effectively with the global online giants,” he said.
“The laws restricting ownership in the Australian media were written in a day, not just before the internet, but before pay television.
“They were written in another era, in another age and they should have been changed a long time ago, but for various reasons they haven't been, but now they have.
“My government has delivered reforms that are long overdue in media and we’ve done it - this is going to secure the future of the Australian industry.”
Senator Fifield said Australian media companies had been “lumbering” under the shackles of media laws designed in the 1980s when Kylie Minogue was still singing the ‘Locomotion’.
“They didn't reflect the world that we lived in and they were constraining our Australian media businesses from configuring themselves in ways to best support their viability,” he said.
“Thanks to my Coalition colleagues, thanks to the support of the Prime Minister and can I particularly single out Senator Bridget McKenzie from the Nationals and Senator Dean Smith from my party, who have been great stewards of this endeavour with me and with my crossbench colleagues.
“What this package represents is a shot in the arm for Australian media organisations; it will give them a fighting chance.”
A major component of the government’s reform package will abolish redundant media ownership rules that shackle local media companies and inhibit their ability to achieve the scale necessary to compete with foreign tech giants.
Broadcast licence fees have also been abolished and replaced with a more modest spectrum charge, while there will also be a substantial reduction in gambling advertising during live sport on all platforms.
But diversity protections have been retained to ensure multiple controllers of television and radio licences and minimum numbers of media voices in all markets including a minimum of four independent media voices in regional markets.
The reforms will also see higher minimum local content requirements for regional television following trigger events, including introducing minimum requirements in markets across Victoria, SA, NSW, WA and the NT.
Fairfax Media CEO Greg Hywood welcomed the government’s changes to modernise media laws, while acknowledging the industry’s unified position on the legislation and thanking Malcolm Turnbull, Senator Fifield and crossbench Senators.
Xenophon: reforms to address internet driven media “crisis”
NXT leader and SA Senator Nick Xenophon said the legislation dealt with the regulation of Australia's commercial media companies “which are in crisis thanks to the internet's disruption of established business models for journalism and publishing”.
“Broadcasters and publishers are operating in rapid technological change and intense competition for audiences and advertising revenue; not only from other media companies, but perhaps most fundamentally from foreign technology companies - Google and Facebook - which have aggregated news and content while separating publishers from digital revenue streams,” he said.
“Fewer and fewer journalists are churning out more and more digital product, but more and more of that is churnalism: recycled and repackaged PR handouts and celebrity trivia.
“The production of one form or another of clickbait appears to be an increasingly favoured business model in an environment of declining revenue, constant churn but ever more shallow content.
“In this environment increasing PR manipulation, spin and fake news are indicators of a deep malaise.”
But Senator Xenophon said the NXT supported the government's legislation to modernise media regulation and help the Australian industry to deal more effectively with the challenges they face.
“Many of us have long presumed that a free and vibrant media is essential for a well-informed citizenry and a vibrant democracy,” he said.
“But it can't be assumed that current media business models, especially in a market increasingly dominated by foreign technology companies, will necessarily serve that important democratic role.
“I don't think anyone could say our media industries are healthy today, and with that our democracy is not healthy either.”
Senator Xenophon said the NXT and government’s agreement would establish a one-off regional and small publishers innovation fund involving $18m worth of grants a year over three years, from the 2018/19 financial year.
He said the government would set up the fund so that the first round of grants could be announced no later than June 1 next year.
“The purpose of the fund is to assist small publishers to transition, compete and innovate more successfully in a changing media environment,” he said.
“The grants will be able to be used by publishers for initiatives that support the continuation, development, growth and innovation of Australian civic journalism, including initiatives that explore and expand the journalism funding model.
“In the context of this agreement 'civic journalism’ is defined as journalism that has the primary purpose of investigating and explaining public policy and issues of public interest or significance with the aim of engaging citizens in public debate and informing democratic decision making.
“Grants could be allocated, for example, to programs and initiatives such as the purchasing or upgrading of equipment and software, development of apps, and training, all of which will assist in extending civic and regional journalism.
“The criteria should be broad and flexible, but will not extend to the payment of salaries or costs directly associated with a particular journalistic initiative.”
Publishers with an annual turnover of not less than $300,000 in revenue and not more than $30 million in revenue will be eligible.
Large publishers such as News Corporation and Fairfax will be ineligible and public broadcasters, while funding grants would be capped at a maximum of $1m per year for any media group.
In addition, NXT and the Government have agreed to funding that can provide opportunities for students, including graduates, in regional areas to access journalism training.
Labor calls it a “dirty deal”
But NSW Labor Senator Sam Dastyari said “This is an eleventh hour deal, a dirty deal that is going to hurt public broadcasting in this country, is going to hurt journalistic independence and is going to hurt the future of journalism”.
He said the $60m “slush fund” would not go to The Guardian. BuzzFeed and others but was “structured in a way so that the Liberal and National “conservative parties…could get it through their own base”.
Shadow Regional Communications Minister Stephen Jones said Nick Xenophon’s “back-room sell-out deal” on the media ownership changes fell short of qualifying as innovation.
“The measures do precious little for innovation because they exclude a number of truly innovative companies from access to the $50m regional and small publishers fund,” he said.
“What is more, the measures and funding runs out in only three years – which may well be before regional Australia actually comes to enjoy the reliable and affordable broadband service that Malcolm Turnbull promised would be delivered last year.
“Nobody believes that decreasing the number of owners and companies in the market will increase the number of media jobs in regional Australia.
“This Turnbull-Xenophon deal won’t actually address any of the issues facing regional media long term.
“These 60 scholarships are a short term fix for a long term issue - it’s false hope dressed up to make Nick Xenophon look good.”
But Senator Fifield said the reform package had some important measures which would further support regional media via a $60m package, which contained the innovation fund, cadetships and scholarships.
“There are also a range of measures that we have supported, which will see greater transparency for our public broadcasters and will more clearly focus their role, particularly when it comes to rural and regional Australia,” he said.
“The package that has passed the parliament makes a great contribution to levelling the playing field for Australian media organisations with the Facebooks and Googles of this world.”
Senator Fifield said $8m would go towards journalist cadetships and $2.4m towards scholarships but “we’re not in the business of having the taxpayer pay the salaries of journalists in private sector organisations”.
“Now there were some in the media, in some media organisations, who thought that that was a terrific idea that the Commonwealth should pay for salaries of private sector journalists - but oddly enough, it’s a path that we’ve chosen not to go down,” he said.
Enhanced ABC regional focus and accountability
Senator McKenzie said her aspects of the media reforms adopted by One Nation would see service provision to regional and rural Australians included in the ABC charter.
That will include two ABC Board members extensive background in rural and regional Australia; an ABC Rural and Regional Advisory Board to be set up and consulted if any changes are made to ABC rural and regional services; and the ABC to report employment in regional Australia against those employed in capital cities.
“This is great news for people who live in regional areas who have been complaining long and hard about the lack of services provided by the ABC,” she said.
“The time for people to put up with a lack of services in regional and regional services must end along with ABC management’s obvious preference for the major cities.”
Senator Fifield said it would surprise many people, to discover that nowhere in the ABC Charter did it make reference to rural and regional Australia.
“There is no such reference, and so what we will seek to do is to have a reference to rural and regional Australia in the ABC Charter, because that's an important part of their work, and I think most Australians would assume that's already there,” he said.
He said the government wanted to ensure at least two people on the ABC board had a background from rural and regional Australia.
“Now, that's something that this government has already done by virtue of the appointment of Georgie Somerset, who's a beef producer from Kingaroy, and also Vanessa Guthrie, who is the chair of the Mineral Councils of Australia - but we think it's appropriate that that requirement be enshrined in legislation,” he said.
“Senator McKenzie also put forward the proposition that there should be an ABC regional advisory council with which ABC management would need to consult when there's a decision being taken which has a material effect on residents of rural Australia, and we think that's a good thing.
Senator Fifield said the transparency measures put forward by Senator McKenzie would see the words 'fair and balanced' incorporated into the ABC's Act.
“The ABC's own editorial guidelines in chapter 4 talk about being fair and balanced,” he said.
“The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance Journalistic Code of Ethics also talks about fairness no less than six times.
“So, if it's good enough for the MEAA and good enough for the ABC editorial guidelines, there should be no reason why 'fair and balanced' should not be incorporated into the ABC's act.”