Media Sauce: When too much media reform is barely enough

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Sydney Daily Telegraph's Chris Dore (left) with Malcolm Turnbull (image via @mearesy).

Turnbull has time to discuss media reform legislation with the big end of town but no interest in workers or consumers, writes Dr Martin Hirst.

THE JOURNALISTS' UNION, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), is concerned that the Turnbull Government’s proposed media regulation reforms will lead to a loss of jobs in the news industry and less choice for media consumers.

The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Media Reform) Bill 2016 is currently before a Senate committee, but even before it has taken effect, the MEAA says the current rules that are supposed to ensure a variety of news "voices" in the marketplace are not being properly observed.

The MEAA estimates that over 5,000 jobs in the media industry have disappeared in less than a decade. According to the union’s submission to the Senate review of the Media Reform legislation, the Government’s mooted changes favour existing providers, will entrench the near-monopoly power of existing players and will see less diversity among news outlets, not more.

For example, last month, the so-called "consumer watchdog" (actually a government lapdog) the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC) approved News Corp's sale of Perth’s Sunday Times newspaper to the Kerry Stokes-owned Seven West Media.

When the deal is completed next week, it will give Stokes a virtual monopoly over print media in Western Australia. It has created a mood of fear and apprehension among Sunday Times staff.

MEAA’s WA regional director, Tiffany Venning, says her members are ‘deeply disappointed’ with the decision. There were 37 editorial jobs lost at The West Australian in the lead up to this transaction being approved and Venning says there is "considerable concern" for the staff at Sunday Times and its online affiliate PerthNow.

It’s no surprise that union members are concerned. The entire printing staff at the Sunday Times are about to lose their jobs. That’s about 100 people, some of whom have been at the paper their entire working lives.

Tiffany Venning told IA that out of the 60 editorial staff at the Sunday Times, "less than half" are likely to have jobs once the merger is complete. Rumours crossing the newsroom floor at the Times are that as few as seven existing editorial staff are likely to make the transition.

Ms Venning described this to IA as a "bloodbath", that will see over 100 people unceremoniously dumped onto the already depressed WA job market. However, it is unlikely that either Kerry Stokes or Rupert Murdoch will lose any sleep over adding to the west’s unemployment queues.

The Sunday Times was one of Rupert’s first purchases when he began to expand his empire in the 1960s, but he is hardly the most sentimental billionaire on the planet. He needs to sell the Times to fund the purchase of a cartload of regional newspapers in Queensland.

The ACCC has expressed some "concerns" about the American mogul’s proposed $36.6 million purchase of Australian Regional Newspapers from APN. However, the ACCC’s remit does not include being concerned about the further potential loss of journalism jobs in the Sunshine State; it is only interested in competition in the local news market.

Given that the regulator didn’t allow similar concerns to stop the Sunday Times deal, printers, journalists and sales staff at the 76 newspapers and 60 websites affected by the APN deal should probably start looking for another job.

As I have written previously in Media Sauce, the media owners don’t have to be so worried. For them, it is likely to be "business as usual" and it seems that they can carry on with the Coalition Government’s blessing.

Malcolm’s open door policy

Well, colour me "surprised". Malcolm – the Fizza – Turnbull is a man of the people after all.

Yes, our prime minister is a people person. But you have to be a certain class of people to meet him in person.

Malcolm’s people are not just the ordinary person in the street. Malcolm’s people are important people and among the most important people of all are Rupert’s people.

It came to light this week that the Fizza has been doing a spot of entertaining, and his guests this week included Murdoch’s highest-ranking lieutenants in Australia.

According to a report in the Fairfax press, the guest list included

‘... the editor of The Australian, Paul Whittaker, Chris Dore from Sydney's Daily Telegraph, the Herald Sun's Damon Johnston, and Courier Mail boss Lachlan Heywood.’

Malcolm also met recently with the editors from the Fairfax group at afternoon tea. Perhaps it is an indication of social standing and hierarchy among media organisations but the NewsCorpse crew got dinner at The Lodge. It’s probably a good thing that the well-lubricated Chris Mitchell wasn’t there; he’d have emptied the Fizza’s cellar one "large Shiraz" after another.

I imagine that, in the kudos stakes, dinner at The Lodge trumps tea and cucumber sandwiches.

A few weeks ago, Malcolm also met with the head honchos of Australia’s free-to-air television networks and their commercial "rivals" from Foxtel and the pay-TV association, ASTRA. This meeting took place in the Fizza’s Sydney office, so the catering may well have been a Coke and packet of crisps (if anything).

According to The Australian’s snarky coverage (remember this was before the NewsCorpse posse got their invites to dinner), the meet-and-greet guest list included Free TV chairman Harold Mitchell, Seven West CEO Tim Worner, Nine CEO Hugh Marks, TEN CEO Paul Anderson, Southern Cross Austereo regulatory head Creina Chapman, Prime Media general counsel Emma McDonald, and Imparja Television chief executive Alistair Feehan.

Why is Turnbull holding court with these media executives? Well, despite appearances, it’s not just to plead for more soft coverage of his flailing administration, or to drop buckets of poo on his nemesis Tony – "Two Rounds"– Abbott. We all know that Two Round’s is in training for his comeback bout against the Fizza, but Turnbull had other business to conduct with the news bosses.

High on the agenda is reform of Australia’s archaic system of media regulation. In particular, amendments to the broadcasting control legislation, the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (BSA).

Turnbull’s problem is that his Government doesn’t know what it’s doing, so like most of its agenda for this term of Parliament, the legislation to amend the BSA is being pulled in different directions by the various vested interests in the media industry.

The only thing that the free-to-air networks can agree on is that they want a reduction in licence fees — and they’ll probably get it, at some cost to the public purse. But they don’t agree on other aspects of the changes which involve abolition of what’s known as the "reach rule" and the "two-out-of three rule".

Simply put, the "reach rule" limits individual media companies to coverage of only 75 per cent of the national television market. So, for example, regional networks like WIN and Prime can broadcast in country areas, but their city affiliates, Nine and Seven, cannot.

The "two-out-of-three" rule means that one company can only own two out of three platforms in any one market. So, for instance, Company A can own a radio station and a newspaper but not a television licence in Sydney.

The problem is – and everyone recognises this – the Broadcast Services Act is now 24 years old and designed for an analogue world. It is no longer fit-for-purpose and both the two-out-of-three and reach rules are rendered obsolete by convergence and digital delivery via the Internet.

This is is the "techno-legal time-gap", which I explain in detail here and here. It simply means that the regulatory system cannot keep pace with the speed of tehnological change. The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Media Reform) Bill 2016 is the Fizza’s attempt to play catch-up.

The problem is that that is all he’s doing and nobody thinks it’s good enough; Labor and some of the cross-benchers in the Senate referred the bill to a committee which is due to report by 7 November.

Labor’s position was articulated by shadow communications spokesperson Michelle Rowland during a speech to a Melbourne telco and media conference earlier this month. The speech got some coverage in the trade press but not in the mainstream media.

In her comments to the Commsday Congress, Ms Rowland said that Labor would support abolition of the 75 per cent reach rule as it would allow for some consolidation of media in regional and remote Australia. This consolidation would ensure that media consumers outside of the well-served metropolitan areas of the country continue to get some diversity of news and programming.

However, Labor has so far refused to commit itself to supporting removal of the two outlets out of three in the market provisions of the existing legislation. The Opposition’s reasoning is straightforward — nobody has yet provided the evidence that amending the two-out-of-three rule would guarantee the same level of diversity in the market that currently exists, let alone that it would (as the Government argues) actually increase media diversity.

In an interview with The Australian in early September, Minister for Communications Mitch Fifield said that abolition of the reach rule and two-out-of-three rules would lead to more diversity:

The greatest threat to diversity in Australia is the continued existence of these two media laws,” Senator Fifield said in relation to the population reach rule and cross-media ownership cap. “They are hampering the ongoing viability of good and strong ­Australian media businesses.

However, the ALP and the journalists’ union have criticised Fifield and the Government’s reasoning, by arguing that the changes have not been well thought-through and are no more than tinkering with a fundamentally broken system of regulation.

To her credit, shadow minister Rowland has met with a range of stakeholders, including representatives of the MEAA. But when I asked the MEAA federal office if any officials had been invited for tea and sandwiches with the Fizza, I was greeted with loud laughter down the phone.

From that, I think it’s quite clear where the Government’s priorities lie. For Malcolm, it’s always been about the Big End of Town, not the consumers in Wauchope, Geraldton, Townsville or Oodnadatta.

The Fizza’s empathy is certainly not with the 5,000 journalists, editors, camera operators, sound-recordists, studio managers and ancillary staff who’ve lost their media jobs over the last eight years. It’s also clear this dodgy and incompetent Government doesn’t care a printer’s en for the news workers of WA who are about to join the dole queue.

In researching and writing this article I was keen to talk to Mitch Fifield, or at least get a comment from his office. I made several phone calls and emailed one of the Senator’s advisers, but at deadline I had not received a response. I don’t take it personally, but it is insulting to IA’s readers that they can’t be bothered responding in a timely manner. Maybe Fifield’s staff have been talking to the ever-delightful Mr Ashby.

I am not prepared to let this lie but I’ve run out of space this week. Once the Senate committee has deliberated we’ll have to come back to this bone; there’s more chewing to be done.

Read more by Dr Martin Hirst on his blog Ethical Martini and follow him on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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