“The Minister dictated that the committee would have just three weeks to conduct its inquiry. Members of the public were given just over a week to make a submission on the legislation. In contrast, the Government has spent well in excess of 12 months negotiating its plan with the media moguls.”
That was then-shadow communications minister Stephen Conroy in 2006, complaining about how the then-government had established a “perfunctory” inquiry into media reform. “The hearing itself was nothing short of a farce. The committee was forced to cram more than 30 witnesses into just two days,” Conroy complained in the Labor Senators’ dissenting report.
And, indeed, the Howard government, having secured control of the Senate, did take a perfunctory view of Senate committees. But Conroy has matched and topped them with his one-day joint media reform committee (less when you take out the Australian Communications and Media Authority and the department, both of which will address that committee tomorrow) and week-long Senate bills committee to look at his draft legislation.
Still, let’s consider the matters before the joint committee, which will be made up of 2-2-1 from the Reps and 2-2-1 from the Senate (the one is an independent in the Reps, and a Green in the Senate). They are:
a) the abolition of the 75 per cent rule, particularly in relation to regional and local news;
(b) whether the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) should be required to examine program supply agreements for news and current affairs when determining whether a person is in control of a commercial television broadcasting service; and
(c) on-air reporting of ACMA findings regarding Broadcasting regulation breaches;
Ignoring another hysterical reaction from News Limited, the 75% issue is the biggest area of contention. The rule currently is that no one can own free-to-air television licensees that collectively reach more than 75% of the population. It’s an analog anachronism, and slowly but surely, the rule is being subsumed by the expansion of online media. Conroy has made no bones about wanting to dump it, and until recently, pretty much everyone in the TV industry agreed with him.
When the prospect of dumping 75% was revealed last year, it was seen as setting up the final round of media marriages, and banking and broking circles hummed with deals and steals — Seven (which is already close to 75% through its licenses in Queensland) was tipped to take out Prime Media, its regional affiliate, Southern Cross and Ten were tipped to do some sort of deal as well, especially with their 10-year regional affiliation deal coming up, and Nine and WIN were tipped to marry in some way.
But the relationships soured even before the weddings. Partners started swapping and abandoning each other. Southern Cross and Nine became a firmer deal than before, or so it seems, but that news triggered a change of mind at the jilted Ten as Lachlan Murdoch, his fellow moguls and the News Ltd camp realised it would marginalise Ten and drive down its value. And Seven didn’t want to spend money buying Prime Media, because its current affiliation deal anchors Prime firmly with Seven. Seven also wants to frustrate the Nine Network as it emerges from its near-death experience with private equity. Thus the unanimity behind Free TV’s original position on this issue fractured.
And when the commercial TV networks are split, nothing gets done in this country. Seven said in a statement:
“It is clear that there has not been sufficient public engagement on the implications of the changes to the 75% reach rule. The issues around how best to ensure delivery of quality regional and local content are complex and it is appropriate that they are properly considered by a committee separately from other parts of the media package. [T]hese issues and the interests of regional Australians warrant a more considered process than a hastily convened one day inquiry.”
And new Ten boss Hamish McLennan said:
“This is an issue of national significance. It needs to be properly debated. It cannot and should not be dismissed with a quick and dirty one-day inquiry.”
This is defensive business politics at its crudest from a bunch of rentseekers and loudmouths.
The second issue before the committee, on whether supply agreements should be added to the criteria that help ACMA determine if someone controls a broadcasting licensee, is the most interesting. It is aimed at the Ten Network and the encroachment by News Ltd into the news and current affairs production of the network. It’s only small, via the boringly revamped Meet The Press, which consists exclusively of News or Ten journalists or subjects. But News Corp, through its Shine and Fox subsidiaries, also controls much of Ten’s prime time schedule (The Biggest Loser, MasterChef, Modern Family, Glee and others).
Program supply agreement would be a smart addition to Schedule 1 of the Broadcasting Services Act, which is the part that explains how “control” is to be assessed by ACMA. And a damn sight smarter than governments interfering in media companies’ newsrooms, which is what the Howard government did to stop regional radio broadcasters merging.
The last matter, on-air reporting of ACMA findings, would be highly controversial, especially if they have to make the broadcast in prime time. The Nine Network, which has been a persistent offender in recent years, won’t like that. You can bet that any time for such broadcasts will come out of programs and not out of advertising time.
But the problem with that proposal is that it doesn’t address the ongoing problems of ACMA’s lack of “mid-tier powers” — powers between accepting undertakings not to do bad things again, and stripping a licence. The regulator has limited options there, particularly in dealing with individual employees who are regular offenders at a particular licensee (ie. vile Kyle). This is an issue that needs a more contextual study, not a quick and dirty inquiry, if the government is serious about improving ACMA’s powers.