As the media reform saga drags on (and on, and on) through Parliament, there’s been frothing and hand-wringing by those both for and against.
The government’s changes to the Broadcasting Services Act will remove two diversity rules that have been in place for more than 25 years. Under the current rules, the same person or company can’t own more than two out of three of the traditional platforms (newspaper, TV and radio) in the same radio licence area, and the same person can’t own TV licences that reach more than 75% of the population. These two rules would be scrapped.
But if there will still be other diversity rules in place (and there will), does it make any difference to a regular consumer? Well, maybe not at first glance, but once pollies bow to pressure from media moguls once, it will be easier to make them kowtow again.
There will still be a voices rule, where there will need to be at least five voices (separately controlled media outlets) in the metropolitan areas, and four in regional areas. And media owners won’t be allowed more than one TV licence or two radio licences in the same licence area. There are also local content rules in place, with radio and TV outlets required to provide local content.
And the rules currently in place haven’t stopped local news sources dropping out around the country. When WIN left Mount Gambier in South Australia, it no longer had a local TV news bulletin. To satisfy local content rules, the TV station has a deal with the the local (family-owned) newspaper the Border Watch, where it runs stories from the paper during commercial breaks. So all the substantial local news (apart from ABC local radio) comes from the one source.
And more parts of the country could end up looking the same under the changes.
RMIT honorary fellow Vincent O’Donnell says scrapping the reach rule won’t make much difference — the internet and licensing deals between metro and regional broadcasters mean it’s pretty much obsolete anyway. But he’s worried that getting rid of the two-out-of-three rule could have consequences we can’t foresee, and the situation in Mount Gambier could be replicated. “The two-out-of-three rule is one of those things where dropping it has the potential to allow mergers and takeovers whose consequences can’t properly be assessed by politicians or the media or even people like myself, whose job it is to assess these things. The real problem is not that takeovers and acquisitions won’t occur, but the outcome in five years’ time is impossible to anticipate.”
O’Donnell says that if (or when) the two-out-of-three rule goes, the media could become incredibly concentrated, with only one or two people or companies controlling all the news and information in a community.
And once the media moguls have won their fight for these reforms to go through, O’Donnell thinks they’ll be emboldened for the next big regulatory push: local content rules.
“The next big battleground is going to be watering down the local content rules … There has been successful pressure to bring down licence fees, and suspend them for a year, now there are these calls for the ownership rules,” he said.
Deakin University senior lecturer Kristy Hess thinks local content has been a key oversight in all the debate so far. She says local newspapers (and especially those owned by News Corp and Fairfax) have endured massive resource drains not filled by local TV. “It remains too easy for broadcasters to focus on the biggest, easy to access locations in their licensing areas rather than those locations furthest from headquarters and produce news servicing these areas on a regular basis,” she said. “When I watch my local news on TV the news reader tell me how ‘our basketball team’ the Ballarat Miners have made the finals when I live in Warrnambool, about 200 km away. Media reform does not do a lot to address these issues, and I don’t think it will improve the quality of local news for rural and regional people.”
Hess says that the reforms don’t address the existing issues in regional media, and missing from any discussion has been particular support for small, independently owned newspapers.
“Local communities are often best served by media players embedded in local areas, and we shouldn’t lose sight of this,” she said.