The government is claiming a win this morning as its landmark media reforms made it through the Senate, with deals with Nick Xenophon and One Nation delivering a victory in the final hours of Parliament sitting. But how did it happen? 

When governments look at media reform, the lobbying effort is intense. Not only is the government dealing with crossbenchers who will be around for many more years and votes, but also media bosses who decide exactly what the public hears and sees from the halls of power, and how that is presented to them.

“I think it’s fair to say that this has been the most difficult and protracted and robust set of negotiations I have engaged with in 20 years of being in parliament, state and federal,” crossbench Senator Nick Xenophon told the Senate late on Wednesday night, after months of negotiations culminated in a deal that would allow the government to abolish the two-out-of-three rule, would remove licence fees for broadcasters, and also ushered in an innovation fund for small and regional publishers, plus subsidies to hire cadets in country and small newsrooms.

The negotiations moved in fits and starts, with Communications Minister Mitch Fifield and Xenophon looking close to a deal in August, when the government pushed a sense of urgency in order to save the embattled Channel Ten. The network was in administration, and it seemed like the only way back to operation was a deal with Bruce Gordon and Lachlan Murdoch — a deal that could only go ahead without the two-out-of-three rule. That was when Xenophon was pushing for tax breaks for small and regional publishers with revenue below $30 million per year. The deal didn’t get over the line, and in the weeks since it was reported that some on the Coalition backbench wouldn’t back a plan that would benefit overseas publishers like The Guardian and BuzzFeed.

In the end the deal was too late for Gordon and Murdoch, with US giant CBS making a bid for Ten while they waited on negotiations.

The commercial media outlets had been lobbying hard for months, with a glitzy event in Parliament House in May where the executives pleaded their case, saying that the changes needed to be approved for their companies to remain profitable in Australia.

The deal with One Nation was done in August as well, with Pauline Hanson and her three other votes coming with the promise from the government to conduct a “competitive neutrality review” into the ABC, and to ask for reporting on ABC staff on salaries of more than $200,000 a year. Surprisingly, the One Nation demands also included $12 million for community radio.

The Liberal Democrats’ David Leyonhjelm also extracted a small win out of the government on Wednesday, after campaigning for changes that would allow Australians to participate in poker online. The concession, while small, came after the deal with Xenophon looked to be done, with Leyonhjelm holding out to see that the concessions didn’t go too far from what he could support. Leyonhjelm was spotted talking to Fifield during question time on Wednesday, after the minister had walked in and out of the chamber as negotiations went down to the wire.

The Senate sat late on Wednesday night, when independent Senator Jacqui Lambie blasted the deal between the government and One Nation, defending the ABC against the “crap” deal.

“You are a disgusting bunch of individuals at times. You have no moral values. To go after the public broadcaster is an absolute disgrace.”  

Xenophon says he was lobbied by many across the media industry, speaking to big companies like News Corp and Fairfax, as well as smaller publishers like Morrie Schwartz and Eric Beecher (chairman of Private Media, which publishes Crikey). The measures gained will encourage regional publishers to put on more staff, Xenophon says.

Beecher says he saw the reform as an opportunity to advocate for civic journalism. “I believe that the business model for funding journalism is totally collapsed and that I passionately believe that the only serious support for that funding model can come from government because there’s no one else that has the resources to do that.”

Beecher was one of several media owners who suggested measures that would assist small and regional publishers, and Beecher and Xenophon received some technical advice from Crikey political editor Bernard Keane, based on his years of experience as manager of media policy in the Department of Communications before he moved into journalism. Keane has recused himself from covering the issue as a result.

As it stands, the Senate vote was only finalised after the House of Representatives had called it a day, meaning that the changes will only be in effect in October, when Parliament next sits.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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