FRAN KELLY: Well, the Prime Minister says her Government is open to, quote, ‘sensible suggestions’ from the media industry over its reform bills* but it won’t be, quote, ‘cross trading or horse trading’ with key crossbenchers who are withholding their support. Coalition frontbencher Simon Birmingham is a member of both of the Parliamentary committees which have been scrutinising the changes and he’ll be handling the legislation for the Opposition in the Senate if, indeed, it makes it that far. Simon Birmingham is in our Parliament House studio. Simon, good morning.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Good morning, Fran.
FRAN KELLY: Can you see the Government passing any of its six media bills?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I can see a couple of them as being possible and, indeed, you highlighted earlier, in chatting to Paul [Bongiorno], that, of course, there are some reforms that relate to television licence fees, television content quotas, and those are reforms that can be sensibly looked at. Importantly, the evidence we heard in the committee yesterday is those are reforms that the Government was engaging with industry in, and settled on the detail of, in November of last year. Compare that with the reforms that try to put in place a new regulator over the print media and those reforms came as a complete surprise, with industry only seeing the legislation last Thursday when the rest of us saw it, so very different approaches and we’ll obviously deal with those that have that level of industry support, that level of consultation with industry and appear to be sensible reforms, in a sensible way.
FRAN KELLY: Does that mean the Opposition would support that bill, the bill that would halve the licence fees for the free-to-air television networks, the commercial networks, [Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill 2013] and also impose a certain level of hours of Australian content across their digital stations [Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Convergence Review and Other Measures) Bill 2013]?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: That’ll be a topic of discussion at our party room today and, of course, there’s still some more evidence to hear in the inquiry. We’re still concerned that these reforms have been rushed as well. They’re only having one week, if Senator Conroy sticks to his deadline, to get right through the Parliament, so it’s not a blank cheque from the Opposition but we can see the merit in some of those proposals.
FRAN KELLY: You describe the bill that recommends the new regulator, the Public Interest [Media] Advocate [Public Interest Media Advocate Bill 2013] as coming as a complete surprise. It’s hardly completely surprising to be talking about another layer of regulation in some form or another, given, basically, the two years now we’ve been discussing this. We’ve had the Finkelstein inquiry,the Convergence Review. It’s not really a complete surprise, is it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Fran, the model that is proposed is nothing like what was recommended in the Convergence Review…
FRAN KELLY: It’s far less.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, that depends how you take it. In terms of the regulation, the capacity of this new regulator to intervene is quite sweeping and, importantly, what we have here is a model where it is also just one person. We have existing regulators of the media in terms of the Australian Communications and Media Authority, the ACCC [Australian Competition and Consumer Commission] and their role in relation to media mergers and acquisitions, so there are some very well established processes here and very well established regulators. This is a new regulator on the block, a new regulator who is a solitary person appointed by the Minister. It could be anybody, effectively, given the terms that are in this bill and, importantly, this regulator will have the capacity to determine whether press codes are fair, whether they deal with accuracy appropriately, whether in fact they even reflect community standards. Now, if that’s not a sweeping power, to say ‘does something reflect community standards?’ which, of course, are very much in the eye of the beholder, then I don’t know what is.
FRAN KELLY: There is talk of amending this notion of the Public Interest Media Advocate from a single person to a panel. Would that make the idea more acceptable, have more merit?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, that would make a bad idea slightly less bad, Fran. That still wouldn’t overcome the fact that there are very significant powers here and there’s, of course, a fundamental core level to be asked – is this level of regulation necessary; has a case been made for it? – and I don’t hear anybody from the Government going out and explaining why it is necessary, for the first time in Australia’s peacetime history, to regulate the print media, as well as some online media content, in this type of way.
FRAN KELLY: The case is based on what was put to the Finkelstein inquiry, in terms of the media organisations through the [Australian] Press Council – the Press Council basically not having any teeth, not being able to enforce the media organisations to behave as they should in terms of retractions, apologies, corrections, that kind of thing. That’s one part of it. Now, you were in the committee hearing when Kim Williams, who’s the head of News [Limited], described the Public Interest Media Advocate as a modern day Star Chamber. He said the laws overall would affect every Australian and have a detrimental effect on the quality of democracy in the country. Do you think that’s overegging this, to describe it as a Star Chamber?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think, given the very sweeping powers that this sole individual is forecast to have, really does demonstrate that there’s a very significant problem here. I’d also…
FRAN KELLY: A Star Chamber?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, one person, with no right of appeal, who gets to say yes or no to media mergers and acquisitions; one person, with no right of appeal, who gets to say yes or no to whether a Press Council code or whether the membership of the Press Council or the processes of the Press Council meet community standards or are fair or accurate – whatever all of those terms are, because none of them are defined in this legislation… I think they are extremely sweeping powers. I was also there when the Fairfax [Media] CEO, Greg Hywood, described the type of penalty in place – the removal of protections, under the Privacy Act, for journalists – as the nuclear option, so, yes, it’s safe to say the print media in particular are very concerned about this. It’s not just News Limited. It came just as strongly and passionately from Fairfax as well.
FRAN KELLY: Absolutely, I’m not proposing it didn’t. In terms of the media concentration, and you’ve said that it’s too much interest in one person’s hands, for the Public Interest Media Advocate to be able to rule on mergers and acquisitions… Australia does have an incredibly concentrated media landscape. Basically two groups – News Limited and Fairfax – control almost 87 per cent of newspapers in this country. Does the Opposition see that as a problem and, in government, should you win the next government, is the Opposition planning any media reform?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Fran, we think the existing laws, where the ACCC has a very clear mandate to look at the concentration of power, and also, indeed, if you look at the ACCC’s media regulations, when it comes to assessing acquisitions or mergers, they also look at the diversity of voices as a consideration here and, recently, the ACCC did, indeed, block an acquisition involving, or a proposed acquisition involving, Channel Seven looking at parts of FOXTEL, so we’ve seen very clearly the fact that the ACCC does have teeth in this regard, does look in a professional way at the issues to be considered, so I think we should have confidence that, in this country, not only do we have existing regulatory platforms but, contrary to Senator Conroy’s claims that there are less and less voices in the media, we have an ever increasing number of voices in the media. The whole…
FRAN KELLY: But not in terms of power and influence, do we? I mean, if we have 87 per cent of the newspapers in this country controlled by two organisations – News Limited and Fairfax – you don’t really equate that kind of power and influence with the number of disparate voices coming out over the internet at the moment, do you?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, I think there’s increasing power and influence from those disparate voices. Increasingly, you see…
FRAN KELLY: But not equitable?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It is increasing, though, Fran, and in time it will become more equitable. What we’ve seen over the last year is, of course, both News Limited and Fairfax, as well as electronic media organisations, shedding thousands of jobs because they are losing viewers, they are losing readers, who are all shifting to different platforms and on those platforms we’re seeing more news stories broken, we’re seeing new sources come in looking at Australian content, like The Guardian online model, as well as, of course, many, many more Australians simply seeking their news from overseas, be it the form of a news website or, indeed, simply downloading video content via sources like YouTube. This is a huge change happening in the media landscape and these types of reforms are dealing with a media of yesteryear rather than a media of the future.
FRAN KELLY: Simon Birmingham, thank you very much for joining us.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: A pleasure, Fran.
FRAN KELLY: Senator Simon Birmingham, Coalition frontbencher and a member of both of the Parliamentary committees that have been scrutinising the media bills.
*Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Convergence Review and Other Measures) Bill 2013, Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (News Media Diversity) Bill 2013, News Media (Self-regulation) Bill 2013, News Media (Self-regulation) (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2013, Public Interest Media Advocate Bill 2013, Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill 2013.