British Media Tougher On Responsibilities: Democrats

This is the text of a speech delivered in Parliament by Senator John Cherry of the Australian Democrats.

Senator John CherryI rise today to speak on the media.

A fortnight ago, Roy Greenslade, a columnist with the “Observer” in London, did a comprehensive analysis of all major newspapers owned by News Corporation around the world, all 175 major titles. And all 175 newspapers in their editorials were running a line that was pro-war in Iraq. Mr Greenslade described this as an “extraordinary unity of thought”, all the more extraordinary because it happens to coincide with Rupert Murdoch’s public views on the war, published last month in the “Bulletin” magazine.

Conrad Black is also on the public record supporting Tony Blair “courageous” stance on the war, a line echoed enthusiastically in his British newspapers.

In Australia, is has been left to the Fairfax papers, the electronic media and the public broadcasters to run the contrary arguments.

This is all very significant, because in a few weeks, this parliament is set to debate a bill to deregulate media ownership.

Already. News Corporation controls around 57% of the newspaper circulations in Australia. Under the bill proposed by the Government, they will be able to expand into television.

There is an argument put that the restraints on cross-media ownership restrict investment, and that investment restricts the ability to develop quality, diversified media.

Senator Alston went so far as to tell the Melbourne Press Club last month that our current media laws encourage “mediocrity”. On several occasions, he has pointed to the British Labor Government, which is in the process of overhauling its media laws to loosen up the cross-media restrictions.

Today, I wanted to discuss some of the key differences in the British media environment from which Australia might learn, which underpin fundamentally the deregulation of cross media laws in that country, and which do not exists as safeguards in this country.

For British media laws contain far stronger protections of diversity and plurality than Australia’s proposed regime does. And this should concern all senators and citizens concerned to ensure diversity is maintained in Australia’s media laws.

First, the laws will maintain the restriction on major newspaper companies buying into television. If a company controls 20% of the national newspaper market, they will be prohibited from owning more than 20% of a television licence. Further, if a newspaper company controls more than 20% of a regional newspaper market, they will be prohibited from owning more than 20% of a regional television licence.

The Blair Government, in its Communications Bill policy paper, defends these rules by arguing:

“National newspapers are the most editorially influential mass medium. Joint ownership of a substantial share of the national newspaper market and a substantial share of Channel 3, the only commercial public service broadcaster, would represent an unacceptable concentration of influence in current circumstances”.

Second, the British law goes further than the Government’s proposed ‘editorial separation’ of jointly owned television and newspaper newsrooms by requiring commercial television operators to contract to a separate news provider for the provision of their news service. The Government argues that this measure, mandated in law, “makes sure that the news service is independent of the licensee and unaffected by any of their commercial concerns.” The new Communications Bill will give the regulator more power to prescribe how much commercial television must invest to maintain quality news and current affairs coverage, and also ensuring that such coverage is provided in prime time.

Third, the British Communications Bill will mandate in the new industry regulator OFCOM, the current powers of the Broadcasting Services Commission to investigate radio and television against the standard that “news should be presented with due accuracy and impartiality, and that undue prominence should not be given to the opinions or particular persons or bodies in matters of political or industrial controversy”.

The Government’s policy paper notes that:

“This power may become more important in the light of the likely consolidation in local radio markets, and OFCOM will need to use it to pay particular attention to matters of impartiality.”

OFCOM will inherit from the BSC its very wide power to regulate matters of impartiality, fairness and privacy. These include the power to impose conditions on licences, the power to require the broadcasting of corrections and findings, and the power to fine broadcasters up to 250,000 pounds or 5% of their revenues for breaching of conditions.

As the Communications White paper notes:

“One of the cornerstones of broadcasting in the UK has been the obligation on all broadcasters to present news with due accuracy and impartiality. The Government believes that these obligations have payed a major part in ensuring wide public access to impartial and accurate information about our society and the opportunity to encounter a diverse array of voices and perspectives. They ensure that the broadcast media provide a counterweight to other, often partial, sources of news. They therefore contribute significantly to properly informed democratic debate.”

These powers contrast with those of the ABA. It has the power to take complaints on issues of fairness and privacy and make findings. But, it has no powers to enforce their findings against commercial broadcasters, other than going through the cumbersome process of making a matter into a licence conditions. Ironically, the ABA does have a power to require public broadcaster to broadcast corrections, but not commercial broadcasters.

Fourth, while the Government is deregulating the mergers and takeover powers for newspapers, it is maintaining an exceptional public interest test (EPI) on plurality. The EPI will be directed to cases that involve the public interest in the accurate presentation of news, free expression of opinion and plurality of views in the press. Where the EPI test is invoked, the Competition Commission will be expected to carry out effective tests of local opinion, for example by means of Citizens Juries.

Fifth, the laws carry very heavy obligations on broadcasters to carry regional programming. No such requirement exists in Australia, with only a first tentative move into the area with the proposed regional news licence condition recently proposed by the ABA.

Sixth, the public broadcasters provide a much more important part in British broadcasters. The Government’s White Paper restates this role, arguing that:

“First, public service broadcasting ensures that the interests of all viewers are taken into account.

Second, public service broadcasting is a counter-balance to fears about the concentration of ownership and the absence of diversity of views. It means news and current affairs are available in peak times, as part of mixed schedules, where citizens are most likely to see them. It guarantees the availability of full and balanced information about the world at local, regional and global levels. Such scheduling, together the investment which public broadcasters have put into news and current affairs, is the key foundation of an open, balanced public debate.”

It is difficult to imagine our own Government making a similar public commitment to public broadcasting here.

Indeed, as ABC Managing Director Russell Balding pointed out at the Press Club in September, the BBC receives public funding 8 to 9 times that of the ABC, even though their population is just 3 times ours, and their land mass is just 3% of ours.

Mr Balding contrasted the key role that the BBC continues to play in innovative programming and production, in the digital conversion and in regional programming, with the approach adapted in Australia, by pointing out that:

“Since 1996, the ABC has been reduced, reformed, refocused and restructured to the limit. Years of doing more with less has taken its toll – and as far as the ABC services go, we are at the limit of our comprehensiveness without additional funding.”

To put that into perspective, for the ABC to play the role in Australian media that the BBC plays in British media, would require a trebling of its current Budget. That is a Budget increase of around $1.2 billion a year.

Are we going to see that? No, of course not. Then, we need to recognise that the ABC will not be able to play the full counterweight to commercial media that the BBC does in the UK.

The British Communications White Paper picks up the mantra that this Government runs in terms of new options for news, arguing that plurality concerns may diminish as more people gain access to the range of services now available on digital TV and the internet. But it concludes:

“For the time being, however, most people continue to rely on terrestrial TV, radio and newspapers. Cross media consolidation which are desirable on economic grounds may tend to reduce the plurality of viewpoints and sources of information available.”

The paper points out that most European countries, recognising the importance of media, have some specific rules enhanced in law to prevent the dominance of various players. These measures include numerical and percentage restrictions on monomania and media-media ownership, the establishment of expert media bodies to advise competition authorities on media ownership issues, measures to promote editorial and journalistic independent and the requirement to promote media pluralism as a pre-requisite to licensing.

It is important for policy makers, when they argue that Australia should follow the UK approach to deregulating media ownership, to recognise that while the UK is looking at deregulating ownership to some degree, this is backed by a far tighter set of conditions on the responsibilities of media owners.

The Democrats believe that Australia too could benefit from a tougher regime of responsibilities on media owners in terms of the public policy considerations of what they must provide to the public. We adopted many of the British ideas in our media policy I released in September of last year.

I would certainly hope that the Government recognises that there is a strong public interest case to be made that must offset the pure economic case for consolidation of ownership.

I would hope that if our media laws are changed, with the added economic clout of new owners comes added responsibilities as well. The balance implicit in British media regulation is sadly missing in the Government’s proposed media ownership laws.

And it needs to be there if we are to get the most out of our media.

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