Government prepares to move on reach rule

Australian Financial Review | Dominic White and Max Mason | 2 November 2015

The Turnbull government is poised to expedite moves to abolish the reach rule before Christmas as opposition mounts in Canberra to outdated legislation in the face of rapid technology advances.

Fairfax Media understands that the government is preparing to propose amendments to media regulation to Parliament that will include scrapping the reach rule and possibly the two-out-of-three rule.

The reach rule prevents a metropolitan television network from acquiring or merging with a regional one because it restricts network coverage to 75 per cent of the population.

The two-out of-three rule stops any one group owning more than two of a newspaper, commercial TV licence or radio licence in a large market.

It was unknown at the time of writing whether cabinet will discuss media reform when it meets on Wednesday and it remains possible new legislation could be delayed until next year.

The government only has three sitting weeks left this year to introduce legislative amendments but sources say there is considerable momentum behind a push to abolish the reach rule in particular.

Regional networks complain recent moves by metropolitan broadcasters Seven West Media and Nine Entertainment Co to stream their channels live over the web make a mockery of the rule.

That argument has gained considerable support in Canberra among regional MPs and the crossbench. Palmer United Senator Zhenya "Dio" Wang has said he is prepared to introduce his own media reform bill if he feels the government isn't doing enough to get the process moving.

LABOR'S 'RIFTS'

While the government would prefer the support of Labor before introducing any changes, Labor is said to be hamstrung by internal disagreements on media reform.

Labor recommended the abolition of the reach rule while in power but some Opposition MPs are concerned that Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation could be able to buy up more assets and strengthen its grip of local media should the two-out-of-three rule go.

Bringing the amendments to the Senate could act as a circuit breaker for the Labor party and while it is unlikely to support the measure straight away, it may refer the issue to a Senate committee where it can be openly debated.

A spokesperson for Labor said: "Labor has canvassed our concerns including the need to protect the diversity and quality of media voices in Australia.

"All that is missing is a proposal on what the Government actually wants to do. Labor is eager to constructively engage with the Government on media reform. The Shadow Minister has been consulting with industry for more than two years."

Greens Senator and communications spokesperson Scott Ludlam said that he would be open to a debate around the reach rule and how to protect media diversity in Australia. However, he said he had not heard a convincing case for removing the two-out-of-three rule.

The Save Our Voices campaign, led by regional networks Prime Media, Southern Cross Austereo, WIN Corp and Imparja, has sought to bolster support for the abolition of the reach rule by proposing that any buyer of a regional television network would be required to maintain the station's local news services at existing levels.

Communications Minister Mitch Fifield told Sky News last week, on the timing of any media reform: "I don't want to put the cart before the horse, I don't want to state a time frame, as yet. But I can indicate this is one of the issues that is at the top of my agenda. "

Southern Cross Media chairman Peter Bush said: "We would welcome any media reform because there are parts of that media legislation that today are no longer relevant minute-by-minute."

View the article on the Australian Financial Review.