Media law reform: Time to end outdated media laws

The Australian Financial Review | Tim Fischer | 2 November 2015

Unless the rules restricting media ownership are lifted rural areas could be left with just the ABC as monopoly supplier of local news, and few want that.

In my long career in politics many of the most sensible and valuable public policy initiatives grew out of bipartisan support that reflected a clear public interest, that is, the interests of those who elected us.

The current push for media reform that would benefit those in regional and rural Australia by ensuring the survival of local news is the latest encouraging example.

Media reform typically occurs at glacial speed because political parties are reluctant to upset one or other of the main media proprietors. When what's good for one is opposed by another, attempts to improve the system in the interests of the people known as the audience are quietly taken out to the bottom paddock and put down. Then, when the next eruption of self-interest occurs, we start again.

UNANIMOUS SUPPORT

This time, I sense it is very different. Instead of demanding unanimous support for change before anyone lifts a finger, the Turnbull-led Coalition government has cleverly determined that what's needed is a strong, credible consensus. And that's what we have now.

As well as the four regional broadcasters – Prime, WIN, Southern Cross Austereo and Imparja – Nine Entertainment Co, which owns regional NSW broadcaster NBN Television, and Fairfax Media which has a network of regional newspapers, support the repeal of the "reach" rule and the "two out of three" rule, both of which padlock regional media to a barbed-wire fence of regulation that doesn't apply to any other media.

Among those who represent people in regional and rural Australia, MPs and Senators on all sides have realised that the public policy merits of change are not just compelling, but in urgent need of implementation.

This is why we are now witnessing a broad church of politicians from Liberal, National, Labor and independent parties, including crossbench Senators, coming together and speaking about the need to protect and preserve local media for local audiences in areas that need those services the most.

Without a vibrant commercial broadcasting sector in our regions, there would be no other provider of genuinely local news and current affairs. That would leave the ABC in an age of unparalleled media diversity, assuming a strange and unhealthy monopoly outside our capital cities, and with no commercial imperative to serve a local audience.

POINT OF DIFFERENCE

While the ABC is highly regarded in regional Australia, the fact is that more people watch and listen to commercial regional television and radio. And, the commercial broadcasters offer something Aunty can't; different perspectives on news and current affairs and millions of dollars in free air time for community groups whose issues and campaigns warrant public attention. Then, of course there are the thousands of jobs, and the fact that commercial media provides a low cost way of local businesses reaching their customers in a highly targeted and cost effective way.

The most recent major poll of 1200 people in regional and rural areas show that this audience understands that local news is at risk because the internet has made regional broadcasters sitting ducks as major media outlets stream the same content over the top of them direct to anyone with a smartphone or a tablet.

More than 80 per cent of those polled confirmed the important role local news pays in covering local issues and events, keeping local people informed and fostering strong local communities who are engaged with and want to influence how they are governed. Crucially, more than 80 per cent support changes to media rules that would allow regional broadcasters to continue to provide local news services.

I am confident the opposition and the Parliament as a whole understand that the old rules have to go provided that there are new rules that will ensure local content levels are maintained, something the regional broadcasters not only support, but are advocating.

Tim Fischer AC, is a former deputy prime minister and leader of the Nationals.

View the article on the Australian Financial Review