Regional Australia backs media reform finds a new survey

The Australian Financial Review | Dominic White | 12 October 2015

Rural and regional Australians overwhelmingly support the abolition of cross-media ownership laws it means their local news services remain viable, according to a new survey which regional broadcasters will circulate in Canberra this week.

The research was conducted by JWS Research on behalf of the regional television networks Prime Media, Southern Cross Austereo, WIN Corp and Imparja, whose bosses met with the new Communications Minister Mitch Fifield for the first time on Friday.

The CEOs will return to Canberra this week to lobby regional MPs, whose support they hope to win for the scrapping of the ownership restrictions including the reach rule, which prevents any of them from combining with a metropolitan television network.

Some 73 per cent of eligible voters in regional NSW, Victoria and Queensland back the abolition of those restrictions if it protects local news, according to the survey for the networks' Save Our Voices campaign.

Almost two-thirds of the 1200 people surveyed, via phone, said access to local news was very important to them.

Only one-third said they had knowledge on the rules governing commercial media broadcasting and ownership in Australia.

But once told that the television broadcast of their local news "might no longer exist" unless those rules change, the percentage of respondents backing change leapt from 33 per cent to 73 per cent.

"This shows that the community is with us," said John Hartigan, chairman of Prime Media. "The complexity of the areas relating to media reform are such that even a lot of people in the industry can't get their heads around it.

"So to get an audience of 1200 respondents to understand, I think it is only natural that they are going to see it through the lens of how it affects their local news. And they believe that if the laws don't change their news is threatened, so I don't think you can really hold that up to questioning."

Save Our Voices argues that the abolition of the reach rule and the two-out-of-three rule – which stops any one group owning more than two of a newspaper, commercial TV licence or radio licence in a major market – would save local news.

LOCAL NEWS UNDER THREAT

Unless the rules are scrapped, the networks say, they will be forced to continue cutting costs, with local news – which makes up 15 per cent of total costs – the only major cost they can cut.

Prime's metropolitan affiliate Seven West Media is launching an app will allow consumers to view any Seven Network program live on any device, including mobile phones and tablets, anywhere in Australia.

The regional networks say the move is further evidence that the rules are outdated.

Grant Blackley, CEO of Southern Cross, said: " There's absolutely no doubt that if the laws don't change people will come in and cannibalise our marketplace."

Seven West Media chief executive Tim Worner has described the regional broadcasters' push to media laws changed as a "scare campaign" with an ulterior motive of making their assets more attractive for takeover bidders.

Seven lobbied successfully against Malcolm Turnbull's proposals to change the laws when he was communications minister but Mr Turnbull has put reform back on the agenda since overthrowing Tony Abbott as prime minister last month.

Mr Fifield met executives from News Corporation and from Fairfax Media (which supports media reform) last week. He will meet executives from Seven West Media and News' pay television joint venture Foxtel this week, it is understood.

News and Foxtel have indicated that they would only support media reform if there is a satisfactory reduction in the anti-siphoning list of sports guaranteed for free-to-air television, something Mr Fifield has pledged to look at.

As revealed by Fairfax Media, Save Our Voices has proposed that buyer of a regional television network be required to maintain the station's local news services at existing levels, under a proposal designed to win approval from regional MPs for the abolition of cross-media ownership laws.

It is also floating the idea that any buyer of a regional network would be required to provide a minimum local news service in markets where no such requirement currently exists.

The lobby group's recommendations are designed to mollify those regional MPs who are concerned about both the diminution of local voices caused by the growth of internet viewing and the possible impact of scrapping ownership restrictions.

View the article on the Australian Financial Review.