Regional MPs intensify media reform campaign

The Australian Financial Review | Dominic White | August 24 2015

Support is growing among regional MPs for the government to abolish cross-media ownership laws, adding pressure on the Prime Minister Tony Abbott to consider the move despite opposition from billionaire moguls Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Stokes.

Rural and regional members have turned more vociferous in the wake of Seven West Media's decision last week to start streaming its broadcast content to mobile devices anywhere in Australia over broadband or mobile networks.

Several MPs told Fairfax Media that the metropolitan network's move proved that the so-called "reach rule", which prevents any broadcaster from transmitting to more than 75 per cent of the population over a television network, is defunct.

Dean Smith, Senator for Western Australia, told Fairfax Media: "The decision by Seven to stream its content is a scenario regional media operators have been talking about for some time. People didn't believe them and now they have proven to be correct … The status quo scenario is clearly not standing up to greater scrutiny."

Senator Smith added: "It is beholden on regional MPs to give this issue some focus and for them to voice their point of view."

Seven, whose largest shareholder is Mr Stokes, has lobbied for the reach rule to remain. It says that those regional networks lobbying for its removal simply want to get bought out, rather than protect local news services, as they claim. Seven has launched counter-advertisements attacking the regionals' campaign.

Mr Murdoch's News Corp would only back change if its pay-TV venture Foxtel can get more exclusive sports rights.

Regional networks Prime Media, Southern Cross and WIN Corp intensified lobbying efforts in Canberra last week, claiming Seven's launch of its PLUS7! live streaming app was "an insult to this government".

Their calls for the abolition of the reach rule and the "two-out-of-three rule" – which prevents a single entity owning more than two of a newspaper, TV station and radio licence in the same market – are gaining ground with a significant number of MPs.

Nationals member for Riverina, Michael McCormack, the former editor of The Daily Advertiser in Wagga Wagga, said: "Something does need to be done. When the now-outdated laws were written it was a vastly different media landscape. Local newspapers, television and radio stations were king in regional areas.

"People now get their media on iPads and iPhones and the younger generation no longer rely on papers as their number one source for news or religiously watch the nightly 6 o'clock news bulletin. We need strong traditional media and it seems we can only do that with legislation … if they are broadcasting into regional areas they need to have local content responsibilities."

Liberals NSW Senator John Williams said: "The way I see it a few years ago the [regional networks] wanted the reach rule to remain, now they want it changed. My position is that I will go with whatever they want because they know the industry better than politicians do. If they think it's better for sustainable regional networks I will back them, anything to keep the regional broadcasters going."

Catherine McGowan, independent MP for the rural Victorian seat of Indi, said: "I am totally supportive of what the regional networks are doing but we also need to look at it in the context of what the future holds … the government says it wants consensus [between media moguls] before it makes changes, we are saying 'what has consensus got to do with a national approach to broadcasting?' "

Ms McGowan added: "The media rules haven't been revised since the last century. The whole media scene in regional and rural Australia has absolutely changed and we need to take a serious look at what the future is going to hold."

 View the article on The Australian Financial Review.