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Early Convergence Commitments and More On the Way

On Friday Communications Minister Stephen Conroy released the first elements of the Gillard Government’s response to the Convergence Review. The review was set up by the Labor Government in order to respond to the changing media environment which has seen the introduction, within the last two decades, of digital media sources.

Initial policy responses include a decision not to allow a fourth free-to-air commercial television network and the extension of the broadcasting licence fee rebate which will eventually lead to a permanent reduction in fees levied. Further, Senator Conroy also announced that the ‘75% rule’ would face the parliament. And finally, the minister announced a change to local content rules.

The Gillard Government has decided that a fourth free-to-air commercial television broadcaster will not be sought by the government, at least in the short-term. However, the possibility of a sixth broadcaster has not been ruled out completely.

In the meantime, community television will be allowed to broadcast on the spectrum not made available for a fourth network until at least the end of 2014. This means two more years of without the prospect of another television station.

In terms of certainty for existing networks, this decision is positive. It means market share will not be as hard to maintain as it would be in the event of another competitor in the field.  But at the same time it is a loss for competition.

Existing television stations have been granted another reprieve by the Minister for Communications. Their broadcast licence rebate will be extended for one more year. After that 12 month period has passed, licence fees will drop to just 4.5% of revenue, a 50% decrease.

This move can only be seen as a positive, decreasing the costs associated with operating a television network.

Perhaps the greatest outcome, at least in theory, is Senator Conroy’s announcement that he would seek parliamentary approval for the removal of the ’75 percent rule’. This rule dictates that no one person can control broadcast interests which have an audience reach of more than 75% of the population of Australia.

The change will have to make it through parliament, but that would seem a fait accompli, with the Liberal and National Party coalition unlikely to block such a move by the Labor Party. The Greens will probably voice their opposition to the plain, but it will likely come to nothing.

Where the move on the 75 percent rule moves from great in theory, to very ordinary in practice is that it will be tied to local content provisions in regional areas. No business should have government effectively making major business decisions for them.

For this reason too, increasing local content obligations across the broader television media landscape is also a poor decision on the part of the ALP.

The primary channels of the TV networks will see their content obligations remain the same. They will be expected to broadcast 55% local content, a requirement imposed by the former Howard Government in 2005.

Under the new plans too, commercial television multi-channel broadcasters will have to show 730 hours of local content in 2013. In 2014 this will increase to 1095 hours. For 2015, the target will be 1460 hours of local content.

The new rules will provide what has been termed an incentive. If a network shows first-release drama on a digital multi-channel, then that hour of broadcast will actually count for two hours under the new obligations.

The so-called ‘incentive’ is silly and should not be used to sugarcoat what is a silly idea from government.

Television networks must be allowed full control of content and therefore their individual branding. All content should compete for transmission on a level playing field. Media companies will not always make good decisions, but to say that governments can make good business decisions for broadcast media companies, which they are actually doing through content requirements, is an exercise in fantasy.

There are more changes to the media landscape flagged for 2013. How much more control of the media will the government seek in 2013?

Free Speech Monday in Australian Politics

Monday, after the early morning victory by Jamaican runner Usain Bolt and aside from the other action that has been and has continued to occur in England has been pretty much all about freedom of speech. The discussion about free speech today arose from a speech that Tony Abbott made to the right-wing think-tank, the Institute of Public Affairs. The Opposition Leader’s speech took on the topic of free speech from two separate, but linked directions.

In one instance it was about regulation of the media in general as far as government plans post-Finkelstein and Convergence Review. Those changes proposed in both inquiries would seek to place unwanted and unnecessary restrictions on our media in the future, stifling their ability to provide fearless criticism of dreadful governments of both political persuasions.

The second front in which freedom of speech was tackled was in relation to the recent Andrew Bolt racial villification case and the appropriateness or otherwise of having a Racial Discrimination Act with a very loose definition of wrongdoing. Section 18C of the Act was singled out for treatment. The broader narrative of the talk on free speech was also applied to the case of Andrew Bolt.

Among the proposals advocated for in the recent Finkelstein and Convergence Review’s are a News Media Council which would be a new regulatory body to oversee media outlets and an ownership test.

By far the most worrying recommendation and one that is reportedly being seriously considered is a public interest test on media stories. This would be an horrific encroachment of the government into regulating what kinds of stories a particular news outlet would be able to report on. No government should be able to determine what is news or otherwise, whether that be by direct government oversight or by legislation with an intent to limit the content journalists can put out. Access to a wide array of information from a variety of sources is extremely important.

As for a new regulatory body, well that too is problematic. Surely any new organisation proposed to oversee the media would have much more beefed up powers to punish certain perceived wrongs. This again is not a sensible move in seeking to make it difficult for a robust and diverse media to be frank and fearless in their reporting and commentary on particularly thorny issues.

An ownership test is just ridiculous. Anyone, from any background should be free to engage in journalism or commentary and equally should be freely available to criticism from others. Everyone should be free to take the entrepreneurial risk involved in establishing a news media company across all forms of communication. No government too should have the power to ever be able to say who can or cannot involve themselves in journalism and commentary because they might not be liked by that particular government for some reason or other.

But now to that more controversial aspect of Mr Abbott’s speech today and that was his announcement that an incoming Coalition Government would seek to repeal s18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

This section of the Racial Discrimination Act deals with behaviour which is deemed to have offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated someone based on their race, colour or national or ethnic origin.

This is likely to be an uncomfortable move for many with the Act in one way or another, despite the suspension of it during the Northern Territory intervention, having some level of bipartisan support or at least a political unwillingness of either side to touch it. That is until now.

But Mr Abbott did not advocate for there to be no law in the area of racial discrimination. Indeed he went on to say in his speech to the IPA that “any prohibitions on inciting hatred against or intimidation of particular racial groups should be akin to the ancient common law offences of incitement and causing fear.”

In advocating this stance the Opposition Leader did not say or imply that Andrew Bolt in writing the offending column he penned was right with what he said. Indeed Tony Abbott acknowledged that it was “almost certainly not his finest” and he also admitted “there may have been some factual errors.” Well it’s not a case of there possibly being factual errors in Bolt’s writing, there was, but as Mr Abbott has pointed out on numerous occasions, that is not the point.

Indeed with the Bolt case, you’ll find a number of people born early in the 20th century, even since then that have the wrong impression on various aspects of the indigenous issue, but should they all be subject to court action for holding fallacious views? No. Should they be corrected upon making such silly uninformed claims? Certainly, yes.

Just as someone should be free to say what they truly feel, providing it doesn’t incite hatred or cause fear, people who disagree with something should feel able to absolutely slam and demolish something which they disagree with and believe may have serious factual errors. Politics is about competing ideas. This is also something that the leader of the Opposition acknowledged.

Just as there is a case for only offences relating to incitement and causing fear, there is also a case for a much higher threshold test than the completely subjective one that exists under s18C of the current Racial Discrimination Act. This would be sensible middle ground whilst still allowing people to seek remedy within reason. Indeed it would be quite similar to the Abbott proposal today.

The most important thing is that our rights are at the very least not limited to unreasonable extremes and at absolute best, our freedom of speech is fully guaranteed save for when it causes incitement and fear.

That was free speech Monday.

Foreign Investment and the Coalition With the National Party

Foreign investment has been in the media a lot recently. Increased talk about foreign investment as part of the Australian political discourse has amped up over the last few years in particular with reports of particularly Chinese-based companies buying up farmland, chiefly across New South Wales. It’s prompted raised concerns from some in Australian politics. The interesting thing is that most of the questioning of foreign investment in Australia, again mostly in relation to farmland has come from the conservative side of politics. What is not so surprising  is that most of the scepticism around foreigners buying up and investing in our country from the right side of politics has come from the National Party, the party traditionally of the farmers.

But what is very interesting about this and different from previous times is the willingness of the National Party’s major coalition partner, the Liberal Party to indulge the National’s in the debate with a proposal to examine more deeply, at a lower threshold, more of the proposed investments of companies from outside of Australia.

There’s been much mixed messaging from the Coalition, from National Party Senator Barnaby Joyce openly questioning the appropriateness of too much foreign investment at any opportunity, to Tony Abbott in China appearing to talk down to China about their investing in Australia whilst overseas as a guest in their country. Then just in the last week or so we had Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott both talking down the prospects of a change in foreign investment rules and scrutiny by the Foreign Investment Review Board.

Then today, flanked by Joe Hockey and Leader of the Nationals, Warren Truss, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott announced a discussion paper which flags a lowering of the purchase price of agricultural land and businesses at which the Foreign Investment Review Board will examine purchases.

The paper proposes that the FIRB look at purchases of agricultural land valued at over $15 million dollars and purchases by foreign companies of agriculture businesses valued at $53 million. This is way down from the current threshold at which injections of funds of $214 million and over are examined by the review board.

The change in policy has copped criticism from both sides of politics, with the ALP jumping at the chance to have a dig at the party of the free market for wanting to lower the scrutiny threshold.

But there’s also been criticism from their own side of politics, with not just conflicting words in the lead-up to today’s decision from Liberal and National Party politicians, but also from former Coalition MP Peter Reith who launched an attack on Twitter today. Mr Reith in comments today on social media said that the move was “crazy, stupid politics.”

Reith also said that the decision “is just a quick fix to satisfy the Nats, but which will come back to bite the national interest”. Peter Reith, in saying this is not far from the truth, perhaps even spot on with his comments.

The Nationals, in an incoming Coalition Government, which now appears a certainty, would have much higher influence within the joint party-room than they do at present in the current parliament. So this announcement today can easily be seen as a move to placate the National Party ahead of the next election. Tony Abbott and the Opposition leadership undoubtedly realise there will be much more competition of ideas and much more competitive and vigorous debate from two contradictory standpoints within the Coalition caucus.

But what about the decision itself and what Tony Abbott says it will mean for the future of foreign investment in Australia?

Well, for his part Mr Abbott says he wants to “make it absolutely crystal clear that the Coalition unambiguously supports foreign investment in Australia.” Further, he says “we need it, we want it, it is essential for our continued national prosperity.” He also said, “what’s very important though is that the public have confidence that the foreign investment we need and want is in Australia’s national interest.”

Well, it seems pretty ambiguous the level of support there is on one side of the Coalition for further foreign investment in Australia. The Liberal Party are undoubtedly all for it, with the current level of examination likely deemed more than sufficient, perhaps too much for a number in the Liberal and National Party room. But the National Party, particularly given the words of its loudest member, Senator Barnaby Joyce, is certainly far from sure about people from overseas investing in Australia.

The Coalition for its part says that the move is all about increased “scrutiny” of foreign investment decisions as they relate to agricultural land. But this standpoint, is actually to be taken as read and believed, has unintended consequences at best.

If it’s just about a ramped up level of scrutiny in foreign investment and every investment decision that applies to this lower threshold is given the tick of approval, then there’s just unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape for inevitable decisions.

But more likely, with the same “national interest” test applying, albeit at a lower monetary level, then smaller purchase decisions, much smaller ones in fact, will be denied if the national interest test requirements are not met.

Could this and other recent decisions and thought bubbles or proposals of a similar protectionist nature be a sign of things to come?

Why Oh Why a Media Inquiry?

As you may well be aware, the Independent Inquiry into Media and Media Regulation chaired by Ray Finkelstein QC and supported by Doctor Matthew Ricketson begins hearings tomorrow in Melbourne. The inquiry will chiefly look into the issue of ownership and privacy, in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal in the United Kingdom. However, there is also the scope for the inquiry to look into the issue of content, particularly as it applies in relation to the regulations of the Australian Press Council. The question becomes: Is all this inquiry necessary in Australia?Approximately 70% of the Australian print media is said to be controlled by one media outlet, News Limited, owned by Rupert Murdoch, for some raising the question: Should there be more balanced ownership of the media in Australia?

The answer to this question is quite simple and lies embedded in the ideology of choice. In other words, any company, large or small are welcome to seek capital and enter the newspaper market. There are no stumbling blocks to entry in the market for print media, nor should there be. Any individual or company should and must have the opportunity and choice in a free society to print a newspaper.

In response to this fact about ownership percentage, a quota must not and should never be the answer. Freedom of speech and opinion and free market ideology should prevail when it comes to the ‘Fourth Estate’. A quota would mean an artificial cut-back in already existing business for existing outlets. The market should have the ability to decide what share any individual outlet has. A quota would in some way stifle the individual’s right to what he or she produces and/or reads.

There is also in Australia a contest between what should be labelled ‘news’ and ‘opinion’ from all media outlets, print and otherwise. It would be ideal if ‘news’ and ‘opinion’ were made more distinct in any individual newspaper. This is perhaps the only area of media in which stronger regulation is required, as long as it does not put the media on the ‘slippery slope’ where newspapers do not feel able have an opinion of their own. Surely there is nothing wrong with different op-ed’s in a free press stating a clearly distinguished from fact and opinion?

The next thing to say is that newspapers follow public opinion in regards to the opinions they express in their writing. Media outlets like all businesses are appealing to a specific market which has been pre-identified. It really is that simple, if there was not a market for a certain angle in opinion pieces then respective leadership levels would not exist.

The media inquiry will begin in earnest tomorrow with public hearings commencing in Melbourne and it will be interesting to see as the inquiry begins to progress and then goes beyond recommendations, just how much the media landscape will evolve. At the moment it looks as if we may be headed towards broader and greater regulation of our reporting institutions. The answer to my initial question is self-evident, much of what I argue can be achieved without the need for a media inquiry as it requires little or no government action, but the blinkers are on.

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