A step forward for media reform, but a long way to go

A step forward for media reform, but a long way to go

Australia’s media law reforms took another step this week along their arduous path through federal parliament, with the strong possibility of no change to the existing pre-internet legislation until after the election later this year.

The proposed changes to reach and ownership laws were endorsed by the Coalition partyroom on Monday and introduced into the House of Representative on Wednesday, but face strong opposition in the Senate.

The two main changes scrap the two-out-of-three rule that prevents a company controlling more than two of three radio, television and newspapers in a single market, and the reach rule, which prohibits a proprietor from controlling a TV licence that reaches more than 75 per cent of the population.

Labor and the Greens have concerns over the impact of the reforms on media ownership diversity, forcing a Senate committee inquiry – a move that has the potential to delay passage of the laws until after the election if an early poll is called.

To complicate matters further, crossbench senators are hostile over government Senate voting reforms backed by the Greens and not in the mind to receive government legislation favourably – and have said as much.

The legislation, once finally through the parliament, will touch off mergers between metropolitan and regional broadcasters and will make possible consolidation between publishers and broadcasters, if the parties desire.

Communications Minister Mitch Fifield said he would not split the package to facilitate its passage and rejected suggestions the measures would reduce media diversity.  There would still be numerous television and radio stations, as well as newspapers and online platforms, he said.

“I’m particularly untroubled by people who say they’re concerned about a potential lack of diversity.”

As well as the repeal of the reach and ownership laws, the legislation also tightens local content obligations, with a new points system that will apply six months after a so-called trigger event, such as a merger or acquisition.

Instead of meeting a local content quota of 720 points over six weeks, regional broadcasters will have to meet 900 points, but with an incentive for news to be filmed in a local area.

The revised provisions followed meetings between regional broadcasters and MPs over National Party concerns.

The sport anti-siphoning regime remains unchanged in the package, despite demands by News Corp Australia and Foxtel.

Support for the reforms among publishers and broadcasters is not universal.

Prime media, South Cross Media Group and WIN Corporation back the changes, as does Fairfax Media.

“Fairfax Media strongly supports the government’s decision to update media ownership laws, making them more relevant by removing outdated and irrelevant restrictions in the legislation,” Fairfax chief executive Greg Hywood said.  “We believe the removal of these restrictions will provide substantial benefits to all Australians by strengthening local media. It also sets the platform for further media law reform in the future.”

News Corp Australia was more guarded. A spokesman for the company said: “The legislation … is a step towards media reform, but as the minister made clear, it is crucial the two elements of the package must stay together if consumers and companies are to genuinely benefit.”

Seven West Media chief executive Tim Worner said the proposed reforms did nothing to improve competitiveness or offer better services and called once again for a cut in licence fees.

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