The government wants to push the biggest overhaul of Australia’s media laws in a generation through parliament before the election, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield says.
Fifield on Tuesday unveiled the much-anticipated plan to substantially deregulate the media market – which the government is selling as a “microeconomic reform”.
The changes would scrap the present ban on a person controlling more than two out of three of commercial radio, TV and newspapers in one market. They would also repeal the “reach rule” – which prohibits a person controlling commercial TV licences that collectively reach more than 75% of the Australian population.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the current laws had been out of date for years.
“The media ownership regulations in our law were written before pay television. They were certainly before the internet. They are a relic of a past media economy and they have been out of date for years,” he told Parliament.
Turnbull said governments had “kicked the reform of these media ownership rules into the long grass for so long that they have formed part of the rich subsoil of Australian political inertia. We are taking them out.
“We are tackling this important microeconomic reform and we are bringing the media ownership regulations laws into the 21st century.”
Assuming the changes are passed, they will set off a rush of commercial activity. There has been speculation of Fairfax merging with Nine and News Corp taking over Channel Ten.
The changes are not touching the anti-siphoning list – the sporting events kept for free-to-air television. Fifield indicated the government did not want to go down this path without agreement, which was not there.
While the government rejects the argument the planned changes will lessen diversity, Fifield admitted some organisations and people had concerns on this front.
He said the government could direct them to its retaining the “5/4” rule – which requires a minimum of five voices in metro areas and a minimum four voices in regional areas.
Also being kept were the rules stopping anyone controlling more than one TV licence in a market, and the two-in-a-market rule for radio. As well, there was the role of the competition watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
With the abolition of the reach rule, Fifield said the government would establish stronger local content obligations for regional commercial TV.
These would apply to the majority of regional free-to-air commercial TV broadcasters that, as a result of a change in control known as a “trigger event”, become part of a group of commercial broadcasting licences whose combined licence area populations collectively exceed 75% of the Australian population.
“This ensures there is local content in nearly all regional areas following a trigger event, including those where there is none currently,” Fifield said. There would also be an incentive for local news to be filmed in the local area.
The legislation will be introduced into the House of Representatives on Wednesday and sent to an immediate Senate inquiry, which would take several weeks. While Fifield said he wants the package through before the election, this seems to presume the parliament runs full term – there would hardly be time to complete the inquiry and parliamentary debate before a double dissolution.
Fifield flagged he hoped to get Labor’s support for the changes. Labor supports the lifting of the reach rule but it is not clear where it will land on scrapping the two-out-of-three rule. Labor spokesman Jason Clare was noncommittal on Tuesday.