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Why new media reforms are bad news for Australian content

Two of the government’s six media reform bills passed in the House of Representatives with multi-party support on Tuesday night. While most attention and debate has focused on the regulation of the news…

Should there really be “sympathy” for the free-to-air networks as their protected oligopoly crumbles in the face of competing platforms and services?

Two of the government’s six media reform bills passed in the House of Representatives with multi-party support on Tuesday night. While most attention and debate has focused on the regulation of the news media and ownership, the changes approved on Tuesday are both significant and far-reaching.

In essence, the two bills shore up the privileged position that commercial free-to-air television networks have long held in the media landscape. At the same time, they will weaken the quid pro quo that has been at the heart of broadcasting regulation for decades. And they will be particularly bad news for Australian content, for producers, and for audiences.

The passage of the Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill 2013 and the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Convergence Review and Other Measures) Bill 2013 through the lower house represent a major victory for the television networks. Despite the public ambivalence of their bosses in parliamentary hearings earlier this week towards the prospect of permanent licence fee reductions and new Australian content requirements, privately they will be delighted.

The Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill will make permanent the 50% “temporary” reduction they have enjoyed for the last two years, following an initial a 33% reduction granted by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy in 2010. The fees will be capped at a maximum of 4.5% of gross earnings. This was the least controversial of any of the Government’s six media reform bills. Both Government and Opposition MPs expressed “sympathy” for the free-to-air networks as their protected oligopoly crumbles in the face of competing platforms and services. Reducing the far from onerous licence fees – which will result in a saving to the free-to-airs of around $140 million per year, with no strings attached – was, it seems, the least the Parliament could do in their hour of need.

In addition to this gift, the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Convergence Review and Other Measures) Bill 2013 will kill the prospect of further competition in free-to-air television. Under the Bill, no additional commercial television licences will be made available, meaning that there is now no prospect of a fourth commercial television network.

This Bill also grants the free-to-air networks greater flexibility in the acquittal of their Australian content requirements. The 55% Australian content transmission quota on the free-to-airs’ main channels is now elevated from a regulatory instrument made by the Australian Communications and Media Authority into primary legislation for the first time. And for the first time the networks will also be required to meet Australian content quotas on their digital multi-channels. Between 6am and midnight, each licensee must broadcast on their multi-channels a minimum of 730 hours of Australian programs in 2013, rising to 1095 in 2014, and 1460 in 2015 and each year thereafter. There is nothing to stop commercial networks meeting these quotas by screening re-runs of old programs.

The proposed new legislation also affects the sub-quotas for first-run drama, documentary and children’s programming. The Commercial broadcasters can now meet these obligations by screening these programs on either their main or multi-channels. However, the proposed legislation may actually reduce the amount of Australian content; should the networks choose to screen first-run Australian content on the multi-channels, each hour of new programming will count as two under the quota.

The Convergence Review proposed to balance “flexibility” for the free-to-air networks with increases to the sub-quotas, new requirements for subscription TV and for the public broadcasters, and increased tax credits for producers. The proposed legislation includes none of these.

The proposals will also likely place downward pressure on the amount that the broadcasters are prepared to pay for Australian content. As the Ten Network’s CEO Hamish McLennan admitted in the Senate committee hearing on Monday, the free-to-airs already pay less for content on the multi-channels than on their main channels because of the lower audience numbers and lower advertising revenues. Should commercial broadcasters choose to screen first-run Australian programs on their multi-channels, it is highly likely that they will seek to pay less for them.

All in all, while these proposals are good news for the free-to-airs, they are bad news for producers of Australian content, and for audiences.

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38 Comments sorted by

  1. none at all

    none

    Surely the use of the word "reform" is a political opinion, rather than an objective description. One definition of "reform" is "A policy institute promoting new directions for public policy based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, and individual liberty", which would hardly apply, although the proposals might squeeze into other definitions.
    Perhaps the proposed changes might be better termed "laws, regulations, restrictions, changes etc.". English is a marvellous language, full of shades of meaning.

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    1. Corinne Cowper

      general layabout

      In reply to none at all

      I agree with you, Bob. The use of the word 'reform' is freely applied to any new piece of legislation being proposed by this government. It will be interesting to see whether the use of this word spreads to other parts of the political spectrum.

      Perhaps we should be pushing back in our conversations about new legislation, regulations, etc by insisting they be called by their correct name.

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    2. Ben Goldsmith

      Senior Research Fellow at Queensland University of Technology

      In reply to Corinne Cowper

      Dear Corinne, Laurie and Bob,

      Thank you all for your comments. I am intrigued by your opposition to the word 'reform' in the headline of my article. As I understand it, the proposed changes will substantially re-form the media in Australia. That is they will make significant and extensive changes to regulation, to legislation, and to the operation of the media. I must say that I had not thought this controversial, but thanks for alerting me to the nuances of the term.

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    3. none at all

      none

      In reply to Ben Goldsmith

      I don't oppose the term "reform", but its use does imply that the user approves of the changes to which it refers. I also didn't intend to criticise you alone, but I'm a bit concerned that its used too often for political spin.
      I should have added that I enjoyed reading your informative article. It can be dangerous sticking your neck out these days (and more so, if Gillard and Conroy succeed). Thank you for your effort.

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  2. Laurie Strachan

    Writer/photgrapher

    I agree with Bob Buick that the word "reforms" is bandied about in a meaningless fashion. Why not use the neutral word "changes"?
    However the elephant in the room, unnoticed it would appear by all the legislators and broadcasters is the amount of advertising on commercial screens. Nine tried to air the quality British drama Parade's End the other night but it was so obviously ruined by the ugly, clashing ads pushed into it (and I was watching it in a recording with the ads fast-forwarded!) that even they noticed it and moved it to their secondary channel.
    Ad time used to be regulated then it was decided, surprise, surprise, to let The Market decide how much it would tolerate. The result is that anything of quality is destroyed. But hey! never mind the quality, feel the money.

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  3. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    This Author is a complete Asshat speaking on behalf of the corporate media machine, it reminds me of the music industry claiming that if people dont pay for music they wont be able to distribute music anymore as a business and then asking

    "Do you want to kill music" - hint, musicians dont make music for money, they will continue to make music regardless of the profit involved - see any live music scene

    The same can be said for media, we will still have Australian media and Australian content, any claims to the contrary are misguided and dishonest

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    1. Ben Goldsmith

      Senior Research Fellow at Queensland University of Technology

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Dear Michael,
      Thanks for your comment. Could you please expand, with evidence, on how exactly I am 'speaking on behalf of the corporate media machine'?

      Making a reasoned, detailed argument about how proposed media reforms - meaning the act of changing legislation, institutions etc - will negatively impact on the amount of Australian content on television is hardly akin to making apocalyptic claims. Please point me to the exact sentence in my article in which I make the claim you imply?

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    2. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Ben Goldsmith

      First of all, I apologise for calling you names, that was childish of me. thank you for the response, especially to a comment like mine, it speaks well of your character.

      So the title of this peice is "Why new media reforms are bad news for Australian content", it focuses on how new media laws will affect competition

      "the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Convergence Review and Other Measures) Bill 2013 will kill the prospect of further competition in free-to-air television"

      The implication…

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    3. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to Ben Goldsmith

      Ben,
      There is a class of blogger on this site which is larger than on most sites I visit. The technique of this class is to armchair snipe at the author for making points that the blogger has altered into straw men. You will find it hard to get a straight answer to a straight question.
      The worry is that our educated elite do this and probably teach this whether conscious or partly so, as shown by example here. You therefore have to assume that younger readers have a different approach to analysis of social affairs thanks to this undisciplined approach.

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    4. Alex Njoo

      Architect/academic (ret.)

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Well said. the idea that we have a free and competitive society is just as ludicrous as Melbourne being declared as the world's most "liveable" (sic) city.
      Murdoch, Rinehart et al involvement in media power struggle is more toxic to our (so-called) "media diversity" (sic) than the government's media "reform" bills. And yet, the majority of the voting population are blindly led to throw scorn at a democratically elected government, oblivious of the fact that they are being snared in a web of media lies and political opportunism.
      The tragedy is that it has the support of the 'intelligentia'.
      I can't help thinking that it reminds me of a particular place in Western Europe in the 30s.

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    5. Ben Goldsmith

      Senior Research Fellow at Queensland University of Technology

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Dear Michael,
      Thanks for your comment.

      I'm not quite sure what you want me to reply to.

      I understand that you don't believe competition to be a good thing. I'm not sure how you can surmise from my article what my view is on that, or even whether it matters.

      It is a fact that there is competition (albeit a limited oligopoly) in free to air television. It is a fact that there will be no fourth network. It is therefore a fact that there will be no further competition, beyond what currently…

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    6. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Ben Goldsmith

      Thank you for that, I will look up the links.

      "It is a fact that there will be no fourth network. It is therefore a fact that there will be no further competition, beyond what currently exists." - given that there is no real competition anyway, im not sure adding a 4th or even 5th channel would do and you did imply knowingly or not in your article that competition is good by framing it as "Media reforms restrict competition" and then go on to explain that this is a problem.

      Its either an attempt to create plausible deniability or very poor writing, I realise both of those are not flattering but Im not buying your claim that you didnt present competition in a positive light and then criticise the media reforms for restricting this competition

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    7. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Ben Goldsmith

      Also, I wasnt aware that we are trying to protect the current industry just for the sake of it - are the ones making a living off it now not also the precious few? I love the rich and privilaged in society, they are always such hypocrites

      "Yes, anyone can make a video and put it on YouTube, but precious few are earning a living from doing so, in contrast to those working to make content for television."

      Why should we create media? it should be driven by a passion to educate or entertain from creative individuals trying to make a positive difference - its like when the music industry cry that without them we wouldnt have music.....cos musicians would jst stop altogether right?

      if money is your only reason then why do we care whether you continue to make money or not, like the music industry, the current media industry can fade into irrelevance

      Dinosuars will Die

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  4. William Cranston

    logged in via email @iinet.net.au

    The headline is a bit misleading, I think. As the article talks about a specific aspect of the package - the commercial broadcasting arrangements and the separate move to lock in the discount on spectrum - rather than the general. So the all-inclusive term "reforms" is not right and gives the impression that there is a general problem with the reforms which affects content. This is rather problematic given the hysterical coverage about the PIMA status-revocation mechanism which has been dishonestly equated with everything from direct regulation, intervention and censorship by large segments of the media.

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  5. margaret m

    old lady

    Media change not good for Australian Content. NO MEDIA CHANGE not good for Australian or it's Australian content.

    We are reading how the accused big media to tell us how innocent they are how victimised do I believe them no.

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    1. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to margaret m

      Margaret Moir,
      Have you ever contemplated the possibility that one day, you as an individual, would like to start a newspaper. There are routine paths to follow, by getting capital, staff, demographics, advertising and so on.
      One of the items missing from the list should always be permission by any government. That is a basic principle of private enterprise. Newspapers have no singular properties that require government intervention, apart from that to which all companies are subject, like the thousands of pages of the taxation act.
      Now, after drawing a mental picture of your new venture as it climbs to success, how much of what you have written would you like to have imposed on YOU?
      The problem with imposts is that sooner or later others run out of ideas on how to increase their burdens on you. You tend to end up with a hodge-podge of every not-so-bright idea.

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    2. Alex Njoo

      Architect/academic (ret.)

      In reply to Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      News Lt., stable mate of News of the World, complains about intrusion of constitutional rights?
      What is toxic is the culture that is embedded in that organisation, world-wide, not the government's "media reforms".
      What is anathema to democracy is News Ltd.'s dominance of the political landscape of Australia. The same media conglomerate that, together with the Opposition, is - prematurely - celebrating this Labor government's wake.

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    3. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to Alex Njoo

      Alex, Why don't you exercise your fee choice, stop reading newspapers and stop the whinges?

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    4. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      You must know that the Newspapers are not run to be sold, they are run as an exercise in propaghanda

      If you plaster the message "Government is coming for your guns" everywhere - eventually people start believing it

      -did you hear that they are coming for our guns?
      - Yeah, I saw that in the paper when I was buying the milk
      -did you pick up a copy?
      - Nah, i might on the way home

      Tomorrow
      -Wow everyone at work is talking about how the Gov are coming for our guns, maybe there is something…

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    5. Alex Njoo

      Architect/academic (ret.)

      In reply to Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss? Hugo or Kelsey Grammer's portrayal of an egomaniacal Chicago Mayor? Is it nurture or culture?
      A media conglomerate that's salivating at the prospect of a Labor defeat, an Opposition devoid of ideas/policy and an electoral base consisting mainly of the Sherringtons of this world, no wonder the rest of the country is 'whinging'.

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  6. margaret m

    old lady

    Geoffrey Harold Sherrington The whole reason this issue has come about. The media landscape has changed time to update the rules. We all have rules shock we all pay taxes some of us even pay a tax accountant to ensure we get it right. All have a right to make a reasonable profit whether business or worker. A good community works with guidelines, rules, laws etc etc we all have to contribute, comply to make it a great place to live.

    The British example we do not hear a lot about it but it is a wakeup call we need to ensure that we do not have a powerful media or those who can use that power consider they have the right to make or break an elected government here in Australia.

    I cannot understand why any person no matter what political leanings they have would disagree with the need to modernise the rules re media.

    Labor and Liberal governments have relaxed the laws that ensured a diversity of ownership of media in this country. time to take stock.

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    1. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to margaret m

      Margaret, I cannot comprehend the mind workings of people who wish more imposts upon themselves. If you have a worry about regulation, you should be working to remove that worry by removing the regulation. I think you'd end up doing that if you did set up your own publication and experienced the joys of regulation and intervention at first hand.

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  7. margaret m

    old lady

    Geoff Sherrington Imposts that is the result of living in an ordered just equitable society to prevent abuse, disorder to etc etc the foundations laws and rules that make our nation great.
    We all have a responsibility we are not petulant children we are adults and not naive although I do wonder about some.

    Power can corrupt power can be abused. The media issue is to address the concentration of power in the hands of the few that is a fact. I believe there is ample evidence to show that this media landscape is ovedue for a concerted analysis as to its commitment to it's code of practice as well.

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    1. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to margaret m

      Margaret,
      The great corporations of the US nation building era, the railroads, the electricity supplies, the newspapers - were formed in a scarcely regulated environment until anti-trust laws were introduced through the politics of envy.
      I wonder how many people today would try to emulate individuals like the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Fords, Edisons, Morgans, Carnegies ..... My guess is that they would look at the over regulation of today and walk away, thus leaving us all poorer for the brilliance of their minds. Sure, there are exceptions like Bill Gates, but I really do wonder how deeply regulation retards.
      Very little of the regulation that I coped with for decades, at the interface of Government and large business, was needed or useful. Its main purpose today seems to be expand public sector figures for national employment, a (misleading) sign of prosperity.

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  8. margaret m

    old lady

    I do take the point made about Australian content that is important for our own society and values I am appalled at the American trash that is run on a revolving door, paid television model. I am sure there are great American programs but assume that would impact the profit line. They all seem to get the source of news from the same location nothing different another reason we do not need more station. may have more money for Australian productions too.
    WE do not need more channels the current ones practice including our ABC that revolving door programming style. The news is recycled every I think on the hour or is it hour and a half.
    Waste of resources and money.
    e.

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  9. margaret m

    old lady

    Comment to Alex Ngoo
    Boss? Hugo or Kelsey Grammer's portrayal of an egomaniacal Chicago Mayor? Is it nurture or culture?
    A media conglomerate that's salivating at the prospect of a Labor defeat, an Opposition devoid of ideas/policy and an electoral base consisting mainly of the Sherringtons of this world, no wonder the rest of the country is 'whinging

    Those persons would not be whinging if we had a less concentrated media ownership and a stringent penalty for manipulating the truth. Just remember Alex Ngoo lets not throw all comments out eg with the bath water that person everyone has a perspective and opinion and we are lucky at least to harass each other with the opportunity to put forward our views and may be be challenged informed and possibly do the same for others.
    Our demand is for content truth, not headline manipulation, Suggestion look up the definition of a workplace bully very interesting I wonder who would be brought to mind when you read it????

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    1. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to margaret m

      When I read 'workplace bully' I read smart meter rollout, pink batts, fuel levies, some compulsory insurance, subsidies for shonky electricity schemes, the NBN rollout, etc. A common feature is that prices rise for the man in the street with no negotiation beforehand; and contempt for the law of contract through what I call the 'God clause' that reads like 'By accepting these rules you agree to let us change whatever we bloody well like at any time without even the courtesy to inform you of impending change'

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  10. none at all

    none

    The place of the Press needs to be seen in the overall perspective. I was taught in Intermediate School (Grades 7 and 8) civics classes that we have three functions (or levels) of government - the Legislative, the Administrative and the Judicial, with the Fourth Estate serving as an unfettered common communication medium, encouraged and regulated by freedom of speech on one hand and laws against slander etc. on the other. Of course, times have changed and the Fourth Estate now includes radio, TV…

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    1. margaret m

      old lady

      In reply to none at all

      Bob Buick you are retired and you were taught when? do you really think the past generations journalist and media compare to the media & journalists today?

      I think old time bias is so ingrained that it is hard to look at any issue clearly it takes hard work.
      Too many are content to make thier decisions on headlines without really reading all that is presented too many refuse to really listen to anything but their own side far too many are unable to give a respect for govenments local, state…

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    2. none at all

      none

      In reply to margaret m

      Margaret, Your comments leave me quite confused as to your exact meaning. Please don't take that personally, as the quality of both spoken and written English has deteriorated considerably since my school-days - both in expression and in comprehension - and that applies to professional writers, as well as amateurs like you and me.
      Please forgive me if I'm wrong, but I understand that you denigrate the past and its education system, which is a common characteristic of the political Left. However…

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    3. Alex Njoo

      Architect/academic (ret.)

      In reply to none at all

      Although your middle-class, conservative/private education hem is showing, I agree with your sentiment. Indeed, the world will be a better place if we all can articulate our thoughts in a comprehensible manner.

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    4. margaret m

      old lady

      In reply to none at all

      No I do not denigrate education of the past far from it. Don't apologies I have this talent if you could call it that for creating a little confusion sorry. Both my brother and sister in lawer well respected high school teachers my brother was the studious one not me both have long retired. I do like the sound of your teachers and what they taught. and sorry again I was not talking about physical work I was talking about battling to exclude your own bias when you are trying to understand an issue or when confronted with someone with a differing view. I am sure if I had your education I definately would have not confused you or the issue and like my very clever older brother would have been far more successful but having said the I am not complaining. I must admit I normally have to rewrite any comments but occassionally I am on my soap box and forget. God bless have a great day Marg
      I haven't check spelling grammar too tired grandchildren exhausted me this morning.

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    5. margaret m

      old lady

      In reply to margaret m

      Bob Buick I didn't check the spelling don't forget when you read my reply.

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    6. none at all

      none

      In reply to Alex Njoo

      Alex Njoo,
      My parents were poor, but managed to raise three sons through the public system, all at least to post-graduate level - but it wasn't in Australia. They were small-l liberals in outlook and were swinging voters, as were my teachers. We all began with paper rounds and worked during our school and university vacations. I boosted my scholarship at medical school by playing jazz piano three nights a week.
      Conservative/private my arse!

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    7. none at all

      none

      In reply to margaret m

      Margaret Moir,
      It wasn't just the spelling, but please don't take offence. I simply wanted to illustrate the fallacy of your apparent criticism of the "bad old days". I just wish my grand-children had the quality of education that my peers and I had - in classes of about 39 students (I think the limit was 40). We were actually taught to think and to discriminate! By the way, I admire discrimination, but I abhor prejudice.

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    8. Alex Njoo

      Architect/academic (ret.)

      In reply to none at all

      Oops, sorry. Anyway, you did well in the antipodes, old boy. My years in good old Blighty should've given me a keener nose to smell a fellow-aesthete at ten paces, what!

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  11. margaret m

    old lady

    Geoffrey Sherrington take your point in some and agree but Take the NBN off of that list that if we have any sense keep it as a reward for taxpayer investment and ensure that we will enjoy the profits into the future. We once owned Telstra it was profitable and still is profitable detregulation of banks eg has brought the likes of GFC deregulation has brought about the expansion of monopolies or duopolies the concentration of power in too few hands and the weakening of our governments.
    Regulation can be misused I agree but all I see is the throwing the baby out with the bath water. The main problem with the debate is unless you are really interested understand a lot of the sales pitch jargon enough to weed out the rubbish it is hard to get down to the real facts. Nut shell we need regulations but not all are good.
    Thank you for the thought I am enjoying the challenge to my own ideas

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