The federal government is set on Thursday to secure Senate support for a major deregulation of Australia’s media rules, clearing the way for a sweeping shake-up of the industry.
It will be the biggest overhaul since Paul Keating’s 1987 changes.
The government on Wednesday finally clinched a deal with the crossbench Nick Xenophon Team (NXT), which secured A$60.4 million for a “regional and small publishers’ jobs and innovation package”.
Under the government’s new rules, a company will be able to have TV, radio and print outlets in the same market – at present it is limited to two out of the three.
Commercial media groups have been strongly in favour of the change, which is set to spark a flurry of mergers and acquisitions.
In an earlier deal, the government some weeks ago locked in the support of Pauline Hanson by agreeing to measures that would potentially clip the wings of the ABC.
It promised an inquiry into whether the ABC and SBS are operating on a “level playing field” with their commercial competitors, and to introduce legislation this year to insert the words “fair” and “balanced” in the requirements for the ABC’s news and information. But the NXT has said it will not support this legislation, which would mean it would fail.
The media changes will also abolish the 75% reach rule, under which TV licence holders cannot reach more than 75% of the Australian population.
The future of the financially embattled Channel 10 has been in play in anticipation of the scrapping of the two-out-of-three rule.
News Corp’s Lachlan Murdoch and Bruce Gordon, who owns the Win regional television network, were favourites to acquire Channel 10. The aim was to put onto Ten content and staff from News Corp’s pay TV station Sky News.
But the bid required the new rules to be passed, and the legislation had been delayed by the prolonged haggling with the crossbench. This allowed the American giant CBS to get in ahead of them. Murdoch and Gordon are now contesting the sale in court.
In Wednesday’s Senate debate, Labor senator Helen Polley said the government was “hellbent on destroying media diversity in this country”.
She accused Nick Xenophon of a “dirty deal”, and said he had given the green light to the Hanson-Turnbull plan to undermine the ABC.
One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts said the ABC was running “rampant and out of control”.
Greens leader Richard Di Natale said that while there was a need to ensure that Australians had access to a diverse range of media, the legislation had the potential for further concentration. “The ABC looks like it’s going to be screwed over,” he said.
His Greens colleague Sarah Hanson-Young said the competitive neutrality review was “to hobble the ABC”. She said Hanson had a “personal vendetta” against the ABC because of stories she didn’t like. “Suck it up, sunshine,” she said.
In an angry outburst, crossbencher Jacqui Lambie lashed the government as “a disgusting bunch of individuals”, saying their going after the public broadcaster was “a disgrace”.
Communications Minister Mitch Fifield said that in 1988 the only platforms were print, radio and TV. Now “the internet is all-pervasive” – people “have an unprecedented range of options”.
The greatest threat to diversity would be the failure of a significant media organisation, Fifield said.
The new rules would allow media organisations to have a “broader range of dance partners”. The changes had the support of the entire media industry, which was “unprecedented” and reflected the challenges faced by the Australian media, he said. The government package would provide “a shot in the arm” for the industry.
The deal for the NXT, funded over three years, includes a $50 million one-off regional and small publishers innovation fund.
“The grants will be able to be used by publishers for initiatives that support the continuation, development, growth and innovation of Australian civic journalism, including initiatives that explore and expand the journalism funding model,” the NXT said.
Australian publishers with an annual revenue turnover of between $300,000 and $30 million would be eligible for grants.
The package also includes support for 200 cadetships, under a regional and small publishers program. Most of these will go to regional areas.
As well, the government has agreed to direct the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to conduct an inquiry into the impact of the new digital environment on media.
Nick Xenophon said the result of his negotiations were a good outcome for diversity and journalist jobs. “We support the legislation as necessary reforms that effect the very large changes,” he said.
** Post script **
The Senate on Thursday passed the bill. It now has to return to the House of Representatives when Parliament resumes in a month, before becoming law.