The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Broadcasting Reform) Bill 2017 forms part of a comprehensive package of reforms that have been put forward by the Turnbull government, announced in May this year, and it’s aimed at sustaining, among a number of things, the free-to-air broadcasting sector. The other part of the package is the Commercial Broadcasting (Tax) Bill 2017, otherwise known as the tax bill. There are a number of components to the bill and I will run through those before I talk about some of the details and some of the reasons these reforms are important in today’s media environment.
The bill comprises a number of measures—firstly, it aims to reform the outdated media regulation in the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 to better reflect the contemporary digital media environment, and that goes to the 75 per cent audience reach provision and the two-out-of-three cross-media control rule. As a few previous speakers have identified, the digital environment and where Australians are turning to to source their media, whether that be for entertainment or more particularly for news and current affairs, has led to a substantial change in the dynamics of the community. I will come back to address that in a little more detail. The bill will also amend and introduce some additional local programming obligations under the act for regional commercial television broadcasting licences because, at the moment, their licences can become part of a group commercial television licence, and there can be a change of control with the area affected by that exceeding the current 75 per cent rule. We are looking to amend the antisiphoning scheme under the act and the antisiphoning notice, and I will mention some of the key sporting events that people would be concerned about here in Australia in articulating what those changes may actually mean.
The legislation looks to permanently abolish annual television and radio licence fees and datacasting charges payable by commercial providers, and again you’ve got to keep this in the context of all of the overheads associated with establishing a broadcast facility, perhaps a local radio station. I think of Flow FM, based in Kapunda, that broadcasts to a network of country communities across South Australia. They do that at some considerable cost, compared to somebody who streams information on the internet and whose set-up and ongoing costs are really low. If we’re keen to keep the free-to-air broadcast type of service going, we need to make sure these broadcasters remain competitive. Certainly people in the digital space don’t have the same kind of licensing and regulatory fees that people in the broadcast area do, and so, given those people in the broadcast area have to wear these overhead costs, we need to make sure that they are competitive in terms of their cost base.
People tend to think of news or entertainment or talkback radio shows as being the sorts of things that free-to-air broadcasting provides, but free-to-air radio plays an important role in emergency management in this nation. Sometimes after significant events, whether they be floods or fires, the post-disaster analysis is done formally—for example, in Queensland after the floods in 2015—and at other times it’s done as a result of community-led efforts, particularly after bushfires. Whatever the case is, people look at the infrastructure that has failed—and one of the areas that sometimes fails is communications. That might be because exchanges or the connecting lines that transmit data are burnt, or perhaps because the power has failed and there is no backup at the exchange or the mobile phone tower. So the communications often fail. Sometimes it’s even just congestion; so many people are trying to use the network. One of the key measures for getting information to people about the often rapid development of natural disasters is free-to-air radio, and so it’s really important that, for regional communities in particular, we have a sustainable base for those services so that they can be providing that information to communities who need it.
There’s another whole debate around analysing post-disaster activity to work out where the failure modes are within our communication system. I note there have been calls recently for all mobile phone towers to have backup batteries, for example, that exceed the capacity of their existing ones. Whilst I welcome the intent behind that, I merely point out that the loss of battery backup power is but one failure mode that can cause a breakdown in communication for a community in a given region. You might double the size and go from half a day to even two days, but when we look at some of the events that have occurred there have been multiple days without mains power. So the processes, for example, that Telstra has in place already, where it can provide either a complete mobile phone tower facility to replace a tower that has been damaged or burnt, or it can provide a generator—they have in recent events even flown in generators by helicopter to keep things like mobile phone towers operating—we see that there is a real role in national disaster resilience planning for all three levels of government to work together.
I was speaking yesterday in fact with Minister Keenan about some of the funding they’ve announced in South Australia, along with Minister Malinauskas there, for both community groups and organisations that are seeking to plug some of those gaps. It’s an important measure to make sure we have communications available. I’d certainly be encouraging communities and also local government to be reaching out and seeing what services are already provided. In particular the Attorney-General’s Department underpins some of the priority communication services that allow firefighters and first responders to have priority access through telephone networks. They can link in, at a very nominal cost to them, to some of those supports provided by the federal government, but also that resilience planning to work out ahead of time with communications network providers such as Telstra as to where the likely failure modes are and where the responses will be needed, so that, as the disaster progresses—particularly things like bushfires—we can put in place the appropriate measures. But right upfront one of those key ones is free-to-air radio. My message to people in rural communities is, ‘Get involved with that planning at a community and local government level, but make sure you have a radio with batteries available to be listening to those warnings, because it’s an important part.’ It’s a bit of an aside to this broadcasting amendment, but it just highlights one of the critical life-saving needs for free-to-air broadcasts into our regional communities in particular.
As well as abolishing the fees, the legislation also looks to remove the taxes on the equipment used by commercial broadcasters, establish tax collection and assessment arrangements for the new interim transmitter licence tax and establish a statutory review of the new tax arrangements in 2021 consistent with a broad review of spectrum pricing which is underway. It establishes a transitional support payment scheme for 19 commercial broadcasters to make sure no broadcaster will be worse off during this transitional period.
Before I come back to some of those digital things, I want to touch on the concept of spectrum again. People often wonder why we make so much fuss about spectrum. Coming from a defence background and chairing the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee, what we see increasingly is that not only in the conduct of our day-to-day life but also in our banking, our national security and a whole range of areas, spectrum is an incredibly important issue that we need to be aware of. Not only is the allocation of spectrum important but also the price signals we send in terms of who can access and use that spectrum. In this case here, people are looking at how that spectrum should be priced, and I just want to make the point that it’s not a free good. Every time you give up some spectrum that can be used in one area, you potentially limit the availability of that spectrum to be used for something that we think is critical. For example, in the national defence space, whether that be telemetry of data around aircraft and missile systems, whether that be communications systems, be it commercial or defence and government related, spectrum is not a free good. There is a finite allocation that can be made. These reviews need to take into account not only the commercial availability of spectrum to media broadcasters but also the broader considerations that government has.
The first reform looks at responding to the contemporary digital media environment, and it looks at repealing some of the outdated media ownership and control laws, such as the 75 per cent audience reach or the two-out-of-three cross-control rule. What opponents of that ignore is that many people now almost solely access their entertainment, their social contact and, more frequently now, their current affairs and news information through social media platforms that are internet based. Whether it’s Facebook, Google or whatever site you want to use, there are providers reaching far more than 75 per cent of a population. That is changing, fundamentally, the dynamics in our marketplace. In some ways, that is good; it means that people can at very low cost access information or entertainment across a broad range of areas where, perhaps, a broadcaster previously didn’t have the licence to distribute particular information.
There are also really negative aspects to it, which is why it’s important that we make sure these alternative voices remain commercially viable into the future. What I’m talking about there is what is increasingly being known as the echo effect of social media. In the United States, the Brookings Institution, for example, has had a look at what President Obama did through his campaigns, and, more recently, at what President Trump did in his campaign. Demos, a cross-party think tank in the UK, has looked at the impact of social media and this echo effect in the UK in their most recent election. What has become increasingly apparent is that in the day of social media, where people are becoming connected predominantly through networks of like-minded people, the algorithms used by corporations such as Facebook and Google are looking at your preferences and then feeding news to you and directing you to news sites or articles that reflect your point of view.
I can see, for advertisers, why that kind of thing is appealing. If somebody does a Google search for, say, red hats, to then be able to present that person with information about people who are designing or selling red hats is really good marketing. It is very clever. A lot of Australians would be shocked to realise how much of their personal lives, preferences and habits—even where they travel—are actually known to corporations like Google and Facebook through the collection of data from their internet searches. There is the reporting back from things like Google Maps. It will predict, the next time you hop in the car, where you are about to go on a Sunday afternoon. I’ve noticed that on my own iPhone. When I turn it on, it pops up and guesses where I’m going to go, because it’s obviously been tracking for some time.
That’s fine, in some senses, from a commercial perspective. But the concern raised by Demos and the Brookings Institution is that where people only access news from a particular news source that already supports their perception, it actually reinforces their bias. So whilst it may be a valid perspective, it’s really important—if our polity is to continue to work as a functioning liberal plural democracy—that the plurality of views is recognised and valued. One of the problems is, if you have a cohort who merely access their information from a subset of news streams that informs them from a particular perspective, they start to believe—this is what the studies are showing—that anyone who doesn’t see the world through their own prism is not a reasonable person, that that person doesn’t have well-founded or well-meaning interpretations of what’s happening in the world. We see that in some of the current debates where people are being called racists, bigots and other things because they have a different view.
What we’ve seen in the UK around Brexit and parties like UKIP and in the United States around the Trump campaign is that there is an increasing division between groups in communities. There have been some quite fascinating papers written about why people who sit in one camp can look at another and go: ‘Why is that person unable to actually see and appreciate my perspective? Why are they so wrong and stuck in their views?’ ‘The studies are pointing to the fact that this digital divide in our community, this echo-chamber effect, means that people aren’t being challenged on a regular basis to recognise that there are other valid views around the same topic and that one set of facts can have a number of interpretations and can have a number of quite reasonable differences between people in our community.
The ability to have broadsheet newspapers, television broadcasters, broadcasting news and free-to-air radio that people will either deliberately or even accidentally interact with provides an alternate perspective to what they may have been fed through their Facebook feed or other feeds through digital media. That’s really important for the actual continuation of a successful plural society where a diversity of views actually makes us stronger, as opposed to having everybody just believing that their point of view is the only right point of view and that, if you don’t hold their point of view, you must somehow be morally bankrupt.
These provisions around media ownership are far from decreasing the number of voices. What they’re trying to do is make alternate voices commercially sustainable. That’s because, if these other providers aren’t out there and the echo effect continues, we will get to the point where the only voice that people will interact with, unless they very deliberately make an effort to escape the algorithms of Facebook, Google and others who feed them information, will be these free-to-air-type broadcasters. It’s important that those voices are commercially sustainable so that, in years to come, they will still be here in our community.
Just very quickly, there are some other areas of Australian content that I think are important. Again, it comes back, in part, to this culture. We’re being told constantly that we are part of a global community, and that’s all great, except for the fact that not all cultures are the same and not all communities are the same. Whilst it’s wonderful to see what other countries are doing, it’s really important, also, that we celebrate what is uniquely Australian, particularly by having our young people exposed to views of Australian life and Australian attitudes so that they actually grow up having an understanding of what it means to be an Australian, as opposed to somebody living in the suburbs of an American sitcom and all the things that go along with that.
The review that was announced in May, for example, looking at both Australian children’s content production and distribution incentives combined with audience demand to find ways to actually help Australian content to be delivered and be successful is really important. In South Australia, for example, McLeod’s Daughters was a very famous and successful series for a number of years. The town of Freeling where that was produced was actually in my electorate of Wakefield when I was a member in the other place, and it was not only a source of local work in South Australia but also provided a great tourist opportunity for businesses in Freeling with people constantly wanting to come through to see the pub, the sets and everything that happened in Freeling. But, importantly, it also gave a glimpse into, albeit a dramatised view, Australian life. It was an Australian situation, as opposed to a situation somewhere in downtown New York in an American sitcom.
Recently, the creator of McLeod’s Daughters, Ms Graeme-Evans, wrote another script for a new miniseries. Channel 9 is looking at potentially supporting that but hasn’t committed. The kinds of incentives that we’re looking for—the media ownership rules that we’re looking for and the relaxation of things like fees to make it more commercially viable—are the sorts of things we need to encourage people like Channel 9 to actually commit and say, ‘Yes, we’ll get behind a new miniseries of McLeod’s Daughters.’ There was actually quite a significant financial impact for the community in South Australia from the production of that series, and that could happen again. So these media reforms are welcomed for the long-term benefit of our broadcasters and the long-term benefit of our society by having a range of voices and Australian content to inform all Australians of the future of our nation.