'Hangover of pre-digital era' or 'draining of local knowledge': media reform campaign explained

Regional media companies say they need reform to survive. Picture: Shutterstock
Regional media companies say they need reform to survive. Picture: Shutterstock

Regional media bosses have banded together to lobby the federal government to remove regulations they say are stifling their ability to run viable businesses.

COVID-19 has accelerated financial pressure on the media companies, with hundreds of newspapers closed across the country, and regional television bulletins cancelled. The companies behind the campaign have warned that closures will continue if they don't get the changes to media ownership laws they seek.

But the campaign has received a mixed political response so far, and experts in the media field have warned that any changes to media ownership laws could threaten diversity of voices across regional Australia and holistic reform to the industry is needed.

What is going on in regional media?

Like much of the economy, regional media has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the widespread economic downturn smashing advertising revenues for newspapers and broadcasters.

Associate Professor of Communication at Deakin University Kristy Hess said local media had been "a tale of mixed fortunes" in the pandemic.

"Like many businesses in this COVID environment, local news has taken a serious beating and that's largely because of a loss of advertising revenue across the board," she said.

"There's an unprecedented demand for local news, because of the need for factual reliable information for local communities to know what is going on, what the COVID statistics are, all of that helps a community in a time like this."

Hundreds of newspapers printed by ACM (the owner of this website), News Corp and smaller independent publishers were suspended or closed at the start of the pandemic, and regional television news bulletins were cancelled.

Some of the publications and services have returned, but not fully, and others have been shuttered permanently, while smaller independent players have also popped up around the country.

Chief executive of the Public Interest Journalism Initiative Anna Draffin said contractions in rural and regional media were a "huge concern", and had been mapped by the non-profit organisation.

Ms Draffin said it appeared likely there would be an increase in "news deserts" - areas that have no news coverage at all - "due to the rapidity of contractions as a result of the COVID period".

What is the Save Our Voices campaign and what do they want?

Four regional media companies - ACM, Prime Media, WIN Network and Southern Cross Austereo - have brought in high-profile media identity Ray Martin to lead the campaign, in which they are seeking to wield political pressure to gain legislative change.

Under current legislation, the owner of a television station can't own another television station that broadcasts to the same market, and a radio station owner can't own more than two stations in the same market.

In a regional radio licence area there must also be a minimum of four independently controlled media operators, a measure that is designed to protect media diversity. It's often referred to as the 5/4 rule, as the minimum number of media operators in a metro area is five.

The companies want these laws repealed, arguing that instead of protecting diversity, they are threatening the viability of their companies.

Lecturer in Journalism at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst Harry Dillon said "this is something that kind of has to happen".

"It's one of the last vestiges of media regulation hanging over from the pre-digital era. I'm not quite sure why it's been left on the shelf by the government," he said.

"Those regulations about voices, in particular the 5/4 rule, it's very hard to see how that makes sense in an era where digital media have no geographic boundaries whatsoever. Wherever there's the internet there's all these bigger players, starting of course from the big tech platforms."

What reform has already been made in this space?

After intense lobbying from media companies throughout 2016, in 2017 the Turnbull government removed two media reforms, one that prevented a single proprietor from owning a newspaper, television and radio license within the same broadcast area, and one that prevented a single person or company from controlling television broadcasting licences that reach more than 75 per cent of the population.

Removing these restrictions allowed Channel Nine to take over Fairfax Media. The Nine Entertainment company now owns television broadcasting licences, radio broadcast licences and newspapers.

What has happened so far?

While there are limits on media owners having a controlling stake in more than one media company due to government legislation, there are still complex webs of shareholdings across media companies.

Last year Antony Catalano and Alex Waislitz (owners of ACM), along with Bruce Gordon (Bermuda-based owner of the WIN Network), used their respective 14.6 per cent and 11.6 per cent shareholdings to block the Seven Network's proposed takeover of Prime.

Mr Catalano has expressed his wish to buy Prime Media as part of the creation of a regional media empire, to pursue operational efficiencies and market power, but current legislation stands in the way.

Regional broadcasters have in recent months tried to renegotiate the deals they have with the metro affiliates to ease financial pressures, with varying levels of success.

So far the calls for changes to regulation have fallen on deaf ears, but the government hasn't completely ignored the regional media sector this year, introducing a $50 million Public Interest News Gathering grant program to keep businesses afloat.

A further $5 million was granted to the Australian Associated Press newswire service, and broadcasters have been granted waivers in paying fees to the government on the licences.

Is there wide support for the plan?

Earlier this week Labor leader Anthony Albanese said he supported the regional media campaign, and the Greens and crossbenchers have called for the government to take action on the sector.

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher hasn't made any commitments on the campaign but said the government was considering reforms carefully.

Nationals leader Michael McCormack has also been tight-lipped on the campaign.

Associate Professor Hess said while the campaign accurately presents the unfair power dynamic of the major internet companies and smaller media companies, she is wary of mergers being seen as the saviour of regional media.

"If we look at the history of mergers and consolidations, they have not served regional communities very well," she said.

"What has tended to happen is there has been a draining of local knowledge and local understanding and volume of news resources."

According to Associate Professor Hess, the government should prioritise new, independent players in regional media, and open up existing grants programs they are currently shut out of.

Mr Dillon acknowledged the risk to media diversity posed by removing the regulations, that the local newspaper, radio station and television where people get their news could all be owned by one company.

"You know it will probably happen a bit that way. The four players that are behind this, it's probably a bit of self-interest as well. They do have a community-based interest, but then again they are profit-making companies," he said.

"But currently you run the risk that those regulations that were set up to preserve media diversity might do exactly the opposite, because if the media players in the bush become unviable there's no competition in the bush. These regulations may be self-defeating the way they are currently operating."

Ms Draffin from the Public Interest Journalism Initiative called on the government to look at "holistic" reform to the media industry, and what direct and indirect support can be offered.

"News is an essential service, as we've clearly seen with bushfires and COVID, it clearly is emergency infrastructure, and without it you leave communities vulnerable."

This story 'Hangover of pre-digital era' or 'draining of local knowledge': media reform campaign explained first appeared on The Canberra Times.


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