Opening statement to Commonwealth Environment and Communications Legislation Committee inquiry into the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Media Reform) Bill 2016

The 75 per cent audience reach rule and the two-out-of-three rule are historical anachronisms that should be abolished. They are nonsensical in an age of media plenty rather than scarcity. However, this discussion ought to spur more radical and forward-looking reform. For the last decade we have discussed in more or less theoretical terms the coming technological revolution in media production and consumption. With streaming services like Netflix, Stan and Presto, news sites like Guardian Australian, the Huffington Post Australia and so forth, as well as the shift in media consumption across to social media, which is arguably more important, these predictions have come to fruition; yet ownership restrictions, with their focus on legacy media organisations, assume a world of scarcity where consumers are forced to rely on content produced by just a few outlets. It is important to note, of course, that historically much of the scarcity in the Australian media landscape has been deliberately engineered to protect large media firms from competition, so claims that we have had to protect Australians from monopolists in the broadcast media with ownership controls have always been somewhat disingenuous.

I would like to make a few points, however, about media diversity in this light. The relationship between ownership diversity and content diversity is non-linear. Parliament might act on one without necessarily changing anything about the other. Given the plentiful media choice we enjoy today, there is a more fundamental conceptual issue, however, that the Senate ought to grapple with when it considers questions of ownership and diversity—that is, the distinction between diversity of availability and diversity of choice. There ought to be no disagreement that a plurality of voices is available to Australian media consumers. There is a near-infinite range of news and views distributed via the internet—and, again, the effect of social media should be front of mind here—but it is often claimed that, despite this choice, many Australians still only listen to a few radio stations, read a few newspapers and watch a small slice of mainstream television, uninterested in the amazing media things going on around them. If this is the real problem consuming parliament’s attention then senators should realise that they are adopting an approach which is fundamentally paternalistic, asserting that despite the best efforts of entrepreneurs and independent producers Australians are still watching the wrong things and policy is needed to change that.

I would like to make two final observations: first, it is not the responsibility of the Australian government, nor Australian taxpayers, to find new business models to support legacy media; second, any consideration of regulatory changes should be assessed in the context of the media landscape as a whole, including some consideration of the policy purposes of the more than $1 billion we spend on the ABC. These reforms before parliament are, in our view, very welcome, but the hard work of reforming Australian media regulation to adjust to this new world, which would include things like structural changes to spectrum allocation, the elimination of red tape like antisiphoning laws and content standards, unfortunately has not begun.