Mr RAMSEY (Grey—Government Whip) (18:35): Traditional media is under the pump, not just rurally but right across the board. I listened to those on the other side who spoke on this bill, telling us that some magic form of government regulation is going to change that situation. But it isn’t the case. It’s like many other facets of our life, where the traditional is under assault from new technologies, and, as things change, we have to adapt to incredible change. My own industry of agriculture is having to adapt to incredible change.
In speaking about the value of news sources, I have long thought that the decline in traditional media is an underlying threat to our democracy. What’s happening is that the funding sources that paid for traditional media are quite quickly slipping away. If you look at the stable of old Fairfax papers, one of their greatest sources of income was the classifieds. It was called Fairfax’s ‘river of gold’. They barely exist anymore. It’s all gone to this little thing here—the telephone. If you’re looking for real estate now, you don’t pick up the newspaper; you go straight to the internet. If you’re looking for a car, you don’t go to the newspaper; you go straight to the internet. Along with that, fewer people are buying newspapers and fewer people are watching traditional television—free-to-air television—because there are so many options. So the advertising dollars are drying up.
The great question for us as a nation is: how do we have reliable news services for people to access? We can fund them, if we wish, directly. We fund the ABC a magnificent amount of money—over a billion dollars a year. I hear people talking about the cuts to the ABC. Every other news organisation in Australia would be very pleased to be putting up with those cuts at the moment, if that’s what they are, I can tell you. The question is: what do we fund and how do we fund it? Traditionally, news has funded itself. So many people are not only not buying a reliable news service; the media they are watching does not even supply a news service. It’s a challenge for members of parliament to actually communicate with a great many people in their electorates because they’re plugged into music. They might be plugged into Spotify. They might be plugged into a local FM radio station that runs a two-minute news service on the hour, or whatever. But, typically, there just is not a news service in their life. I know many people who don’t watch any kind of current affairs on television, so their lives are informed by fiction. This is the threat.
So what do we do? We could either plough resources in or direct movement towards the change, which may be inevitable. We may have to find a way for these platforms to fund themselves properly and come up with reputable news services that sit within the platforms, or we can try and do what we can to sustain the current industry. I am a traditionalist, and I am for fighting for what we’ve got at this stage. If things change enough in the future, perhaps I will change my view. But, at this stage, that’s what I think we should be fighting for. The bill before us now is actually dealing with some of that change and the onslaught that these news services are facing.
We did have a major reform of media ownership only three years ago, which was mentioned by a previous speaker. It was a major reform because no-one had been in that space for more than 10 years. It was quite a significant change. But tonight we’re debating a bill about support for regional services. I’m going to touch on newspapers before I go to the content of the bill.
In my electorate, how you classify it is a little difficult, but there would be 10 major titles spread across the electorate. There are some other lesser ones. There is an electronic newspaper at Coober Pedy—a very good one. Of the 10 major titles, two are owned by family companies—the Yorke Peninsula Country Times and the Plains Producer at Balaklava. They are pretty successful papers and they cover big areas. They’ve still got a very high level of readership. That encourages me that there is a model that works. Having said that, I’m pleased to report they are both accessing JobKeeper, and in recent time they have both been accessing government grants aimed at keeping regional newspapers alive and vibrant. I have spoken to one of the owners. He said, ‘We wouldn’t be here anymore if it weren’t for this federal government.’ They are managing to battle on, and I hope they will have a long and illustrious future.
There are another eight titles that are now owned by Australian Community Media, in the former Fairfax Rural Press news stable, which includes a lot of the country newspapers across Australia. I spoke not that long ago to the new owner, Antony Catalano, and he informed that me he bought over 400 titles and paid an awful amount of money for them. Having just paid all that money for them, he really wasn’t in the mood to go around closing them all up. He believes in the future of those newspapers, and I wish him well. Of the eight titles that he has in the Grey electorate, one did go into recession, the Port Lincoln Times. Three have reopened—the Whyalla News, The Transcontinental and TheRecorderof Port Pirie. Then there are another four titles, including the West Coast Sentinel, Eyre Peninsula Tribune, the Clare Northern Argus and The Flinders News, which are still in suspension at the moment. When I talked to Antony, he said, ‘Had I not suspended publications, we wouldn’t be in business anymore right across the board.’ That’s how serious the COVID virus is for country newspapers, and it’s right that we’ve been in that space. I wish him well; I wish him every success. I urge my local businesses and communities to support those newspapers and to make sure we can get them back up and being successful.
Now I turn to radio, and that’s where we come to the legislation that is before us today. Across Grey, I’m fortunate to have some great studios—5CS, 5AU and Magic 105.9 in the Upper Spencer Gulf, managed by Gary Kernahan in Port Augusta; and 5CC and Magic 899, managed by Darren Allard in Port Lincoln. They are very successful and very attuned to their communities. The fact they still carry high levels of advertising is showing us that they know what they are talking about. What we are doing in this case is allowing a little relaxation or flexibility in their local content rules. At the moment, they have a five-week period when they don’t have to broadcast local news. Generally speaking, that’s from Christmas through to about the end of January. But it doesn’t make sense that we are hard and fast on that rule.
It’s very important we keep these local news services going. I hesitate to use the word ‘insidious’ in relation to radio, but it is like a companion—it can be with you in the workplace, it can be with you in the home and it can be with you in the car as you travel. It’s very important that we keep a news service sitting within radio programs. I talked before about people that switch off and go to music land or some other area; they are just not getting any news in their life at all.
We’ve also allowed some leniency around the broadcasting of news on public holidays, without getting into the debate about public holiday loadings in Australia. Let me say that the radio stations face all the same issues that the other businesses do in Australia, and you can see why they’re not as keen to operate on public holidays as they might be the rest of the time. Once again, that makes sense. It allows them to manage their budget better, and they will stay in place.
On top of that, across Grey, we have an FM operation, Flow FM. They have multiple repeaters. It goes right through into Victoria as we1l. That operates out of Kapunda. It’s a very good operation, and they too will benefit from the introduction of flexibility into their programming. Good luck to all of them. Long may they live. Long may they prosper.
Then, of course, television, in the electorate of Grey, covers—I get to say this in this place every now and then—92.4 per cent of South Australia, which is an area that is about 10 per cent bigger than New South Wales. For a local member, and for a lot of other people as well, it’s very important that we keep our local news services on our televisions. We are lucky in the seat of Grey, with Southern Cross Austereo Spencer Gulf located in the primarily Upper Spencer Gulf. They have reporters in Port Lincoln, Whyalla, Port Augusta and Port Pirie. Unlike WIN—and my sympathy goes to those areas that lost their local news services—they have retained their local newsrooms, and they are such an important part of our local communities.
Because of the network size, or the footprint, they were granted an exemption some years ago, which sits within the act, that allows this one television station to broadcast Channel 9, GEM, GO!, Channel 10, 10 Peach, 10 Bold, Channel 7, 7mate and 7TWO. The whole lot of the commercial network is coming out of this one television station based in those four separate areas that actually straddle so much of my electorate. It probably covers about 70 per cent of the population, in reality. It’s a very good platform. We’re very lucky to have it. Once again, may I say to them, long may you prosper and long may you stay in place.
It is important that the legislation that we passed two or three years ago—whenever it was that we had the major media reform—allowed for some ownership changes in the television space. I’m not sure too much has happened in that area yet, but the possibility is there. There has been a lot of talk in the press at different times about one group moving on another, amalgamating with the city forces but still retaining those local content requirements. As long as they stay in place, I don’t particularly care who owns the operation. Let it go to that grouping which can most successfully turn a dollar out of it, quite frankly—that’s what it comes back to.
Once again, this legislation before us allows them some flexibility in their local content rules, and so it should. It has been described by those on the other side as help at the edges. If you are under enough pressure I can tell you that any help helps. I don’t hear suggestions coming on what else to do. When I started speaking on this bill I was talking about the onslaught of technology, and television, just like the other two technologies, is under great pressure. I’m staying in a hotel in Canberra at the moment—it’s not one that I normally stay in, but it’s a very, very nice place—and there is Fox Movies on tap there. Cable television is in enough houses. It all undermines the viability of the free-to-air television networks that we so greatly value to deliver the news message to the bulk of Australians. I can’t see anybody suggesting—and certainly I’m not—that we’ve got to get rid of the cable networks or that we’ve got to get rid of the satellite networks, so that’s not going to happen. King Canute drowned—I think that’s what happened to him—
An honourable member: And Netflix.
Mr RAMSEY: And Netflix. There are multitudes of platforms. Sure, maybe they need more help, but I can tell you that any help we give is appreciated, and they’ve fed that news back to me. What I’d like those who say it doesn’t go far enough to do is give us some suggestions, and give us some suggestions that won’t bedevil the Australian taxpayer with billions of dollars in the future. We have to find a way forward with these issues of technology that confront us in so many areas of our lives.