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Media reform bill reintroduced but uncertainty hangs over progress through the Senate

The Government has today formally resurrected the media reform bill, but significant steps towards reform could still be months away with its progress through the Senate far from certain.

Mitch Fifield

Communications minister Mitch Fifield pictured last March ahead of the first reading of the media reform bill

The bill will have its first reading in the House of Representatives six months to the day it was first presented to politicians in the House under the previous Turnbull Government.

The bill, which seeks to abolish a rule preventing the merger of metro and regional broadcasters, was shelved in April when the federal election was called.

A statement released by Communication Minister Mitch Fifield said the “much needed” media reform will help Australian media firms compete against competition from “less regulated services”.

“Australians are changing the way they access media and our laws must adapt to these trends,” the statement said. “In the digital era, our current regulations unfairly restrict Australian-based broadcast or publishing companies from optimising the scale and scope of their operations and from accessing resources, capital and management expertise available to other media operators.

“These proposed changes to the media control rules will allow businesses to configure themselves in a way that best suits their needs ensuring they can continue to play a significant role in the Australian community.”

The minister added that the reform package will also “strengthen local content obligations on regional commercial television licensees” in the event of a change in ownership.

While the reappearance of the reform package has been welcomed, it is unlikely it will be fast-tracked, which had been a vague possibility given it already had a second reading back in March and been the subject of an inquiry by the Senate Communications and Environment committee.

Minister Fifield’s statement made clear the Government does not support any further review, arguing it has already faced “significant scrutiny”.

“Australian media companies, regional local content and jobs are at risk if these reforms are not enacted soon,” he said. “It is time for action.”

Any further protracted debate will frustrate regional broadcasters in particular who are continuing to face deteriorating market conditions.

Prime Media chief executive Ian Audsley told the Senate committee inquiry that regional broadcasters are on the “extremities” of a lake that is drying up.

Audsley appearing before the Senate in March.

Audsley appearing before the Senate in March.

“It is fair to say that in a drought it is the edges of the lake that dry up first. That drought has hit us already… The structural change has hit us substantially,” he said.

Southern Cross Austereo chief executive Grant Blackley told Mumbrella last week the matter needed “urgent attention”.

Media firm lobbyists have been in Canberra this week briefing crossbenchers on the details of the package. At the moment, however, it is largely an information exercise, particularly for newly-elected politicians who are not yet across the intricacies of the bill.

Furthermore, while the Coalition can get the bill across the line in the House of Representatives, it is in the Senate where problems could arise.

Labor, while relaxed about scrapping the reach rule – which bans mergers between metro and regional free to air broadcasters – it remains anxious about ending the two-out-of-three rule which prevents media firms from controlling more than two media platforms – commercial radio, commercial television and newspaper – in the same radio licence area.

“Labor is still actively considering the two out of three rule but they have not considered it in caucus yet,” one source told Mumbrella.

The Greens – which have nine Senators – are also sceptical of the two-out-of-three rule.

“We would consider supporting the reach rule on condition there was protection for local content but we are not inclined to support abolishing the two-out-of-three rule which protects diversity,” a spokesman said.

Should Labor and the Greens reject the bill it would fall to the 11 crossbench Senators to get the bill over the line, one of whom, Derryn Hinch, was pictured asleep during today’s first sitting of parliament.

Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party said its four senators are still getting to grips with the issues.

Will the return of Pauline Hanson push the Nationals to prioritise media reform?

One Nation: Still to decide its position on media reform

“The Senators have not yet reached a decision on the media reform bills [and] have a number of meetings to determine their position,” a spokesman said.

Senators Nick Xenophon and Jacqui Lambie are thought to be open to media reform so long as it protects local news coverage in their home states of South Australia and Tasmania.

One senior media executive told Mumbrella: “We haven’t managed to speak to everyone yet so we don’t know where they really stand. It’s all up in the air.”

Another question raised was the possibility of the government splitting the reach rule, which has widespread support, and two out of three rules, which does not.

But Communications Minister Mitch Fifield has ruled that out – at least for now – with both major reforms included in the package to be presented to the House of Representatives today.

Seven West Media said in a statement it did not want “piecemeal change”.

“We have maintained a consistent position on the subject of media ownership which is that we do not want piecemeal change,” a spokesman said.

“Our industry needs a comprehensive approach to regulatory reform that considers all aspects of media regulation and how that impacts the future of free-to-air broadcasting.

“There is a need to reduce television licence fees to a sustainable level in line with international benchmarks. This is of critical importance.”

In the Minister’s statement, Fifield said the Government is maintaining other diversity rules including the ‘5/4’ rule, the ‘one-to-a-market’ rule and the ‘two-to-a-market’ rule.

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