Will Pauline Hanson and Derryn Hinch hold the key to media reform?

As the dust settles on what looks to be a narrow election victory for the Coalition Nic Christensen looks at how reduced majorities and a hung Senate could put the future of media reform in the hands of Pauline Hanson and Derryn Hinch.

It’s been a week, but it looks like Australia may finally have a government again (at least if Christopher Pyne is to be believed). And so the minds of many media execs are now drifting to the issue of media reform.*

But as the pieces fall more firmly into place there are more questions than answers emerging.

Media ownership in Australia. Source ACMA

Media ownership in Australia. Source ACMA

With an untested and eclectic mix of cross benchers in a tight lower house and Senate, it is starting to look like the very survival of some of Australia’s biggest media companies could fall into the hands of the likes of Pauline Hanson, Derryn Hinch and Jacqui Lambie.

For those who have forgotten what the go is, here’s a quick refresher.

Most major media companies are in favour of a bunch of laws which were put in place since the mid-1980s being repealed, to they can perform a series of mergers and acquisitions to form larger groups. They argue that unless they are allowed to do this they will not be able to compete with online behemoths like Google and Facebook, which are sucking ad dollars away from them.

In March, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield proposed a package of long awaited reforms to existing media ownership laws, including the abolition of the “reach rule” and the “two out of three” ownership rule. But it was among the bills that got shelved when Malcolm Turnbull called the double dissolution election. 

Mitch Fifield

Fifield announcing the media reform package in March.

After nearly a week of vote counting it looks likely the Coalition will end up with a slender majority in the lower house. So assuming the same bill is taken off ice and presented to them again, it looks likely to pass.

But it’s the Senate, which is likely to include two less Coalition Senators and the likes of the outspoken critic of mainstream media Hanson, former shock jock Hinch and Lambie, where things could come unstuck. How they will vote at this stage is anyone’s guess.

Will it even come back?

The immediate concern of many of those Mumbrella spoke to this week is whether the government will have the political will for the fight in the new parliament.

This is particularly the case if Malcolm Turnbull falls short of the magic 76 seats for a majority in the House of Representatives and is forced to rely on the likes of independent Bob Katter for support in a minority government.

What is interesting is that if the government was to split its package and put up laws abolishing the reach rule – a law which says no TV station can reach more than 75% of the population via terrestrial broadcast – this would likely sail through parliament with the support of both the Coalition and Labor.

It is this change that the regional TV networks, Southern Cross Austereo (SCA), WIN and Prime Media, are desperately seeking.

In the last 12 months, the regional media players have been smashed by what Prime Media’s CEO Ian Audsley describes a “drought” in the form of major structural change that is seeing revenue shift away from them.

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,” Audsley told a Senate committee back in March. “In the television lake regional broadcasters are at the extremities of the lake.

“That drought has hit us already… The structural change has hit us substantially,” he explained noting how when he last appeared before the Senate back in 2013 his business was worth more than $350m.

As of June 30 Prime Media was worth just $120m and the SMI data, which reports media agency spend, showed revenues in regional TV down 7.3% year-on-year for May.

With the reform package stalled, both Southern Cross Austereo and WIN have gone ahead and made affiliate deals that have completely realigned the regional TV markets.

These deals have clarified the strategic alignments with Nine/SCA and Ten/WIN now clearly wedded to each other, but they have also come at a high price with the likes of SCA rumoured to be handing over as much 50% of its TV revenues to the metro affiliate.

In the eyes of many senior TV executives these deals represent a stopgap solution, but they are not a long-term solution.

Declining regional TV revenues means there will be cuts, and the biggest cost for the regional broadcasters to control is their news resourcing. This will be a major concern for Coalition partner the Nationals whose MPs are among those directly impacted by the cuts.

A number of lobbyists Mumbrella spoke to this week noted privately that amid a resurgence in Pauline Hanson’s One Nation many Nationals MPs, along with the likes of Katter, are likely to be eager to ensure the resources of their local news bureaus and will therefore push Malcolm Turnbull and Mitch Fifield to act on the reach rule quickly.

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

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

The question for the top levels of government is whether or not they separate the reach rule from the rest of the package.

Labor has been more ambivalent on other parts of the package, specifically the two-out-of-three rule established by the Keating Government in 1986, which is designed to prevent a single person or company from controlling more than two out of three media platforms. The queens of the screen or princes of print, as the saying went.

The Labor concern being that the abolition of this rule could benefit News Corp, by paving the way for a takeover of Ten.

Given the way that News’ tabloids like The Daily Telegraph backed the Coalition and used its front pages to criticise Bill Shorten, many in the industry question whether the Labor Party will want to pass legislation that’s potentially beneficial to Rupert Murdoch.

Some of the Daily Telegraph front pages run over the campaign.

Some of the Daily Telegraph front pages run over the campaign.

If Fifield insists on putting up the whole package and Labor and the Greens oppose the bills then this will put it in the hands of the cross benchers in the Senate. His office has this week declined to comment noting it was still in caretaker mode, but prior to the election signalled that it would pursue media reform.

At this stage, its fair to say that its uncertain how they will approach the bill.

Senator-elect Derryn Hinch, a journalist and radio shock jock also known as the Human Headline, told Mumbrella that he honestly hadn’t given the issue of media reform a tremendous amount of thought, but that he would take it “issue by issue” and get briefings from the relevant ministers.

“I’ve (only) been commenting on the seven issues we campaigned on but have been asked about everything from ABCC to fracking, super, Palestine etc,” said Hinch. “But I can tell you what I’ve told others, I won’t make decisions depending on whether it is Turnbull or Shorten in The Lodge and wont rely on The Australian and the Telly. I’ll take it issue by issue and get briefed by appropriate ministers.”

Hinch pledges to take media reform on an 'issue by issue' basis.

Hinch pledges to take media reform on an ‘issue by issue’ basis.

Pauline Hanson’s office also noted that media reform and its impact on regional Australians, particularly in Queensland, would be an area of interest for the Senator-elect, but said it did not have a formal policy position at this stage. 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.

The next six months are likely to be crucial with a number of pieces of the media reform in the air.

Hanson has spent much of this week lambasting the Australian media for what she claims is its “sensationalist” coverage of her views, even going so far to record a video where she told voters to only believe what they heard her say live on TV and radio.

In the coming months, it will definitely be interesting to see if the tone of some of the media coverage of the likes of Hanson, Hinch etc. changes as the media bosses realise that she and the rest of cross bench may hold the future of media reform, and their ability to compete against the major online players like Google and Facebook, in their hands.

At this stage only one thing is certain: all of this will make for some very interesting viewing.

*Note: since publication of this article on Friday Malcolm Turnbull has claimed victory securing a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. 


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