The era of being a “prince of print or queen of the screen” in Australian media, as Paul Keating dubbed it 30 years ago, is over, with the federal government’s changes to media ownership laws passed in the Senate late on Thursday afternoon thanks to the support from South Australian senator Nick Xenophon’s bloc and One Nation.
The Broadcasting Legislation (Broadcasting Reform) Bill and the Commercial Broadcasting (Tax) Bill was approved 31 votes to 27 and removes the “two out of three” rule and 75% audience reach test imposed by Keating. Crossbench senators Derryn Hinch, David Leyonhjelm, Cory Bernardi and Lucy Gichuhi also supported the changes, which were opposed by Labor.
The “two out of three” rule stopped a media company owning newspaper, radio and television stations in the same city. The changes pave the way for potential mergers at a time when traditional media companies, which championed the reforms, are under enormous financial pressure as global digital companies such as Google and Facebook earn their income disseminating news content without paying media companies for it.
The changes will also deliver a $90 million windfall to free-to-air broadcasters and radio stations, with their annual licence fee abolished, replaced by a spectrum fee costing around $40 million annually.
There will also be higher minimum local content requirements for regional TV networks following “trigger” events and reforms to anti-siphoning to strengthen local subscription television providers.
The reforms, proposed by communications minister Mitch Fifield four months ago, will also impose restrictions on gambling ads during live sport, creating what the government calls a “safe zone” for families.
A $60 million grants package for small metro media and regional titles to help them during the digital transformation of the sector was negotiated by the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT).
A new Regional and Small Publishers Innovation fund overseen by a group of independent organisations, including the Press Council and Walkleys Foundation, gets $50 million while a Regional and Small Publishers cadetship program will support 200 cadetships and 60 regional journalism scholarships.
But Xenophon said his senators won’t support the deal the government cut with One Nation involving in order to get its support. They include inserting the words “fair” and “balanced” — the former slogan of US cable network Fox News — in the ABC Act.
Pauline Hanson also insisted on enhanced transparency at the public broadcaster, including the disclosure of salaries.
Xenophon said the government can propose the measures but they will not have NXT’s support.
A public register of foreign-owned media assets will also be established.
Fairfax Media CEO Greg Hywood welcomed the changes saying they would create a competitive environment for the Australian media sector.
Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said it was the biggest reform to Australian media laws in nearly three decades.
“They now finally recognise the enormous disruption that has been caused by the internet,” he said.
“The Australian media industry has been united in its support for these reforms and will now be given the fighting chance they need to secure their future.”
In a bid to protect diversity, the government enacted a two-to-a-market rule for commercial radio, the one-to-a-market rule for commercial television, the requirement for a minimum of five independent media voices in metropolitan markets and a minimum of four independent media voices in regional markets.
The ACCC will been charged to ensuring competition is maintained and will also conduct an investigation into Google and Facebook later this year at the request of the NXT senators.
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