19 October 2020



As far as photo-ops go, this one was a doozy.

The year was 2017. The place: Parliament House in Canberra. Then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and then-communications minister Mitch Fifield were all smiles, flanked by a veritable who's who of Australian media executives, in a show of support for some changes to media law.

With typical inflated conceit, Turnbull's media release heralded "A new era for Australia's media", claiming that "the government is strengthening Australia's media industry, enhancing media diversity and securing local journalism jobs, particularly in regional areas".

Flash forward to today, and reality reports a different story. Over 200 newspapers have closed and hundreds of journalism jobs have been lost. There are 21 local government areas without coverage from a single local newspaper, either print or online, including 16 in regional Australia. Media diversity in regional and remote areas is already at or below the minimum number of voices in 68 per cent of licence areas. The government recently admitted signs of market failure in regional commercial broadcasting.

Regional media organisations have now launched a campaign to "Save Our Voices" begotten by years of government inaction and neglect.

So what went so wrong? How did we go from a "new era" to "market failure" in three years? Well strike a light, stone the crows, but it turns out that short-termism and flimsy backroom deals don't serve the nation very well.

Labor, along with many others, warned that the government's so-called "media reforms" were piecemeal and inadequate. Tinkering at broken analog-era laws drafted decades ago wouldn't cut it when an overhaul for the digital age was necessary.

Relying on secret deals with crossbench senators to pass legislation, rather than decent policy, wouldn't stand the test of time. And the government's argument that it had to kill diversity to save diversity would see industry, citizens and consumers suffer.

Regional media has weathered drought, cyclones, floods, bushfires and digital disruption. Policy neglect left the sector exposed to external shocks, so it has been hit hard by COVID-19 and the recession.

But one of the biggest obstacles facing regional media is this government, which feels no urgency to do its job to modernise and harmonise the regulatory framework.

In response to the hefty final report of the ACCC digital platforms inquiry last year, the minister committed to starting a staged process to reform media regulations covering both online and offline media. He even released a "roadmap for action" - something Labor had been calling for for years - but it's a road to nowhere. The map is blank.

It makes no mention of regional media reform and has no media reform processes or timeframes beyond 2020, let alone any guiding principles or markers.

It does mention content regulation, but the Minister has already squibbed on that, leaving broadcasters subject to watered-down regulation for Australian and children's screen content while letting global streaming services like Netflix off the hook.

It also mentions taxpayer-funded grants for local journalism, but the Minister only managed to rustle up $55 million when the ACCC said $150 million would be needed, and the allocation criteria dudded small and independent outlets who serve large areas of regional Australia.

The recession offers a huge chance to reshape the nation, but we could miss it if the government doesn't get it right or follows a path of narrow self-interest.

Similarly, renewed attention on media reform towards a platform-neutral regulatory framework provides an opportunity for a fundamental rethink of our whole media regulatory construct to secure the health of our media and the democracy, community, culture and identity it sustains.

Australia already has one of the most concentrated media markets in the world.

News deserts are emerging and digital platforms threaten to scale back services or remove local news services in Australia, despite the fact around 40 per cent of Australians obtain online news via search or social media. We need Aussie ingenuity to work out how to promote media plurality and industry sustainability from this compromised position. And we need a regulatory framework that withstands scrutiny and the test of time; one that takes account of algorithms as much as ownership.

To achieve that, we need best-practice policy development, where evidence-based and rigorous reform options and models are consulted on then refined before being agreed to by Parliament on their merit.

The Department has commissioned no less than three taxpayer-funded reports into the media in the last year. The outputs should be released.

The ACCC has published commissioned research that emphasises the narrow approach to diversity taken in Australian media regulation, and points to measurement systems in the EU and UK that take account of consumption and impact, offering a richer picture of choice.

A solid contribution from the ACMA can too be anticipated, given its work to measure media diversity and local news.

Whether it's bushfire rebuilding, recession recovery or media reform, it's the delivery and outcomes that matter.

Photo-ops and handshakes won't cut it.

This opinion piece was originally published by The Burnie Advocate on Monday, 19 October 2020.