08 April 2020




SUBJECTS: ABC funding, support for regional media.

CHRIS KENNY, HOST: I’m joined now by the Shadow Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland via Skype. Thanks for joining us Michelle. In these strained times, surely it’s a bit rich to be looking for more money for the ABC?

MICHELLE ROWLAND MP, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: I think it's fair to say Chris, and I don't think anyone in the Parliament would argue with this fact that the ABC did perform an outstanding job as the emergency broadcaster during the bushfire crisis as Anthony Albanese mentioned there. As did, I must say, the commercial sector, the community broadcasting sector as well, and –

KENNY: Indeed, it is the media’s job to share information when there's an emergency. We at Sky, and the ABC on the government payroll, should be doing that.

ROWLAND: Absolutely and I think that something that's also been highlighted – and sorry I'm shifting away from topic here but it is relevant to the point that you're making about the commercial broadcasters – is that the pandemic is going to have, and is already having, an enormous impact on just about every sector of the economy and the media is no exception, particularly in regional areas. 

KENNY: Well, that’s exactly my point though Michelle Rowland, you know, we're feeling it here, across the media people are losing their jobs, having their pay cut and the rest of it, just like the rest of the economy. Yet, here’s Anthony Albanese, he’s saying give the ABC more money. I mean what about the ABC taking a pay cut more to the point?

ROWLAND: Well, it’s no surprise to you Chris that we’ve had this conversation. I believe in a strong and properly funded independent broadcaster. But I also strongly support the fourth estate and the fourth estate being properly recompensed for the intellectual rigor that goes into journalism and that really is the crisis that we're facing at the moment.

KENNY: Anyway, fair enough. I only raised that because Anthony Albanese asked that question in Parliament today. The real reason I wanted to talk to you was about this big issue for the media over the digital giants and getting some agreement in place where Facebook and Google can actually share some of their advertising revenue with the people who produce the content – the commercial media providers. We’ve got the head of NewsCorp now Michael Miller saying the negotiations are not going anywhere. The coronavirus has accelerated and exacerbated everything. The government ought to step in here and regulate, legislate as soon as possible. What do you think of that point of view? Should the government step in?

ROWLAND: This isn't an issue that arose overnight. The government announced this Digital Platforms Inquiry in 2017. We're here in 2020. A code is supposed to be finalised by November this year. There is great fear that by November, it could be the case that there really are some media deserts across regional areas. Regional broadcasters are suffering, including in print media. As you mentioned, some of those mastheads that have been around for decades have been suspended and that is a terrible injustice, particularly to regional areas where there is this symbiotic relationship between communities and their media for survival. 

But not only is the tone of Michael Miller, I think, relevant. I think the tone of Rod Simms is also relevant too. There is supposed to be a progress report by May on this code, and that is supposed to address properly recompensing the power imbalance between the digital platforms and the media producers. I take from his tone, and this is my interpretation but I'm not the only one, I take from his tone that he doesn't appear overly confident about there being sufficient progress in May so really the question arises: what is going to be done? Even if the code is in place by November, that forms the basis of the negotiations. That doesn't guarantee that by November there will be money properly flowing in order to address that power imbalance and that really is the main game here. It is happening far too slowly.

KENNY: This is crucial because as you say there are newspapers shutting down in regional areas, there are jobs being shed in cities as well. The media is contracting at an accelerated rate throughout this coronavirus crisis. It comes to this point though then do you think that the government should step in? I heard Rod Simms, the ACCC chief talk about the fact that he thinks there will still be some sort of negotiation. Now what Michael Miller and others are saying is if you wait any longer, there's going to be a lot of companies who just won't survive this. 

ROWLAND: Well, this point is well made and it is not uncommon in the telecommunications sector for example to have a negotiate-arbitrate model based on some standard form of agreement. But it does appear to me that doesn't look like it's going to be forthcoming anytime in the near future and the need is now. That’s coming not just from me, it’s not just coming from Michael Miller. That’s coming from the media producers themselves in these regional areas. And that's why I wrote to Michael McCormack when he announced his fund for regional communities saying you really need to address regional media because without a plan, without support, we could be left with these media deserts. There are some areas where there will be no local newsgathering and the prospect of having parts of Australia that have no local news and relying only on content delivered via the platforms is something that I don't think Australians will countenance. 

KENNY: Thanks for joining us Michelle. Appreciate it. 

ROWLAND: Thank you.

KENNY: Michelle Rowland there, who is Labor’s Communications spokesperson.