Submission to the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA)
In response to
MEETING THE DIGITAL CHALLENGE
Reforming Australia’s media in the digital age
DISCUSSION PAPER ON MEDIA REFORM OPTIONS
By Emma Dawson
Media Policy Coordinator
The introduction and development of digital technology
It is the belief of the New Matilda media policy coordinator, and of the subscribers who have made contributions to our online discussion of the reforms proposed in this discussion paper, that the proposals contained therein do not go nearly far enough towards advancing Australia’s digital media sector and providing the best media services currently available worldwide to Australian citizens and media consumers.
Recent developments in digital technology make it possible now for Australians to access a variety of programs via a free digital service provided by existing Free To Air (FTA) providers, including public broadcasters ABC and SBS. In the UK, where the digital revolution has been driven by the BBC and provided via the Freeview system, more than 70% of the population has embraced the digital age. A combination of new programming and reruns fills the Freeview schedule; channels devoted to history, the environment and news and current affairs are available via the infamous set-top box, and prime time programming is repeated two hours later on secondary channels, making content much more accessible to a busy populace.
Despite Senator Coonan’s warning that Australia risks becoming a dinosaur of the analogue age, we’re already lagging far behind the rest of the Western world in the uptake of this technology. At the moment, anyone with a spare $50 to $100 a month can access Pay Television’s new digital service, which offers many of the same features as Britain’s Freeview, including access to ABC2 and SBS2. The features available make television much more controllable by the viewer. Programs are regularly re-broadcast on multiple channels, with such key items as the ABC’s Insiders being repeated on ABC2 late on Sunday nights, allowing viewers who find the Sunday morning slot too early, or too family-unfriendly, to catch up.
This sort of service should be available at minimal cost to all Australians now. The one-off purchase of a set-top box allows access to ABC2 and SBS2, and to a range of digital features on existing channels. But without extra content from commercial channels, and with the limited range of programs allowed on ABC2 and SBS 2, there’s little incentive for Australians to take up the service.
The proposals contained in DCITA’s discussion paper do little to address this. The apparently worthy measures to remove genre restrictions from the multi-channelling operations of the ABC and SBS are undermined by the softening of the definition of a Public Service Broadcaster (PSB) contained in the paper: with the ABC and SBS now referred to as the national broadcasters, there is, implicit in the paper, a distinction between the Australian Government’s understanding of public broadcasting and that embodied in the UK by the BBC. When considered with the spectre of introducing advertising to the ABC, the threat to public broadcasting contained in this philosophical repositioning is, despite the Prime Minister’s assurances, quite real — and the subject of a future article from this observer.
Crucially, when Prime Minister John Howard did step in to stop the ads on the ABC speculation, it was to reassure the powerful commercial media players that they need not fear competition for advertising funds from a Government-funded ABC; this exposes the primary concern of this discussion paper as the protection of current powerful media interests, who are invested in a analogue technology that is being rapidly superseded.
A recent article in the Carnegie Reporter by Merrill Brown ( http://www.carnegie.org/reporter/10/news/ ) asserts that The future course of the news, including the basic assumptions about how we consume news and information and make decisions in a democratic society are being altered by technology-savvy young people no longer wedded to traditional news outlets or even accessing news in traditional ways.
Brown is writing about the US media, but the nature of the changes to media technologies mean that this is an issue as relevant in Australia as anywhere in the world — or at least those parts of it that are wired up.
While, at present, the majority of the news and journalism we consume still comes from the daily paper or the nightly news, the future is digital. Young Australians are, like their peers the world over, increasingly getting their news and information online, on demand, and taking up pay-television services in droves, particularly since the advent of digital television. Waiting for the daily paper to report yesterday’s news, or rushing home at the end of the day to catch a half-hour news bulletin crammed with short snatches of information filtered through the perspective of a large media conglomerate, will quickly become things of the past.
As Brown notes, young Americans aged between 18 and 34 intend to continue to increase their use of the Internet as a primary news source in the coming years . it is a medium embraced in meaningful ways. Not least of these is the rise of blogs and citizen-reporter sites in which non-journalists and citizens from all walks of life provide their own information and commentary, bypassing altogether traditional news outlets, even in their online guises.
One man who has recognised the power of this shift is the world’s biggest and most influential media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, and his comments at last year’s meeting of News Limited shareholders in Adelaide reveal that he hasn’t lost sight of the potential for a new form of media dominance in his old home country. Young Australians are, if anything, even faster to embrace new media developments than their counterparts in the US. The opportunities afforded by convergence and digital technology promise to provide a plethora of television and radio channels, online news sites and on-demand services, all of which will require content — content which Murdoch knows News Limited is uniquely placed to offer.
While an increase in the available number of channels and broadcast platforms should, theoretically, allow for greater diversity in programming, the catch, of course, is that these services will inevitably be under the control of huge multinational service providers. This is where the real battle for the future of independent journalism will occur.
While blogs and interactive news sites have revolutionised the media landscape and drastically democratised the provision of information, their future independence is under threat. Once newspapers and analogue television cease to be the dominant media forces, media moguls will surely switch their priorities to the control of delivery platforms in order to maintain their power over the way we consume information and, thereby, over the way we think. For example, pay television provider Foxtel, which is currently exploding into a record number of Australian homes on the back of its new digital package, is controlled by News Limited, Publishing & Broadcasting Limited and Telstra.
We believe that the proposals contained in this discussion paper will further concentrate power in the hands of traditional media players, who are currently the only organizations with the means to produce content for new platforms of delivery. As technology advances to the point at which consumers will be able to download directly their preferred programs and utilise digital hard drive recorders, the placement of advertising during breaks in broadcast programmes will rapidly decline as a means of profit for media owners. Government policy should be focussed on enabling, rather than delaying, this transition, and encouraging the development of new and innovative business models that no longer rely on outdated technology, to ensure the continuation and development of a vibrant and viable media sector into the future.
Diversity of content and cross-media ownership
Despite assurances that mandated minimum numbers of commercial proprietors in relevant markets, as outlined in this discussion paper, would ensure diversity of content, the proposed legislation will likely do no such thing. To take the Melbourne market as an example, there are currently nine commercial media players, including the Australian Radio Network (owners of GoldFM and Mix FM); Austereo (Fox and Triple M); Southern Cross Radio (3AW and MagicFM); DMG (Nova and the struggling Vega), TV channels Seven, Nine and Ten; Fairfax (The Age) and News Ltd (the hugely influential Herald Sun). These could be reduced to five. Assuming the radio networks decline to swallow one another up, there exists the real possibility that the five players of those named above that are engaged in serious news and current affairs could become three, with the same power behind Channel Ten as the Herald Sun, and the same interests controlling the content of both Channel Nine and The Age. When the pool of journalists and news-gathering operations are concentrated in this way, it won’t matter how many different modes of delivery are available to the Australian citizen: the content delivered by new technological platforms will be controlled by the same few, increasingly powerful, commercially driven interests.
For this reason, the removal of restrictions on foreign ownership is a preferable policy position than removal of cross-media ownership restrictions. In an increasingly globalised world, and with the advent of digital and online technology, national borders are no longer a barrier to the transmission and control of media content. Investment in new technological platforms and content delivery methods should be encouraged from a wide variety of sources so as to avoid a monopoly: in a country the size of Australia, with a limited market, this is only possible by allowing foreign investment.
The major counter-argument to this is that foreign ownership will mean a reduction in local content and Australian cultural product onscreen. This is not necessarily so: foreign ownership does not equate to foreign content. By legislating to ensure that a certain percentage of onscreen content, on both commercial and public broadcasters, is Australian made and tells Australian stories, the Government can ensure an increase in local content onscreen from its current low levels, supported by the investment of major international media organizations.
Suggestions for policy
- Provision of one free set top box to enable digital service to all Australian households;
- Increased funding to the ABC and SBS to produce additional content for digital broadcasting;
- Immediate removal of restrictions on free-to-air multi-channelling;
- Re-instatement of the original timeframe for conversion from analogue to digital broadcasting, for both television and radio services;
- Retainment of current cross-media ownership restrictions and removal of restrictions on foreign ownership, subject to local content requirements;
- New mandated minimums for Australian television and radio content, specifying a certain percentage of new scripted drama to distinguish it from game and quiz shows, to apply to all commercial and public broadcasters;
- Legislation to ensure that Telstra is required to provide the necessary broadband and other digital service provisions to all Australian households, regardless of establishment costs, as a part of its public service charter, whether fully privatised or not.
Subscribers’ & contributors’ comments
There’s no doubt cross-media ownership will have less impact if the numbers of players Senator Coonan suggests will be reached and maintained. But what if only four players want to publish or broadcast in the mainland cities (looks like Hobart will only have four) and no new players can be enticed to enter the market? Are free-to-air TV and newsprint the real dinosaurs of media?
Of course if journalists were given no agendas and were free to follow the ‘news values’ system of relevance and priority – fine. But with points like ‘deadline time limitations’ you can only think “any bias reported is due to a lack of time to do proper in depth research.”
Of course as an Australian I want to hear Australian voices, but not necessarily naval gazing and beating up our own media to advertorialise telling us what a grand nation we all live in.
I want to hear genuine voices of educated and concerned Australians who have a global perspective on all events. Australia may be an island continent, but it does not live in a vacuum.
True diversity in the media is allowing reporting to be done on a sincere level by journalists, who have a job to do to inform us about what’s happening on the ground, in the workplace and on the streets.
Media itself also has a responsibility to communicate the most important and vital issues to the public, that concern not just us as Australians, but as concerned members of the world.
The lifting of cross-media ownership restrictions will only attract more big finance into the country to take advantage of a lucrative news, views and entertainment broadcasting market.
Five different players (excluding the ABC and SBS) as a minimum in most major cities should be enough diversity to guarantee a broad perspective in the entertainment, news and opinions available. The more pressing issue is that of the planned obsolescence of analogue or free to air and cable TV, to be replaced solely by digital.
TV and Radio already have enough players of poor quality (except the ABC and a few progressive Public Broadcasting channels and stations) that could only improve from the new cross ownership legislation.
One problem to be addressed is that if the majority of receivers are going to be privatised and digital, (a user pays system), where does that leave the pensioner with the 1985 TV who is unable to access vital local news and information through their free to air TV any more? (See policy suggestions)
In a crisis which radio station do we all tune into if all the ABC stations have been downgraded to a user pays system, and/or the service is not available in this particular region?
And through which privatised media outlet do our leaders choose to address us in times of a crisis, if we don’t keep the integrity of the ABC to function solely as a Public concern?
I think these issues are far more vital and pressing than the opening up of cross-media ownership laws, which with the expected economies of scale advantage should mean a broader base from which to gather news and present opinion and a far larger range of entertainment options to choose from.
To simplify, if I may, it seems the issue is not so much the technology shifts, but rather, who delivers which product and who pays.
If the simplification is accurate then the issue remains the same as it was directly after Marconi’s discovery, regardless of technology.
Marketing of information is like any other product and where private enterprise finds it difficult or unprofitable to supply essential products to the public then it becomes the state’s obligation to do so, particularly products as politically and strategically important as information.
The supply of information which is unprofitable for private enterprise is one issue but the supply of information with potential political content is quite another and the public retains an irredeemable right to “public interest” information untainted by corporate profit motives which, in turn, obligates the state to supply the means through which the public must be able to access that information. Technology is no issue here either.
Balanced and unbiased presentation of information in the public’s interest is incompatible with the mechanics of private enterprise and as such the state retains the obligation to fully fund that vacuum effectively, as a matter of national interest, and in precisely the way Emma points out is being done in the UK.
This debate regarding the technological transformation of the industry should not be used to present an opportunity to government to skilfully manoeuvre their obligations away to friendly corporate sponsors disguised as a user pays system of delivering that information which remains the state’s obligation to deliver.
It should also be recognised that corporations with rights to broadcast enjoy state empowered oligarchy benefits and should be viewed with greater suspicion than other state friendly enterprises.
Government should be made to reaffirm their obligations and to ensure that they effectively continue their supply of public interest information, unhindered by corporate interests or the challenges of an advancing technology, and no opportunity should be afforded them to cancel another monthly bill for public service.
Social discourse is fundamental to human society, but we don’t treat our means of social discourse accordingly. We have come to regard the legal system, for example, as strategically important, and we accord it a special status in our society, with institutions that enjoy special protections. Why do we not protect the means of our social discourse in a comparable way? It is at least as important.
How do we reclaim and protect media so they serve the larger society instead of special interests? The full import of this question has been so little recognised that a long and open-ended debate is required.
Properly funding the ABC and better insulating it from governments would be an important step in the right direction. National and/or local newspapers with similar status could also serve well. However government-funded media will always be vulnerable to government abuse.
The purpose of social discourse is to serve communities, so we should look for institutions that promote this purpose. One way would be to vest ownership broadly in the community that a media outlet is supposed to serve, with a strict and very low limit on the share any individual could own, such that a significant fraction of the community were owners. This would instigate a vigorous local political process among the many owners, which would be a healthy thing.
At some stage, if we really want media to serve our communities and our larger society, we will also have to pay for their services directly, and thus break the stranglehold of advertising.