The Australian government has been attempting to update the media laws in the country for quite some time.
Communications minister Mitch Fifield has spoken previously about the fact the laws have not been significantly updated since 1987.
"I suspect many of you around my age, like me, are in demographic lock," Fifield said in a speech in June. "Trapped in 1987. Others, let's call them the BuzzFeed generation, for instance, may not have been born in 1987."
"1987 was a long time ago. Yet much of the law that governs our media organisations today dates back to that year. These laws have been tinkered with, but their core remains largely unaltered. The media landscape, meanwhile, is unrecognisable."
The current laws that the government has been trying to change are:
- The 75% reach rule preventing commercial broadcasters from owning licences that allow them to reach 75% or more of the Australian population.
- The "two out of three" rule preventing companies from owning more than two of three regulated media in a particular market — for example, Fairfax Media could own newspapers and a radio station, but not a TV station.
The government argues that these rules are outdated because much of the media is now online and traditional media companies such as newspapers and TV and radio stations need the rules updated to allow for mergers to compete with global players.
Labor and the Greens are opposed to the legislation on the basis that it would hurt diversity of media in Australia, and reduce the number of voices in the marketplace.
There is one voice they are particularly concerned about.
The Murdoch family owns Australia's largest broadsheet newspaper, The Australian, many of the metropolitan and regional newspapers in Australia, some radio stations, and Australia's pay TV network, Foxtel.
The family-controlled 21st Century Fox entered a court battle this week to attempt to stop American media company CBS from buying the struggling Ten Network in Australia, which media moguls Lachlan Murdoch and Win TV's Bruce Gordon had been eyeing for themselves.
The media laws as they exist today currently prevent the pair from buying Ten because Murdoch owns radio and newspaper companies where Ten operates (the two out of three), and Gordon owns regional broadcaster Win TV (75% reach rule).
The government has argued that under the proposed legislation, media diversity is retained by virtue of the existence of the internet, and that the legislation will up the amount of local content companies are required to show.
It hasn't been enough to convince Labor and the Greens, however, and in order for the new laws to pass the Senate, the government has been working with the remaining cross bench senators to broker an agreement.
Last month, the government struck a deal with right wing party One Nation to support the changes, and offered in return: $12 million in funding for community radio; an inquiry into the ABC's competitive neutrality; to force the ABC to focus more on regional and rural Australia, and to publish the pay of ABC staff and on-air talent paid more than $200,000 per year; and insert into the ABC's charter that the broadcaster is required to be "fair and balanced".
There is a lot of contention over the last two parts. Not least because up until recently "fair and balanced" was the slogan for right wing US cable channel Fox News.
"Fair and balanced," senator Derryn Hinch said on Lateline. "It sounds like Bill O'Reilly on Fox."
Shadow communications minister Michelle Rowland told the ABC: "I'm particularly concerned about the requirement to insert the fair and balanced requirements that senator [Pauline] Hanson is looking for.
"Particularly, when you consider even her own senator, when asked, 'Well does this mean that the ABC would be required to give equal time to anti-vaxxers?', replied 'Absolutely'. So what’s next? Equal time for white supremacists and climate change deniers?"
When pushed on Sky News to explain what "fair and balanced" meant, One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts conceded that what would be considered fair and balanced was subjective.
"Well exactly, unless you measure it, then it is subjective," he said.
The government then turned to the Nick Xenophon Team, whose three senators would also be key for the media reform legislation to pass.
Last night, the government reached a deal with the Nick Xenophon Team to support the changes in exchange for a $50 million grant fund for regional and small publishers, a cadetship program, a competition inquiry into Google and Facebook, and an extension of community TV licences until the end of June 2018.
The $50 million fund would be open to Australian-owned and operated media companies with turnovers of between $300,000 and $30 million per year, that are not affiliated with political parties, unions, superannuation funds, banks or lobby groups, and that are members of the Press Council, or have a complaints process. It would apply to smaller media companies such as Crikey and Crinkling.
And what about the One Nation concessions?
The key part here is that One Nation's proposals targeting the ABC will not be in the amendments to the media bill currently before parliament, but a separate piece of legislation due to hit parliament before the end of the year.
The Nick Xenophon Team has indicated that it won't support that legislation, so it looks like it won't get very far given Labor and the Greens also oppose it.
In the short term it appears that if One Nation supports the legislation, it might not receive all it was promised in return.
The Senate is due to finish debating the legislation on Thursday.
Josh Taylor is a news editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.
Contact Josh Taylor at email@example.com.
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