I’m pleased to be contributing to this debate today on the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Regional Commercial Radio and Other Measures) Bill 2020, because there is no doubt that regional media has been hit by a triple whammy: digital disruption, COVID-19 and, of course, this government, which has done absolutely nothing about it. It’s not just regional media that’s in crisis; it’s Australia’s media sector more broadly that’s in crisis and, in fact, was in crisis before COVID-19. This government’s many failures have left regional media unexpectedly exposed to the effects of both the pandemic and the recession. The result of that is that many communities are now without a local newspaper or radio or television news service, and this is at a time when it is more important than ever that our communities have access to reliable, local, trustworthy information.
While there’s nothing in this bill that is objectionable, it’s what’s not in this bill that’s problematic. There’s no plan. There’s no plan for how this government is going to support regional media through this time of crisis. There’s no idea, more broadly, about how this government sees its role in terms of our media sector and the provision of information in our community. This is a really serious issue for our democracy, and it’s not an issue that this bill seems to take seriously enough. So while Labor won’t stand in the way of these relatively minor amendments to alleviate the regulatory burden on regional broadcasters, I absolutely support the amendment moved by the member for Gellibrand saying that this bill doesn’t go nearly far enough to support regional media.
Unlike many of the speakers on this bill, I’m actually not from a regional area, but I’m speaking on this because this is an issue that goes beyond just those who are living in regional areas and affects us all. In fact, we often hear from members on the other side about how regional Australia is the lifeblood of this country. Well, then, why are you abandoning their media sector? Why are you giving away their television, their radio and their newspapers? Why aren’t you supporting them more? There’s no doubt that regional Australia’s hurting and regional Australians are missing out as a result of this government’s failures. This decline has happened on this government’s watch—newspapers, radio and television all closing and, again, no serious plan to address the decline.
We know from the ACCC that, between 2008 and 2018, 106 local and regional newspaper titles closed across Australia, a net 15 per cent decrease in the number of these publications. That left 21 local government areas which were previously covered by regional media without coverage from a single local newspaper, and that was prior to the pandemic, which, of course, has exacerbated all these problems. So now, according to the Public Interest Journalism Initiative, 200 titles have closed since January 2019. I want to be clear that these closures aren’t just numbers. They’re missing stories about how our local communities operate. They’re a gap in accountability for our local councils. They’re a lack of space for a community to raise early warning signs about trouble at the local hospital.
I’ve worked as a regional journalist—it’s where I started my career—and I know how important these services are to making communities strong. At their very best they contribute to creating a sense of community. They support local businesses, sporting clubs, business endeavours and community groups. They are really the lifeblood of these communities, and they’re closing on this government’s watch. They’re the place where a lot of journalists get their training. I know that, when I was working in regional areas, I was lucky enough to be supported by a wonderful team—by editors, subeditors and all the people who helped me become really good at my job. Without that infrastructure in place and without the support for the sector more broadly, where’s our next generation of journalists going to come from? We’re going to need strong media in this country over the coming years and decades; where’s the support for that? We are just not seeing it from this government.
We know that, when traditional media is not there and we don’t have independent sources of news and information, people turn to sources of disinformation and misinformation. That’s dangerous, particularly now when we’re in the middle of a pandemic. I know that some of the members opposite don’t seem to have a problem with sharing misinformation or disinformation, but it is a problem. We do need trustworthy, reliable information, and we need that in our regions as well as in our capital cities.
Previously, Australians in regional areas could have relied on the ABC for their local news services—but not under this government. Since 2014, around 800 ABC staff have lost their jobs. The number of hours of ABC factual programming has dropped by 60 per cent, drama by 20 per cent and documentary by 13.5 per cent. We know, again from the ACCC digital platforms inquiry, that ABC funding is not currently resourced to fully compensate for the decline in local reporting previously produced by traditional commercial publishers. And, of course, that inquiry recommended that stable and adequate funding be provided to the ABC and SBS. Yet what is this government doing? The latest round of budget cuts was $83.7 million, forcing another round of redundancies at the ABC. What we have seen since 2014, when this government first started cutting the ABC’s budget, is cut after cut after cut, and that’s journalists gone and regional newsrooms closed down.
We know, and we’ve seen just this summer, that some of the services the ABC provides in regional areas are literally life-saving. They’re the people on the ground who understand these communities in times of crisis such as bushfires. I know I, like many people around our country, was glued to the ABC’s coverage last summer because I knew that they understood what was happening in their communities and that the information they were providing about what was happening in that deadly time was accurate. Under this government, it’s becoming harder and harder for the ABC to supply these services.
We know these cuts are ideologically driven. This government has decided that it doesn’t like the ABC—it doesn’t think it agrees with it—so it’s doing everything it can to undermine it. Well, I think you’ve misread the mood of the Australian people. People love the ABC. It is still the No. 1 issue that people raise with me. Earlier this year, before we all had to socially distance, I held a rally in my community to save the ABC. Hundreds of people turned up, because this is an issue that people care about. They are passionate about saving the ABC and they are passionate about saving the ABC from this government. I will certainly do all I can to make sure that the ABC is funded properly and that it is allowed to operate independently, because, as a society, we need this news service. We need independent, accurate news, and our regions need this service as well.
Of course we know the government has a pile of reviews and recommendations about regional media at its disposal to choose from, but it really hasn’t come up with a plan for our media sector. We’ve got bits and pieces of change ahead of us here, but nothing substantial—nothing that’s going to make the changes that we need to see for a strong and healthy regional media, and indeed a healthy media sector across our country more broadly.
Another area that this government has left out in terms of our media sector is community television. Again, this is something that people in my community feel quite passionately about. Channel 31 here in Melbourne is respected and loved by a lot of people. It’s where, in fact, a lot of media people got their start and their training—a really important service to our community. Again, particularly at this time, when we see a decline in the media more broadly and local newsrooms closing, why would we not support a community television service? But in fact that’s what’s been happening under this government. They have tried to take away this important community local service from us. At a time when social cohesion, national culture and our identity needed to be fostered, this government was trying to take away the signal for community television and instead put it online.
I heard, very clearly, from people involved in community TV and also from those who watch this service—particularly older people, who are not used to watching online—what a change that would mean for them. It would mean that their service was really no longer what they were looking for and relying on. That really is just a broad indication of how this government views media and how it views it as a service to our community—not as something that needs to be supported and not as something it needs to think about. ‘Yes, this is a time of disruption; things are changing and the traditional model is being disrupted and doesn’t provide the revenue that it once did.’ Where is the thinking by this government about how it steps in and supports a broader media sector in our regions and in communities like mine?
It’s time for the government to put its money where its mouth is. We don’t need piecemeal changes like this; we need a broader plan for how this government will support storytelling in communities across our country. Without it, we’re at risk of being exposed to misinformation and disinformation. We’re at risk of people pushing agendas and we’re at risk in times of crisis—in a pandemic, in a bushfire—of people missing out on information that could literally save lives. Is that something this government wants to be responsible for?
There is more that this government could be doing to support our media sector and there is more that it could be doing to support our ABC. In fact, it is vitally important that this government fund the ABC adequately and that it make sure the ABC can employ the journalists it needs in our regional centres and our cities across the country so that we get accurate and timely information. It’s time for the government to think much more broadly about how it supports this sector and what the overall plan is, rather than piecemeal reform. If the government really cared about regional and rural media, it would include the broader sector as part of the regional grants it’s been putting out there, but that hasn’t happened either. It’s time for the government to come up with that broader plan and the broader suggestions about support. Otherwise, I fear that there won’t be a next generation of regional journalists or a generation of people like me who learnt how to do our jobs in regional areas, who got to talk about and support communities and who were part of the infrastructure that kept local businesses going. We told the stories of local sporting clubs, went to the local council meetings each week and did all those things that actually help to keep our communities ticking over.
If we don’t do something now those services will not be there in the future. Perhaps we will be running off a local Facebook page—perhaps, if those communities are lucky. They certainly won’t have a regional television service. Unfortunately, many of them already don’t because of the failures of this government. They won’t have a regional radio service; again, too many of those have closed. They won’t have a regional newspaper; newspapers which have existed in our country for decades now are closing on this government’s watch. I’m amazed that people in the government, particularly those who say they stand up for regional and rural Australians, think that’s acceptable. I’m amazed that they think they’re doing enough and that this bill does enough. It doesn’t. We need a much more comprehensive plan. Our media is in danger and it’s time for this government to step up.