This week Senator Nick Xenophon threw a spanner in the works of the deal the Turnbull government has secured with One Nation on media reforms, central to which were a raft of restrictions on the ABC.
Having originally agreed to One Nation’s demand for the ABC’s charter to include a statement that the broadcaster needed to be ‘fair and balanced’, (as opposed to ‘accurate’ and ‘impartial’ which is in the current wording of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983), the government is under pressure to rethink its arrangement with the far-right party, after Xenophon and his NXT party voiced their disagreement.
Crossbench support in the senate is crucial for the government’s changes to media laws to be passed. The reforms proposed – which have widespread industry support – include cutting licence fees for commercial TV networks and scrapping the ‘reach rule’ which prevents any one TV broadcaster from reaching more than 75 per cent of the population.
In its efforts to get the reforms through the senate the government has also agreed to One Nation’s demand for an inquiry into whether commercial channels are disadvantaged when competing with the ABC, and to force the ABC to publish details of wages and conditions of staff who are paid more than $200,000 per year.
Xenophon told ABC radio on Wednesday that he could not support such a deal.
“[This] is not about the ABC or SBS,” he said, adding that he could not see the need for “the so-called ‘fair and balanced’ test. What that would mean to the ABC, in terms of the way it could fearlessly report issues. . . really concerns me.
The senator added that for ABC staff to have their salaries published “would be quite unprecedented and put the ABC at a real disadvantage with commercial broadcasters”.
Xenophon said one of the priorities for the government’s media reform package was to respond to “the existential crisis that commercial media has found itself in, largely as a result of the rise of Google and Facebook – the fact that they hoover away $4b worth of advertising revenue in this country from commercial media outlets.
With redundancies in the Australian media industry since 2008 meaning 3000 journalist jobs had been lost, Xenophon said one remedy “would be to give tax breaks to publishers, to smaller mastheads and broadcasters, but principally. . . to online and print media, and if you had and accelerated tax write-offs similar to R&D concessions, that would turbocharge media in this country.
“It would create, if it’s done properly, many hundreds of jobs for journalists around the country. It would lead to more diversity and greater coverage . . .”
Xenophon’s efforts behind the scenes with the Greens on an alternative reforms package bore fruit on Thursday when communications minister Senator Mitch Fifield released a statement confirming the ACCC will be asked to conduct an inquiry into the impact Google and Facebook are having on Australian journalism.
Senator Fifield also confirmed the government would look at measures to enhance local content in regional television markets, extend community television licences, and work closely with NXT “to develop further policy measures to ensure local journalism remains vibrant in our communities”.