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Rushed media legislation a disgrace

By Jacqueline Elaine - posted Thursday, 21 March 2013


Senator Stephen Conroy has been presenting himself as the local hero for new Australian stories for years. Yet he has cloaked his agenda in so much rhetoric that even his own cabinet was blind-sided when a swag of far-reaching media reforms were unveiled with a 'take it or leave it' ultimatum. Those reforms included Conroy's two, so-called, "uncontroversial bills".

The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Convergence Review and Other Measures) Bill 2013 is a crucial piece of legislation determining the future of Australian stories on Australian screens.

The Convergence Review undertook 16 months of broad and comprehensive consultation and analysis; Senator Conroy's office considered the recommendations for almost a year; and then gave Parliament barely three days before the vote was taken. These were the same three days that Canberra erupted in a media frenzy, with heated debate on press regulation, media concentration and even Labor Party leadership speculation. One parliamentary staffer even claimed they hadn't seen such disorder since the week former PM Kevin Rudd stood down ahead of the leadership spill in 2010.

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As a result, this legislation was not given the airspace it so needed as the primary instrument protecting the future of Australian stories on free-to-air television.

When the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy first slashed licence fees for the commercial free-to-air broadcasters it was under banner headlines carried in media across the country as "Investment in protecting new Australian stories".

There was never any actual requirement for new Australian stories linked to that rebate. But Conroy knows that Australians care about seeing their stories on Australian screens, and the rhetoric makes for good headlines. In that guise his announcements became good news story of support for art and culture that barely rate a mention in the media.

When lobbied about the disingenuous headlines by the Australians who make those local stories, the response was that it was an interim measure; and the reforms that would flow from the Convergence Review would bring the regulatory framework that was needed for the future. He has now revealed that future and it is bleak and it is bewildering.

One of the most compelling reasons for government intervention in this area is to ensure that quality, culturally significant, Australian screen stories continue to be made despite them being far less profitable for television broadcasters than other forms of programming. The Convergence Review, the Productivity Commission Report before it, and comprehensive international comparative analysis are unequivocal about this.

The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Convergence Review and Other Measures) Bill 2013 is so-called because it was intended to be the legislative response to the recommendations of the Convergence Review. The Review was commissioned by the Government to undertake comprehensive analysis and consultation and provide guidelines for affecting policy intentions through regulation in the rapidly evolving proliferation of content delivery platforms.

It presented recommendations which balanced the needs of both the free-to-air networks and the cultural significance and commercial fragility of Australian drama, as distinct from "content".

Confusion between content and drama is being deliberately fostered and exploited. Australian content includes news, sport, reality, repeats, the whole kit and caboodle.

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The history of Australian television programming over the last ten years clearly demonstrates that any regulation requiring Australian content can and will be filled by everything but new Australian drama unless regulation dictates otherwise. The number of hours of drama, narrative comedy, children's drama and documentary directly mirror the government regulatory minimums. This is not a criticism of Australian broadcasters. It is the reality of English language markets across the world because the economics of investment in quality local programming simply don't add up. That is precisely the reason that government regulation is required if these stories that weave themselves into our lives and our culture are going to survive.

Instead Conroy has gifted the "commercial and regulatory certainty" the TV broadcasters have been baying for, but the commitment to new Australian stories is once again nothing but empty promises beneath misleading headlines.

Three days were given for the parliament to consider complex legislation locking in the only regulatory instrument governing the amount of new Australian stories we see on Australian television. Three days where no one mentioned that the existing requirement is only about three hours. Three days where three networks saw legislation tabled which looked like their Christmas wishlist. There was no discussion, no meaningful debate on a bill which rejects both the purpose and the policies underpinning it. The process was farcical, and the policy is flawed.

Prior to the vote this week, Channels 7, Nine and Ten had to show approximately three hours a week of new Australian drama, and only about half an hour per week of new children's drama on their main channel.

The number of broadcast hours per network has increased from 168 to 504 per week with the introduction of the digital multi channels, the licence fees they pay for that has been permanently cut in half saving them hundreds of millions of dollars, and yet the number of hours of new Australian drama they will need to screen each week will still be THREE.

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About the Author

Jacqueline Elaine is executive director of the Australian Writers' Guild.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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