Media Policy: Priorities for a New Government Seminar Communications and Media Law Association (CAMLA) and International Institute of Communications (IIC) Australian Chapter

I begin by acknowledging the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we meet today.

I pay my respects to their Elders past and present.

I extend that respect to any First Nations people who are attending.

And I take this moment to affirm the Albanese Government’s commitment to implementing the Uluru Statement in full: Voice, Treaty and Truth. 

It is fitting that we are hosted by Gilbert + Tobin who have, with Danny Gilbert in particular, been at the forefront of advocating on First Nations interests for many years.

Whether it be proudly collecting and curating First Nations artwork, which they have on display in their offices, or working on stolen wages cases, advancing the interests of First Nations Australians is the norm here and I was privileged to be a part of it.

Thank you to CAMLA and the IIC Australian Chapter for the opportunity to speak today about the Government’s media policy priorities.

Australia is fortunate to have such esteemed platforms for media and communications policy dialogue, and the support of your members, as well as Gilbert + Tobin, in convening this event is much appreciated.

I am delighted to be here, to discuss next steps with experts who have worked through the remarkable evolution of the media and communications sector over recent decades – one that has seen everything from Project Blue Sky, to Twitter’s blue tick.

Just under six months ago, the Albanese Labor Government was elected on a platform of “A Better Future”. 

A modest yet powerful promise – to change Australia for the better.

Whatever your political persuasion, this audience knows better than any that, when it comes to media reform, Australia can indeed do better – both in terms of levelling the playing field for industry and in supporting citizen and consumer interests.

In the October Budget context, I announced a range of measures to fund my election commitments to better connect, inform and empower Australians.

Of course, Australian media outlets are vital in achieving this goal. 

  • They connect Australians – bringing the nation together, whether for sporting events, reality TV shows, or emergency broadcasting during natural disasters.
  • They inform Australians – raising awareness, be it with news and current affairs, comedy, documentary or advertising, and helping people make the choices that underpin the operation of our society, economy and democracy. 
  • They empower Australians – enabling the creative sector to showcase Australia’s immense local talent, and educating us – particularly by providing parents with a trusted source of entertainment for children. 

But as we all know, the environment in which our media companies are operating is undergoing significant upheaval.

Changes will be needed if media markets are to continue to provide the services that are so valued by us as individuals and as a community. 

Where are we now?

I’m not intending to spend a lot of time today making the case for reform. 

For the most part, I don’t need to. 

Numerous reviews and inquiries have identified the upheaval underway in our media markets, the shortcoming in our regulatory frameworks, and sketched out the shape of necessary change. 

Many times over, the same or similar problems and solutions have been identified.

There is broad consensus that our laws need to be updated for the digital era.

Yet, as we came into Government, we inherited a situation where not enough of the heavy lifting or the intellectual hard yards had been done. 

The previous administration didn’t heed the advice of past inquiries and reviews. Or where they did, the efforts at reform were half-baked or underwhelming. 

Their 2017 media law changes were cherrypicked deregulation. 

Their 2019 response to the ACCC’s Digital Platforms Inquiry went unrealised, with certain processes commenced, but not delivered.

And, more fundamentally, the regulatory framework wasn’t modernised and remained stuck in the analog era. 

But that isn’t to say that all past endeavours were without merit.

The News Media Bargaining Code, recommended by the ACCC, acknowledged the importance of public interest journalism and the need to address a bargaining power imbalance between news organisations and the larger digital platforms. 

The additional gambling advertising restrictions introduced in 2017, called for by Labor, sought to apply a more consistent approach to the regulation of gambling advertising.

The Future of Broadcasting Working Group – set up in the dying days of the previous administration – is a useful forum for industry and Government to consider issues relating to the future of television broadcasting.  

But these are fairly minor exceptions to the rule. 

We have a lot of work to do just to catch-up: to move Australia’s policy settings and regulatory frameworks into the 21st century.

A policy pile-up and backlog of issues that could have been resolved by now.

All while the range of contemporary challenges facing media businesses and governments around the world demand urgent attention: privacy; data; advertising technology; and misinformation, to name a few.    

We need to get on with the job, and we intend to do so. 

And in doing so, we need to be principled, evidence-informed and consultative.

Our reform objectives

When it comes to the principles, we continue to be guided by the objectives and regulatory policy of the Broadcasting Services Act, as well as Enduring Concepts around market standards, social and economic participation, cultural values and safeguards.

Some of the key objectives that will guide our media reform program include that:

  • We want a level playing field: one in which Australian media outlets can thrive while maintaining Australia’s well-earned reputation as desirable place to invest and grow new businesses. 
  • We want all Australians to have equitable access to media services and content, regardless of financial means or location. 
  • We want to consistently regulate services that make available content that is ‘like’ TV and radio, and to achieve key policy objectives – such as media that respects community standards and reflects our cultural identity – with the flexibility to accommodate new and emerging services and technologies.
  • We want Australians to have access to a vibrant and diverse range of news media, as well as relevant local media, where no one voice dominates political and social debates.   

This is not an exhaustive list. And those objectives that I have called out today are not new and they are not novel.

They have been articulated – to varying degrees – in the many reports, papers, reviews and inquiries into the Australian media conducted over the past decade or more. 

But it doesn’t need to be new and shiny to be worth doing. 

And while the principles remain, changes in media and communications mean that regulatory frameworks need to be recast if these principles are to carry through.

Media policy in this country has been ‘stuck in a rut’ of unambitious agendas and failed execution. 

We want to break that pattern. 

To work together with industry and consumers to achieve meaningful, lasting reform. 

To support a strong local media industry and enable all Australians to engage and participate in cultural, political and economic life in Australia. 

So where to begin? 

When I had the privilege of being sworn in as Communications Minister on 1 June 2022:

  • the Alston Determination was set to expire in September 2022;
  • the current anti-siphoning list was due to lapse in April 2023; and 
  • the evidence-base needed to inform government intervention in the sector was lacking.

At the opening of the 47th Parliament, the Government had a mandate to deliver on its election commitments across a range of media sectors.

And there were three years to get things done as part of a new Government focussed not on empty announcements or go-nowhere processes, but on outcomes and delivery.

In August this year, I set the wheels in motion by releasing a consultation paper seeking views on a proposal to remake the Broadcasting Services Definition Exclusion Determination.

The instrument was remade in September and, while not a reform initiative in itself, it is necessary to provide stability and certainty to industry while we progress a broader reform agenda. 

The new Determination maintains the arrangements that have been in place since the year 2000, providing that online live-streaming services are not ‘broadcasting services’ for the purposes of the Broadcasting Services Act. 

This is an interim step towards a broader goal; one that I articulated earlier this year in the foreword to the consultation paper.

The Albanese Government is committed to a program of work to modernise media regulations and fulfil the legitimate expectations of citizens and consumers and industry for consistency, transparency and equity in our regulatory environment. 

Over the five-year duration of the Determination, the Government will develop, test and implement new regulatory arrangements that are fit for the digital age.

In some cases, we will need to build a better evidence base before embarking on reforms.  

In others, we are ready to address identified concerns and shortcomings. 

The Government’s media reform program will involve a number of work streams, with extensive opportunity for those interested to contribute to these processes. 

It will address significant issues as part of a program of systemic regulatory reform and modernisation. 

This work will be sequenced and progressed in three parts:

  • Immediate priorities;
  • Medium-term priorities; and 
  • Longer-term priorities.  

In the immediate term, we will focus on three areas. 

  • The implementation of a legislative framework to support the prominence of local television services on smart TVs. 
  • The review of the anti-siphoning scheme and list and – pending the outcomes of the review – the implementation of any related reforms. 
  • The consideration of streaming services within the framework for Australian content – as part of consultation to inform the development of a new National Cultural Policy by the Minister for the Arts. 

In parallel, we will develop a News Media Assistance Program, or ‘News MAP’. This is a program of work that will lay the foundations for principled, targeted and evidence-based intervention to support the news media sector.

Our timeframe for these priority reforms will be 2023.  In addition to work by ACMA, which I will canvass in more detail shortly, early in 2023 my Department will consult with stakeholders on the framework for the News MAP. Pending the outcomes of the relevant consultation processes we want to be in a position to announce any new measures, and commence their implementation, by the end of the coming year.    

I’ll come back to expand on these immediate priorities in a moment. 

In the medium term, we will also consider other areas well-acknowledged as in need of attention.  

With this approach, the Government is being pragmatic by addressing known issues for which there is broad-based acceptance of the need for reform. 

This will include reform tasks previously identified, or commenced, but not delivered.

While the reform agenda is still being developed, examples of reform tasks commenced but not delivered include: classification; advertising restrictions; consumer safeguards and protections, as well as progress on media literacy. 

Although not on the same timetable as our priority reforms, I expect to be able to say more about processes to advance medium term priorities in the coming months.     

In the longer term, work will be undertaken around the future of television, building upon work now underway to obtain the information needed to make choices relating to broadcasting technologies, including spectrum planning and consumer impacts.

While this work has a longer time horizon, extending well beyond this term of Parliament, it is imperative that it be progressed in earnest now so that outcomes may be realised in accordance with important principles like competitiveness, efficiency and access.

Likewise, some related issues that demand near-term consideration include the Commercial Broadcasting Tax arrangements as well as the contract for Viewer Access Satellite Television, or VAST, service – issues that have been stuck in a cycle of short-termism.

As we work to develop, sequence and implement our broader media reform agenda stakeholders are welcome to share their views with my Office and Department on the principles, priorities and processes that should guide and shape this work.

Already, industry stakeholders have been engaging on the issues on which they would like to see progress, and this constructive input is appreciated – as is the acknowledgement of the resource and timing constraints that we all face.

I will have more to say on the Government’s media reform agenda in the new year, and am mindful of the need for stakeholders to understand our program, or roadmap, and how it answers the need for holistic reform by establishing the foundations of a more modern regulatory framework over the current term of Parliament.

I’ll now expand on each of our immediate priorities in turn.

And I’ll start with prominence, which is an issue that goes to the heart of media and communications policy. 

The Government has committed to legislate a prominence framework to ensure that local TV services can easily be found on connected TV platforms. 

This goes to the first of the media reform objectives I noted earlier: the importance of supporting a level playing field for Australian media businesses in which they can compete effectively. 

Prominence refers to how easy it is to find particular services within the interface of a smart TV. 

This is a complicated issue and I have asked a broad range of stakeholders to consider the issues and contribute to the initial design work for the new prominence framework. 

This includes TV broadcasters, television and set-top box manufacturers, operating system providers, streaming services, telecommunications operators and consumer representative groups. 

The Government will continue to progress the development of the framework over the remainder of 2022, with broader public consultation on a prominence proposal to commence later this year.  

Here I also note that the radio industry has raised issues associated with the prominence of their services on car audio systems and connected devices. 

Whether local content is being consumed visually or aurally, the principles are the same.

This is something that the Government will look at once the television prominence framework is more advanced, and we can take on board the learnings from that process.  

The Government has also committed to reviewing the anti-siphoning scheme and list. 

This supports another of the media reform objectives I noted earlier: ensuring that all Australians have equitable access to media services and content, regardless of how much they earn or where they live. 

The Albanese Government is committed to equity, and recognises the need for events of national importance and cultural significance to remain free of charge and accessible to the Australian public. 

The anti-siphoning scheme operates to support this outcome, regulating the order in which television broadcasting rights to important events may be acquired by subscription and free-to-air TV broadcasters. 

However, it is a regulatory mechanism that was developed some 30 years ago and it is timely to assess whether it remains fit for purpose and whether changes may be warranted. 

I initiated the review last month and this is being supported by a consultation process, allowing all those with an interest to contribute.   

Submissions will be open until 6 December and next steps will be informed by the consultation, with the Government to make further announcements ahead of the expiry of the current list in April next year. 

Moving on to Australian content on streaming services, streaming services are one of the most popular ways Australians consume screen and music content.

However, unlike free-to-air commercial broadcasting services and subscription television, these streaming services have no requirements to invest in, or make Australian content available.

This goes to another of the previously mentioned media reform objectives: the desire to consistently regulate services and achieve key policy objectives with the flexibility to accommodate new and emerging services and technologies.

As part of the development of the National Cultural Policy, my colleague, the Hon Tony Burke MP, Minister for the Arts, has been examining the availability of Australian screen content on streaming platforms – an Arts/Comms crossover issue that our two offices are working on together.  

A National Cultural Policy is a broad, comprehensive roadmap for Australia’s arts and culture that touches all areas of government.

It will inform work in the Communications Portfolio to modernise media regulation and update analog-era broadcasting legislation for the digital age.

The Government will have more to say about Australian screen content on streaming platforms in due course. 

In addition, the Government has committed to progress measures to support a sustainable and diverse media sector. 

Strong and sustainable news media outlets are critical to the health of Australia’s democracy and it is important that all Australians – including those living in remote, rural and regional areas – have access a diverse range of news, content and information.

A key media reform objective is to ensure that Australians have access to a vibrant and diverse range of news media.   

To support this objective, the Government is implementing a program of work to support media diversity and public interest journalism in Australia.

In the October 2022 Budget, the Government maintained existing programs to support the media sector, including:

  • The Television Research and Policy Development Program to provide the Government and industry with the information needed to make choices about the future of free-to-air television services in Australia.
  • The extension of transitional support to relevant regional broadcasters for two additional years.
  • A Journalist Fund to support the provision of public interest journalism in the regions.

In addition, the Government made additional funding commitments to support the media sector, including:

  • Better funding for the ABC and SBS with 5-year funding terms and $83.7 million to the ABC to reinstate funding cut by the previous Government.
  • A $15 million lifeline for over 200 regional and local independent newspaper publishers across the country, including First Nations and multicultural publishers, under the Regional and Local Newspaper Publishers Program.
  • An additional $4 million per year of ongoing funding for the Community Broadcasting Program from 2023-24, taking annual funding for the program to over $20 million per year.

Here, I will take a moment to say that when it comes to the ABC and SBS, my commitments demonstrate a clear intention to strengthen the independence of public broadcasting.

And I affirm the words of the ABC Chair, Ita Buttrose, in her address at the ABC 90th Anniversary Gala Dinner, as follows:

“People often underestimate the importance of public broadcasting to democracy. It’s a fact, confirmed by European Broadcasting Union research, that in countries where public service media is well funded and enjoys a high market share there is more political stability and corruption is under control.”

As I stated earlier, in parallel with our immediate reform priorities, the Government has also committed $4 million towards the development of a News Media Assistance Program, or News MAP, to secure the evidence base needed to inform longer-term news media policy interventions. 

For all the reviews and inquiries into the news media sector over the past decade, for all the recommendations and measures that have been put forward, and for all the millions in taxpayer funding that has been distributed, there is no evidence-based framework to guide government intervention and assistance for the news media sector.

Nothing to guide what form of support should be directed, to what form of media, and no systemic data collection by Government when it comes to the availability of news media publication – print or online.

Government intervention to support public interest journalism should be done within a principles-based and evidence-informed framework.

The News MAP will secure the evidence base needed to inform news media policy interventions and formulate measures to support public interest journalism and media diversity. 

We will consult with stakeholders over the coming months on key design parameters. 

This new framework will guide the future implementation of news media support measures in a systematic manner. 

This process will examine, among other issues, ways to improve the scope and integration of current data relating to public interest news availability and diversity, and evaluation of the impact of Government interventions.

It is also important that we get a more accurate and nuanced understanding of the media diversity landscape across the country. 

A strong and diverse news media market helps promote pluralism and protect our democratic processes – ensuring Australians have access to a range of relevant news and information and that no one voice dominates. 

To inform news media policy interventions and develop measures to support public interest journalism and media diversity, the Government needs robust evidence of the news market – including what news is available for Australians and what are they consuming.

Traditional measures of media diversity are based on rules set out in the Broadcasting Services Act 1992. These rules measure and regulate ownership and control of traditional TV, print and radio. They are grounded in an analog age. They do not look at consumption and popularity of news sources, and they do not account for digital news services.

Of course, when we think about media diversity, it’s as much about service diversity as production diversity. 

This is part of the reason why I have been so focussed on support for the community broadcasting sector. An unsung hero which, alongside our national broadcasters, commercial broadcasters and subscription broadcasters, provide much needed diversity. 

Community radio and community television services have persevered, survived and flourished. They have wide reach and showcase such diversity, in terms of ethnicity and socio-economic backgrounds, across content production and delivery. 

Just the other day, I was being interviewed on SWR FM, a community radio station for Sydney’s West, from a caravan in Blacktown. It was a breakfast show and I was talking about the Government’s NBN announcement and playing some of my favourite songs.

And get this: I get a text message some someone who lives in Woollahra, in Sydney’s East, who was listening online. Someone who loves SWR FM and listens to in on an app, because – according to him – they play the best music.  

Australians are increasingly consuming news content online – than via TV, radio or print.

It’s fascinating to learn of platforms like Tik Tok becoming increasingly important for news consumption, in particular video news content, and for certain demographics.

Notably, around half of all Australians use social media or messaging platforms to access news in a given week, with 17% of Australians relying on these platforms as their main source of news.

In response to changing consumption patterns, and in order to inform any reform to our media laws, there is a need to consider new and better approaches to how we measure news diversity.

The level of media concentration is an issue of concern to many Australians. 

Indeed, concern about media concentration is why Labor in Opposition opposed the repeal of the 2 out of 3 cross-media control rules in 2017. 

In my second reading speech on that bill in Parliament, over five years ago, I noted the words of the Acting Chair of the ACMA at the time who said:

“Just as other jurisdictions are recognising, we need a more nuanced way of assessing media influence and diversity of views and content that takes account of the dynamic digital media environment and the real consumption patterns of and impacts on citizens. The challenges of delivering the objectives of promoting diversity and managing influence provide an opportunity for a fundamental rethink of our whole media regulatory construct.” 

In December 2020, the ACMA published a research paper, ‘News in Australia: diversity and localism’, that examined this issue in detail and proposed an alternative ‘news measurement framework’ for Australia. 

This framework, developed in collaboration with leading experts in the field, consists of a set of interrelated indicators that could be tracked over time and provide us with a better, more holistic understanding of the contemporary, changing news environment.

It seeks to measure the news market at differing geographic scales – national, state and local – and would look at key measures of: 

  • source diversity – the extent to which the news media market is populated by a diverse array of content providers;
  • content diversity – the extent to which news media content presents different voices, viewpoints and demographic profiles; and
  • consumption diversity – the extent to which audiences consume a diverse array of news media content.

As part of our approach to the broader media reform agenda, I asked the regulator if this work might be taken forward to the next phase. 

And today I am pleased to announce that: 

In early 2023, the ACMA will release a consultation paper, seeking input on these matters from a broader range of interested parties. The ACMA will also be looking for new research and data sources that may assist finalising and implementing the model.

Stakeholder feedback will help inform the next stages of the ACMA’s work, including potential pilot projects and other measurement activities to be undertaken throughout 2023.

The project will be closely aligned with and inform the work of my Department under our News Media Assistance Program.

If we are to address the issue of media diversity in Australia, it is sound data and evidence that will pave the way forward, not yet another review or inquiry. 

I mentioned earlier our objective of consistently regulating like services and achieving key policy objectives with the flexibility to accommodate new and emerging services and technologies.

This issue of consistency – or the lack of it – in our current regulatory arrangements is one that needs a significant attention. 

Australian audiences expect that media content they access is subject to basic safeguards that reflect contemporary community standards. 

They expect that service operators have processes and systems in place to reduce the potential for harms and enable concerns and complaints to be addressed. 

These audience expectations were highlighted in a position paper released by the Australian Communications and Media Authority earlier this year: What audiences want—Audience expectations for content safeguards.

Australian audiences also expect that services providing audio and audio-visual content via the internet are subject to consistent rules and obligations. 

At the moment, we can’t say that those expectations are being met. 

Content and programs that are accessed by a user on a broadcasting service are not subject to the same regulatory safeguards and protections as content on programs on an online service – even if the content is identical. 

This is relevant given that streaming and on-demand media content is increasingly indistinguishable from ‘traditional’ television and radio content, from a consumer perspective.

Our longer-term reform program will seek to address this issue of consistency. 

This doesn’t mean that different forms of media need to be subject to the same regulatory measure or instrument, or even the same regulator.

But the regulatory outcome should be consistent and transparent, so that users can have confidence and trust in the media content that they consume.  

I have outlined thus far a range of immediate and longer-term priorities for media reform.

But media policy issues don’t neatly fit into the delineations made between Commonwealth portfolios. 

This is a feature common to many contemporary issues that governments are required to grapple with. 

Over the past five years, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has been examining a wide range of issues associated with digital platforms through its Digital Platforms Inquiry, Digital Advertising Services Inquiry and the ongoing Digital Platform Services Inquiry.

The September 2022 interim report of the Digital Advertising Services Inquiry is a significant milestone for this process. 

I am eager to consider the ACCC’s recommendations, and work towards making the online environment a more competitive, fair and trustworthy space for Australian users and businesses. 

My colleague, the Hon Mark Dreyfus KC, MP, Attorney-General, is progressing a significant review of privacy laws. 

Defamation law reform and media freedom are also areas of significant concern for media stakeholders. 

As the Attorney-General stated in his recent Press Club address, improved protections for press freedom are needed, and the Albanese Government intends to progress further legislative reform as a priority – including responding to important reports on press freedom from the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security and the Senate Standing Committee on Environment and Communications, from the last parliament. 

And I mentioned earlier the development of the National Cultural Policy is being led by the Minister for the Arts, the Hon Tony Burke MP. 

The Government is committed to working collaboratively through these and other processes. 

As Minister for Communications, I will ensure that the views and perspectives of media consumers and media stakeholders are well represented.  

Not everything can be achieved in this term of Parliament. As I flagged earlier, this will be a multi-year program of work. 

But in this term, we want to get runs on the board. 

We want to make real progress in modernising our regulatory framework for the digital age, and to do so in a systematic and sensible way that can be built upon in future years. 

Over the next year, and in this term of Parliament, we have a real opportunity to step forward into digital era regulation that reflects the reality of the way that content is consumed in the contemporary media environment. 

Without pre-empting the outcomes of Government processes, it is apparent that:

  • With our focus on anti-siphoning, prominence and the provision of Australian content on streaming services, we can make real progress in relation to bringing over-the-top streaming services into the regulatory framework. 
  • With our focus on the News MAP, we can build the evidence base for measures to support public interest journalism and media diversity and, as appropriate, take steps to enhance the sustainability of our news media sector.
  • With our focus on the development of a broader media reform agenda, we can identify an ongoing program of work to guide Government and industry and drive beneficial outcomes for industry, citizens and consumers. 

In short, and to hark back to our election promise: we will do better. We will make progress to get media policy into better shape.

There will be many opportunities for interested stakeholders and individuals to contribute as our reform agenda unfolds. 

And with the wide variety of stakeholders across the media industry, we may not always agree, but I am committed to conducting evidence-based and consultative processes to take things forward decisively, in a principled manner.  

I want all groups to have the opportunity to shape these reforms. This reflects the Government’s commitment to an open and transparent reform process. 

I want to extend my thanks to all of you – it is a privilege to be able to attend events such as this where I am surrounded by individuals who are very passionate about the industry and policy.   

I am pleased I could join you today, to share with you the way forward for the media landscape in Australia. 

I look forward to working with you to bring this program of work to fruition.