Government's media reform plan rejected by key stakeholders

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

The federal government's latest media reform pitch has failed to win over key players in the industry, with regional media companies giving it a thumbs down at the first showing.

The plans, released for public comment on Friday, include selling off more of the radio-frequency spectrum currently reserved for free-to-air television and returning a portion of the government's profit back into industry to support the provision of more regional news and more Australian television content.

Foreign streaming services, which are currently unregulated, would have to commit to spending a portion of their revenue on producing Australian content.

The government also proposes to legislate stricter requirements on public broadcasters ABC and SBS to produce new Australian content, as currently exists for commercial television networks.

It's a delicate balancing act for Communications Minister Paul Fletcher, with members of his own government being strong supporters of the Save our Voices campaign, backing the regional news providers that serve 9 million Australians and keep their communities informed, connected and strong.

In an open letter to the minister, five media executives from the Save our Voices campaign said their attempts to have the minister discuss a workable plan with them fell on deaf ears.

The letter, signed by chief executives of WIN Network, Southern Cross Austereo Limited, Prime Media Group Limited and Imparja Television, and the executive chairman of Australian Community Media - the publisher of this newspaper - says the Fletcher plan fails to understand the urgency and extent of reforms needed: "Some 18 months after the regional media industry put a self-funding plan to Minister Fletcher for a vibrant and sustainable media sector, he has released his own plan which falls well short of a solution and would see regional media companies living off the public purse."

The proposed plan doesn't address sector's issues, specifically, how the government-owned NBN is facilitating access to the heavily regulated and licensed regional markets by the unregulated digital platforms of the metropolitan television networks and international tech media giants.

"The Fletcher plan is simply a grab for spectrum to bolster the federal government's coffers," the letter says.

The government, however, see these proposals as an opportunity to inject cash into the sector, which is already facing declining revenues, rising costs and an outdated regulatory framework.

"These structural pressures have been accelerated by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, reinforcing the need for regulatory action," Mr Fletcher said.

"What we are proposing would rebalance Australia's media regulations so that the industry can continue to support jobs, connect communities and keep Australian stories on our screens regardless of whether they prefer to watch free-to-air television, subscription television or video-on-demand services."

The government is seeking public submissions on the proposals by March 7, 2021.

This story Government's media reform plan rejected by key stakeholders first appeared on The Canberra Times.