TRANSCRIPT - RADIO INTERVIEW - ABC MORNINGS WITH RAFAEL EPSTEIN - 29 AUGUST 2017

SUBJECT/S: Media ownership. 

RAFAEL EPSTEIN: The Shadow Minster for Communications is Michelle Rowland. Good morning

MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Good morning.

EPSTEIN: He’s got a point doesn't he? Every single person in the media sector thinks the government’s got the right idea.

ROWLAND: Well for a start Labor is opposed to repeal of the 2 out of 3 rule based on the evidence that Australia has one of the most concentrated media markets in the world. I'm not surprised that the media industry, that the sector, seeks to have a number of changes brought about in this area. But let’s be clear, Labor is prepared to allow repeal of the 75 per cent reach rule. We backed in the abolition of broadcasting license fees. The reality is the only item on the table, and it’s been nearly a year on the table now, that Labor does not support is the repeal of the 2 out of 3 rule, and the fact is this is based on the evidence. The evidence shows how concentrated our media sector is, and abolishing this rule won't make it better. And I'll also say, the Minister hitched his wagon to Ten's issues and in June basically said that this was a reason in order to let the passage of these reforms go through. 

EPSTEIN: It was one reason, not his only reason, but I'll get onto Channel 10 in a moment. I'm not sure you have explained, I know you are not in favour of scrapping the 2 out of 3 rule because you say it reduces media diversity, but if you are listening to this, and you don't know media policy well, you've got every media organisation in the country, plus the government, saying this whole package of reforms are needed. Yep, you lose some you win some, but you need everyone to agree with everything. You're right and they are all wrong. How do you persuade people of that?

ROWLAND: For a start, you look at the evidence as I said and you look at the fact that the government is arguing 'well because of the internet' - because of the internet we don't need any of these safeguards. These safeguards are important for ensuring that we do have diversity in Australia's media. The reality is that of the top ten news sites in Australia, seven of them are old media. Old media still matters, it’s the same voices on different platforms and there's a very good reason why they were introduced and it's to serve the purposes of the Broadcasting Services Act, among other things, and also to ensure we do have a diversity of voices. And let me make this clear for your listeners too: once this is gone, it's gone. There's a very clear reason why this was put in and as I said it’s to ensure we do have diversity, but also it’s very clear that our existing competition laws, the general competition laws, don't take into account the public interest. And whilst the Minister talks about and said that he is unashamedly backing this in because all the industry supports it, the reality is we need to think about consumers at the centre of this as well. And that's one thing the Minister is not good at considering. 

EPSTEIN: Do you think this is a good deal for Channel 10 to effectively be controlled, owned, purchases by CBS?

ROWLAND: Well Channel 10 have obviously welcomed it, and the fact that CBS has a very high market capitalisation, a strong business model providing news and current affairs would be, I think, of great comfort to Channel 10. 

EPSTEIN: The shareholders lose out though don't they? Under the alternative bid that would require changes to the law, the shareholders would at least get something back; I think they get a quarter of their shares. Under this one they get nothing. 

ROWLAND: Well I think that there will be a lot of analysis about who wins and who loses out of this deal. 

EPSTEIN: I'm interested in your analysis, I mean it’s clearly bad for shareholders so do you welcome the bid?

ROWLAND: Well the bid is there because it is really the administrators doing their jobs. And its clear Channel 10 needed a buyer. It's got a buyer, it's got a buyer that's interested in maintaining not only news and current affairs, but is regarded is a prime broadcasting asset and to grow that legacy of good Australian news, drama and sports programming, so that’s good news for Channel 10. But you did touch on the issue of, and it was mentioned by the Prime Minister, the issue of foreign ownership. Well I'll point out that it was the Howard Government that removed all media specific foreign ownership and control limits, leaving only the foreign investment policy to regulate. 

EPSTEIN: I think that ship has sailed hasn't it? Channel 9 is owned by private equity from overseas. 

ROWLAND: Absolutely. But I point out that yesterday the Prime Minister seemed to be alluding to this somehow being a bad thing because it was an overseas buyer, and even some of the crossbench have come out today and, as you said, that ship well and truly sailed with the Howard Government.

EPSTEIN: Are you glad this has happened because there is no further concentration of the Murdoch family's interests? Is that one of the reasons you opposed the repeal of the 2 out of 3 rule. You don't want Murdoch related companies to have more influence?

ROWLAND: We've opposed it based on the evidence. We made our position very clear in a dissenting report to the Senate last year and before we brought our position about we consulted widely with all of the sector, did our own research and may I say that at the time more than a year ago now I made it clear that Labor was very prepared to scrap the existing 75 per cent reach rule but on the 2 out of 3 rule we needed convincing. And one of the ways in which we could do that was have probably the first real inquiry into media concentration since the Productivity Commission in the year 2000. 

EPSTEIN: I understand, I'm not saying you do have this view or not. I'm just trying to establish if it’s something that Labor believes. Is it a problem for the News Corporation or Murdoch related companies, Lachlan Murdoch as well, to own more media companies in this country. Is it a problem or not?

ROWLAND: Well we think it is a problem to have the high levels of media concentration that we have and for any transaction that makes that problem worse.

EPSTEIN: Michelle Rowland is with me, she's the Shadow Minister for Communications. 1300 222 774 is the phone number. Michelle Rowland I know it’s hard for you to peer into the minds of other people, however do you think the government is likely to get support for an inquiry into what's called 'competitive neutrality'. It would look at whether or not the ABC can, for example, spend money to promote our news results up a Google search. Do you think that sort of inquiry is likely to happen?

ROWLAND: Well firstly, what is 'competitive neutrality'? Are we talking technological neutrality, are we talking business or reporting neutrality?

EPSTEIN: Well I gave you one very solid example of the Google search result. 

ROWLAND: Yes, that is one area into which they could enquire. Again, I can't see how this government thinks that is going to somehow be a replacement for scrapping an important aspect of preserving media diversity in Australia. 

EPSTEIN: I understand you are opposed to what the government's proposing. I have just have heard Nick Xenophon, who is crucial voice on this, I mean he’s quite open to the idea. I just wonder if you think that inquiry will happen.

ROWLAND: Look, anything can happen quite frankly, but it looks like Nick Xenophon has been lining up to do some sort of deal on the issue and as you said I can't peer into people's minds. I can only look at some of the statements that have been made.

EPSTEIN: So you're not convinced for the need of that review then?

ROWLAND: No we are not. We are not convinced of any aspects that have been designed purely with an effort of undermining the ABC and SBS. 

EPSTEIN: What about changing the law that governs the ABC? There's already impartial in there under the legislation. We've got so many different pieces of paper ruling what I can and can’t do on the air which is fine. I just wonder if you think, if you included fair and balanced as part of the law, which is something One Nation wants, would it make any difference.

ROWLAND: Well I think you have to ask whether it would make any difference because already there are requirements in the ABC Code in order to provide that sort of impartiality. So you've got to wonder, how did this get sold to One Nation? What has the government actually promised is going to be different? And quite frankly I can't see what would end up being different apart from this being another swipe at the ABC.

EPSTEIN: Just one personal hobby horse of mine, I'm going to lobby you on the air. Can we have the legislation say that the ABC should be balanced according to the weight of the evidence? Can we make that law?

ROWLAND: Well I'm not someone who is in the position to guarantee that for you.

EPSTEIN: You represent a voice in the Parliament. 

ROWLAND: Well I certainly think what your saying could be looked into, but I wouldn't want this to be some sort of excuse to simply come out and bash the ABC as has been the case. 

EPSTEIN: I was viewing it as very much a way of strengthening the ABC, if we had to be balanced according to the weight of the ABC that would strengthen the ABC, not weaken it. 

ROWLAND: Well again it could, but I would be very reluctant to be advocating policy on the run here without actually having a look at what sort of failures we are seeking to address. 

EPSTEIN: Okay I'm just happy I’m going to try and float that idea as much as possible, see if it gets any traction. Thank you for your time.

ROWLAND: Pleasure.