SPEECH - ADDRESS TO CHANNEL 31 MELBOURNE AND GEELONG COMMUNITY TV FORUM - 12 OCTOBER 2017

I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to their elders, past and present. It’s really great to be here in Melbourne this fine evening.

Many thanks to Channel 31 for hosting me at this Community TV Forum, for the advice of your General Manager, Matt Field, in conceiving it, for the hard work of the staff Channel 31 and their dedicated team of young volunteers in setting everything up, as well as for the kind words of your Chair, Mike Zafiropoulos, just now.

Thanks also to RMIT for hosting all of us here on campus tonight. For the benefit of those watching the live stream, RMITV is the student-run television production house at RMIT that has a long history of producers and practitioners moving into professional employment in the industry. 

The alumni of RMITV include: Rove McManus, Peter Hellier, Hamish and Andy, Merrick Watts and Tim Ross, Nazeem Hussain, Waleed Aly, Shona Devlin and Tom Ballard, to mention just a few. 

An impressive roll call. 

RMITV has also had crew members go on to work at the ABC, Network Ten, Videoworks, AusStage, Staging Connections and many more. 

Tomorrow, I will appear at the conference of Commercial Radio Australia, an industry that has benefited so greatly from the talent and innovation nurtured in and by the community broadcasting sector in Australia, so it’s only fitting that I appear here first, tonight.  

So it’s great to be here, not only to meet you, speak with you and hear about the many and varied activities being undertaken, here in Melbourne, but also because of the simple fact that you are, indeed, still here. 

Over the last few months in particular, my office has been in contact with representatives of the Community Television sector across the country – with Channel 31 in Melbourne and Geelong, Channel 44 in Adelaide and WTV Perth – to discuss Community Television in Australia. We have found it extremely useful to have people like Mike Zafiropolous and Matt Field to share ideas with – indeed that is why I am here tonight. 

In Parliament, I have made representations on behalf of the sector to extend the licence period for Community TV, and in general, I have been thinking through the role of broadcasting, and community broadcasting, in the 21st century – a time of great transformation for the media industry as a whole. 

25th anniversary of the BSA 

This time last week – Thursday the 5th of October – marked the 25th anniversary of the commencement of the main provisions of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992

This Act contains a number of provisions were crafted to promote diversity and to maintain competitive tensions in a market that would otherwise be characterised by consolidation. These provisions serve diversity both in terms of the structure of the broadcasting sector, as well as the content it produces. 

For example, on the structural side, the Act creates different categories of broadcasting service – so we have diversity in the type of broadcasting services in Australia – a mix of commercial, subscription, community and national broadcasters, for example. 

In addition, the Act contains provisions on who can control our media, so we have diversity in at the level of ownership and control and a number of distinct media voices in different areas. 

Community radio and community television play an important role in meeting the objectives of the Broadcasting Services Act, which include: 

-       promoting the diversity of broadcasting services available to the Australian public;

-       developing and reflecting Australian identity, character and cultural diversity; and

-       providing programming material that is locally significant. 

And, over 25 years, advances in technology have led to the switchoff of analog television and the advent of digital multichannelling. 

Nowadays we have many more broadcasting channels yet the decision was taken, by Malcolm Turnbull, that we should have less services. 

Twenty-five years later, we see the Turnbull Government actively dismantling the diversity safeguards we have – with no plan for adapting our regulatory framework or diversity safeguards to 21st century conditions. 

Media diversity 

At this point in history, it is my strong opinion that media diversity is under attack in Australia. 

Media diversity is a key issue in the Communications Portfolio – indeed it is fundamental to our very identity as a nation, to our level of social cohesion, as well as to the proper functioning of our democracy

Labor is very much aware of these issues. We see broadcasting in the context of society at large. 

A society that is made up of digital natives and early adopters, as well as people who don’t go online very much or at all – whether because they don’t know how to, they can’t afford it or because they don’t have decent internet connectivity, for example. People of different ages, abilities and means, of different languages and ethnicities, for example. 

Whatever the reason – there are many communities for whom the ubiquitous, stable and free broadcast platform remains vital. 

But it is not just communities who are on the wrong side of the digital divide for whom this is the case. 

Indeed, for the majority of Australians today, it is the traditional media – commercial TV, commercial radio and newspapers – that remain the main source of news and current affairs. 

And it is a well-known fact that Australia already has one of the most concentrated media markets in the world yet the current Government has taken at least three key steps to weaken and undermine what little media diversity we have. 

Firstly - the decision by Malcolm Turnbull to kick Community TV off the air – sending it to an over-the-top delivery model without giving the sector enough time to make the transition. This was a step to wipe a distinct local voice from the television broadcasting mix entirely – a diminution in diversity in our broadcasting services. 

Secondly – the decision by Malcolm Turnbull as Communications Minister and then as Prime Minister, to cut the budgets of our national broadcasters, the ABC and SBS, meddle in their charters, and now – to appease Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party – to menace the ABC and SBS with a competitive-neutrality inquiry. This is a step to weaken and undermine the strength of the voice of the national broadcasters. Trusted voices, which add much needed diversity to our media mix. 

Thirdly – the Turnbull Government’s changes to Australia’s media ownership and control laws, specifically, the repeal of the 2 out of 3 cross-media control rule. This rule prevents a person from controlling all three media platforms, out of commercial TV, commercial radio and associated newspapers, in any one licence area in order to promote diversity by preventing any one voice from becoming too powerful or dominant. 

The repeal of this rule is going through Parliament now. It has passed the House and Senate, and is expected to return for final passage in the sittings next week. 

Whatever your views on the repeal of this rule, you cannot deny that it is designed to allow media consolidation. 

Taken together, the media ownership changes, the plans to undermine the public broadcasters and the Government’s mess of a Community TV policy represent a direct assault on media diversity in Australia – an assault that has huge implications for our democracy and our culture.  

Community broadcasting today 

For these reasons, community broadcasting – including community television broadcasting – is as important as ever. 

In the face of media consolidation by commercial media companies, the distinct and local content provided by community TV has even greater value. 

Malcolm Turnbull first announced the plan to send community television ‘over the top’ to an online-only distribution model in September 2014, saying that online would be the best outcome for Community TV. 

I note that the NBN rollout has not progressed to the stage that makes migration of audiences and sponsors a straightforward proposition. Many Australians do not have NBN services available, do not have an active connection or do not have the internet download speeds required for a satisfactory viewing experience. 

All the same, in the time since, Community TV operators have been working very hard to make the best of the situation that was thrust upon them – operating under great uncertainty as the deadline for switchoff looms and is extended at the eleventh hour, time after time. 

All of the stations have made difficult decisions to reduce staff and expenditure and worked to develop new sources of income, in anticipation of a reduction in revenue that comes with the transition to the online model. 

Just as the commercial broadcasters and the national broadcasters are, community television broadcasters have launched websites and apps, Community TV is using the broadcast platform to drive audiences to their online offerings and using the online offerings to build new audiences. They are exploring new revenue streams, they are working with platforms like YouTube and Facebook to promote their content. 

While some community TV licences have been handed back, others valiantly continue to operate, and work through technical difficulties and the challenge of migrating their audiences and sponsors online. 

As a research report from the Parliamentary Library, published in 2014 stated: 

“Community media contributes significantly to the pool of media voices available.  

Survival is difficult for broadcasting community media because they most often operate on small budgets – operating largely as a result of support from the communities they serve”. 

As I said in Parliament, when making representations to Government to extend broadcasting licences, earlier this year: 

These passionate members of the community simply want to keep going.  What they need most is time. 

Reimagining community TV

The media is in transition. Things are changing – but some things remain the same. 

Online platforms and new technologies have fundamentally altered audience consumption patterns and business models in the media sector, however the broadcast platform continues to enjoy its strengths as a ubiquitous, free, stable, mass platform. 

The internet coexists alongside broadcasting; broadcasters of all categories almost always have an online presence as well; indeed, broadcasters are inextricably linked with technology platforms like Google and Facebook to help get their content out to audiences. 

It is not a question of whether broadcasters deliver content over the broadcast platform OR the internet – they need to do both. 

The Government is about to repeal the 2 out of 3 cross-media control rule, and allow commercial media companies to consolidate even further. 

I think this action strengthens the case for community television. 

At this point, now more than ever, Australians need strong and vibrant public broadcasters and community television and radio broadcasters, across platforms, to ensure diversity in our media voices.

Now is the time to reimagine the role of Community Television broadcasting and I look forward to hearing your questions, but most of all your ideas.