SUBJECTS: Media diversity in Australia; Supporting public broadcasting; Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

GRAHAM RICHARDSON: I am with Michelle Rowland, who is the Shadow Minister for Communications I might say. Welcome Michelle, thanks for coming in.


RICHARDSON: Now, we've just had a very big change in communications policy in recent times. We've had the reach rules torn up and I wanted to know what you thought of it. I mean, as far as I'm concerned I think we've now got so many ways of getting our news because social media has changed our world, you know, so there's Buzzfeeds and god knows what else you can get onto. And I can't see why Labor would oppose it but perhaps you can tell us?

ROWLAND: Well, we certainly supported the abolition of the reach rule and we actually felt that while we were in government, and Stephen Conroy had made that clear, that the time had come for that rule to go. But the abolition of the 2 out of 3 cross-media control rule, Richo, is more problematic and that's why Labor opposed the abolition of that. I think it's fair to say, and as you point out, we've got so many sources of news and opinions now but the reality is, Graham, that the majority of the top 10 online news sites in Australia are actually the same voices but on different platforms. So if we want to preserve some plurality, if we want to preserve some diversity in this country unfortunately it’s going to get a lot harder and it's about to get a whole lot worse because we're going to have, it looks like, the merger of...

RICHARDSON: Nine and Fairfax.

ROWLAND: ...Nine and Fairfax, the takeover. So, that will no doubt have an impact on one of what is already the most concentrated media markets in the world, about to get a whole lot more concentrated. And you have to also query what this is going to do for some of those publications in regional areas. In particular, where those regional newspapers have been there for quite a while, they service a particular area. And in a state like Queensland, for example, in which you have more people living outside the capital city than in it: that's problematic. But look, the numbers were there for the government thanks to the help of Pauline Hanson's One Nation and Nick Xenophon so that's history now. 

RICHARDSON: And I think it'd be pretty hard to undo. I mean, when you do come into government, as I expect next May, you'll still have a hostile Senate. That won't change. I mean, there's no way Labor can get a majority in the Senate. There's no way the Liberals can either, it's just one of those things. You have to live with the unpredictability of, what did Paul Keating call it? The swill in the Senate? 

ROWLAND: The unrepresentative swill I think was how he described it. But look, I think there's a couple of things there, Graham, that you touch on, that are very relevant. We actually don't have a public interest test for media mergers in Australia. We've got media merger guidelines but they don't have the force of law for what the ACCC needs to consider. And let’s not kid ourselves: media markets are changing but we also have a prevalence of untrustworthy sources. And whilst a lot of people think Donald Trump coined the term 'fake news', just having been behind a computer or having access to a phone and putting opinions out there does not a credible news source make. And on that point, that's why, you know, Labor firmly believes, now more than ever, we need strong independent public broadcasters to be able to do their jobs.

RICHARDSON: Oh I'm not against that, even though some people I work with may be. I'm not against that, although I do think the ABC's gone over the top in recent times and I think they should take a deep breath when it comes to bias. Because I think they are terribly PC, I think it's become absurd sometimes but I've worked for three of the big, the biggest, media proprietors. I worked for a long time for Kerry Packer, I did four or five years, I think, or three years with Kerry Stokes and when I started working here, News Limited didn't own the station but it does now, has bought it since. And of course I write for The Australian, which is owned by News Limited. No one has ever told me what I had to write. No one has ever said to me, I mean Kerry Packer and I, we were friends for 30 years or something, never once did he ever suggested to me that I should write something. He'd ring me up and abuse me and call me an effing moron and everything else for what I'd written, but never once did he say you can't write it. Never once did he say you must follow this line. And I've now been working at The Australian, I think it's about five years roughly I think, no one's ever suggest to me, and as you know my columns frequently attack the Liberal Party. They don't necessarily follow The Australian line on anything. But no one's tried to change my mind. So you need to convince me that there's a problem here. As far as I know, I just write what I think and it gets printed without a change to a word.

ROWLAND: Well I think we're delving into a separate issue here. Here we're talking about, you know, the quality of journalism and the way it's impacted and I think one of the, I think, lasting regrets of the last couple of years is we had an inquiry into the future of public interest journalism which should've been actually one that not only looked at the definition of journalism, but some sort of long-term plan for how Australia was going to have a vibrant media market. And really, the recommendations for that, you know sometimes you get really good Senate Inquiries as you would know...

RICHARDSON: Oh I know that.

ROWLAND: ...and sometimes they fall by the wayside. So, it's unfortunate that we didn't have a really good insight there. But Graham, the point I make is this: you know, two years ago when I got this gig, I made the point that we hadn't had a proper review of the broadcasting sector since about the year 2000. 

RICHARDSON: That's true.

ROWLAND: And you'd be hard-pressed to find mentions of that Productivity Commission inquiry that talked about the internet and all these issues you're talking about now and immediately the government said 'no, stupid idea. Don't need it'. And what are we having now? We're right in the middle of a Digital Platforms inquiry being undertaken by the ACCC and they are exposing and delving into everything from the algorithms of Google and other news sites to what sort of opinions and from what countries are they being generated. I think Paul Keating made the point very well: Australians want Australian news. And I know for a fact, because they've told me, advertisers want to advertise next to Australian content, because that's where the money is.

RICHARDSON: You know one of the, I suppose, benefits personally and from this channel's point of view of the changes in media over the course of the past decade is that, as of last Sunday, Sky News went on to an extra 7 million homes through WIN. And that's a huge change.

ROWLAND: Massive.

RICHARDSON: You know, you wouldn't have even dreamt of that, us being free-to-air for a third of the country, it's just not something you would've dreamed of. 

ROWLAND: Massive. Well everyone from the commercial free-to-air television broadcasters to subscription, which is what Sky is of course, everyone is considering 'well, what is the future of my platform' and Sky has come out with quite innovative offerings. I see a lot of their advertising right now is about 4K and what sort of quality that will deliver and, you know, I don't want to labour the point but at the same time we had obviously a telco carrier, you know Optus was carrying the World Cup. Things went a bit wrong for them in some parts... 

RICHARDSON: Bit wrong! 

ROWLAND: ...and the hero at the end of the day was good old free-to-air linear television provided by a public broadcaster. 

RICHARDSON: And they saved the day!

ROWLAND: Well, I think the reports of the death of our screens are greatly exaggerated. 

RICHARDSON: Oh free-to-air is still alive and well. It's obviously not what it once was but where I suppose I disagree with you is if you look at the United States: if it gets to the stage of someone like Rupert Murdoch sells out to Disney a large chunk of the empire because he doesn't think he's big enough, then surely you have to expect that to survive in this modern world where Netflix and everybody else, Stan or whatever, they're all chipping away, to stay viable don't they have to get bigger?

ROWLAND: Well you're not wrong when it comes to these competing business models, and the big threat is SVOD or the subscription video on demand, everything from Netflix, and there's other Australian domestic offerings that are there now. But I think the argument, and this was part of the argument the government was making, was 'look, in order to save media diversity, we need to kill it'. I actually don't subscribe to that view. I think that, and I saw very little polling that was done on this point, but the one poll I saw, I think it was an Essential poll, showed that Australians were very distrustful of having media ownership so concentrated when you go across radio, associated newspapers and free-to-air television in the same market, very distrustful of it.

And look, where do I think this is going? Look, I think the Digital Platforms Inquiry should provide hopefully some guidance, but I think some of the problems that it will identify about the power of these international players and that really is the key argument that people are making, it’s that we've lost so much advertising revenue to these giant mega multinationals ruling the world Googles, Facebooks and all the rest of it. Are we going to get some sort of resolution from them? I don't know. 

RICHARDSON: It's a fair question.

ROWLAND: I think part of this will need to be dealt with on international terms, but that's not novel. We've dealt with big cross-border issues like intellectual property at an international level. 

RICHARDSON: Yeah, but we've never dealt with trillion dollar companies because there haven't been any and now we've got two: Google and Amazon. Amazon hit it yesterday or today or something.  

ROWLAND: Amazon is right up there as well, right up there. 

RICHARDSON: So the two of them are trillion dollar companies now. But it seems to me that what I would concern myself with was just pure financial viability. You know, if you're not big then these other ones just snipe at your heels and they can do you terrible damage. And, you know, the business models of old have all had to be thrown out because things have changed just so dramatically. 

ROWLAND: But by the same token we have, thanks to, again, some technological developments we have a lot of your news now can be curated effectively and you can get presented with news that you want online from a variety of sources. You see some of those, everyone from the Buzzfeeds to the Guardian Australia actually providing what I think is a pretty essential service, not only good investigative reporting but good commentary as well, good opinions. So, I don't know that so much 'big is better'.

Look, big may be a business model to deal with all of the other threats that come with it but I think if you're talking about the health of our democracy, having a variety of voices, it’s important to realise that at the end of the day content is king and you're got to have those people.

RICHARDSON: You can't unscramble these eggs.

ROWLAND: Yeah, well exactly. 

RICHARDSON: That's the thing that's hard. 

ROWLAND: We're not going to; no one’s going to be able to pass the law that says...

RICHARDSON: Separates Nine and Fairfax or something, you won't be able to do that. Once they've joined they've joined.

ROWLAND: That will be done and, you know, sometimes as you would well know that's a consequence of electing certain governments Graham.

RICHARDSON: It is indeed. Now, speaking of electing certain governments, we've been talking about communications but to be honest when I'm in the streets I get approached all the time by people because I'm obviously a well-known face. No one ever raises diversity of media ownership with me. They raise three things at the moment. Obviously they raise energy prices because that's a huge deal, they were raising the bank tax wherever I went, you couldn't get away from that. And that's what they called it. They didn't call it corporate tax cuts, they called it the bank tax.

And the other one is this reef donation. It staggers me how many people are raising that. I mean if anything symbolises what people don't like about government it's that reef grant of $433 million or $444 million or whatever it was. An enormous amount of money without any due diligence. The idea they did due diligence is rubbish because no one at the foundation will admit to being talked to, even during the due diligence period. 

ROWLAND: You're not wrong Graham, and I think the Australian people are really good at spotting a dodgy. And something smells very fishy on this one. And look, I think that, you've said it yourself, the Australian public always end up getting it right. And I think very early on the smell had set in on this one. It was, well firstly, such a large amount of money to such a small organisation so quickly and so many questions going unanswered. And to this day...

RICHARDSON: It employed 6 people! 

ROWLAND: It's staggering. To this day I still don't think we've had a proper explanation for it. And it does, it staggers me how this government thinks they're going to get away with it.

RICHARDSON: The explanation is simple. Malcolm Turnbull went to lunch with his mates and then rang up Josh Frydenberg and said 'I want you to fix $443 million for these people' and he did. That's what happened.

ROWLAND: Well you know more than me on the specifics of that Graham. 

RICHARDSON: Well, I don't think there's any doubt about what happened. The thing is now, I'm staggered the government is still clinging to it because it's one of those things that everybody knows about. People who don't take an interest in politics, who don't watch the news every night, they know about stuff like that because it represents to them all that they're disgruntled about.

ROWLAND: You're absolutely right, and I think the government's been very ready to jettison everything from increasing the pension age to 70 to big cuts for the banks but to just be so lacking in authenticity, to try and say that this grant was everything but what it actually was, it makes the stink worse. 

RICHARDSON: Well since I started in this business, which is almost 50 years ago, I've always said the mob will work you out. And the mob have worked this one out that's for sure, and they know it stinks. And I'm staggered that the government is still keeping to it.

Now I've got to let you go, because I've got other people to talk to and we've got a show but thank you so much for making your time available and I want to take up the communications debate with you again. I think it's a fascinating debate and I really think we've got to try and sort something out for diversity but I don't understand how we'll change anything dramatically now that it's done. So when you come back next time you can tell me how you're going to do it, I'll be fascinated to learn.

ROWLAND: Well as a former Communications Minister yourself it will be fascinating.

RICHARDSON: Yeah, well I have been there. I've been a minister for a lot of things but communications is one of the most fascinating. No doubt about that.

ROWLAND: It sure is. 

RICHARDSON: You're a lucky woman to have that as your gig, it's the best one in town.