SUBJECTS: ABC; Digital Platforms Inquiry; Netflix; Regional Journalism.

CHRIS KENNY: Michelle Rowland, thanks for joining me.


KENNY: Is Ita Buttrose right? Does the ABC need to deal with a bias problem?

ROWLAND: I think the ABC needs to fulfil its Charter and that's a constant challenge for them, but also their constant mission. And I think it's quite telling that Ita Buttrose, a new Chairperson, she's clearly seeking to make her mark here and I wouldn't even presume to disagree with what she's saying and say that she's wrong, but she knows that they need to fulfil their Charter. They know that she knows that the ABC needs to be for all Australians, and in the past couple of years that's particularly focused on fulfilling a rural and regional element - and even under the former leadership at the ABC that certainly came to the fore. But look I, as an MP and as the Shadow Communications Minister, I would always say the ABC needs to fulfil its Charter.

KENNY: Absolutely. There's no disagreement there. David Anderson, the new MD, now confirmed as the Managing Director, he's also agreed that there's at least the perception of bias problem. He's pointed to the sort of left-leaning bias of their panel shows. So it echoes a bit of what Ita Buttrose has said, they need more diversity of views. Would you like to see that? Do you think that there's a left-leaning bias on shows like The Drum and Q&A and the rest of them? 

ROWLAND: Look I wouldn’t. And I think it is very dangerous, quite frankly, for politicians to start talking about bias, particularly on a public broadcaster.

KENNY: Well, you mentioned the Charter though. 


KENNY: And to adhere to the Charter, they must have a diversity and plurality of views.

ROWLAND: Which is exactly what I was going to say. They should always be mindful, and I would never presume to tell the ABC how to run its business, an independent organisation. But it is a taxpayer funded organisation, something that is not lost on anyone, and in fulfilling its Charter it needs to ensure that it's representing a diversity of views and might I say... 

KENNY: It's pretty easy to get a good run there isn't it, from the left of politics? Say you're talking climate change or tax increases or border protection…

ROWLAND: I wish it was.

KENNY: …you get a pretty good run over there.

ROWLAND: The interesting thing is Chris, sometimes I think you get a harder time from some of these journos because they're trying to overcompensate for what they might perceive to be some inbuilt bias. 

KENNY: There you go. You do think they're bunch of lefties then? 

ROWLAND: I would never say that. 

KENNY: Now, you mentioned funding of course. Labor went to the election campaign promising additional funding for the ABC. All your policies are up for review. Now, do you think that might have been a mistake? 

ROWLAND: I think that the ABC certainly, as the Managing Director said, was going to have to make some serious decisions about cuts, considering that in the last budget they had $84 million dollars cut from their budget. But we also went to the last election with some policies that went directly to the issue of enhanced news gathering, went directly to the issue of ensuring that the ABC had extra funding for Australian content, and other aspects where I think Australians would expect the ABC to be fulfilling its role.

KENNY: Just on the Managing Director David Anderson there and what he said before the election: do you think he overstepped the mark, in an election campaign, telling his staff that if the country voted in a Coalition Government they were going to be facing cuts, and virtually saying if they want to keep everything as it was they need to vote in the Labor Party?

ROWLAND: Well look, to be balanced as well, the former Managing Director said quite similar on the eve of the budget, on budget night. So he wouldn't be the first person saying, as he would say, calling it how it is. But Chris as you point out, Labor lost the last election, so all these policies are up for review but having a strong, independent ABC is key to the Labor Party's platform and we'll have to go into the next three years considering what the ABC looks like. And look, let's face it too, they're facing many challenges. Challenges in terms of diversity of media, their role in rural and regional areas, their costs, including ongoing cost like transmission costs, and even as we saw today they are challenging the validity of the warrant that was issued on the raid.

KENNY: Indeed, as is News Corp. We'll come to that later on with the panel, but I just want to get you on other media issues as well, away from the ABC. We're waiting on the digital transformation report from the ACCC. We've had the preliminary report. Google, Facebook, it's shaken everything up. There's at all sorts of regulation on the table to try and, I suppose, perhaps manage or even weaken their market power. Do you support some sort of additional tax called a Netflix tax or a tax on some of these large providers of digital information? 

ROWLAND: Well, I think to be clear the Digital Platforms Inquiry, it is quite unique. It's very expansive. Its final report is imminent and it actually does propose, in its preliminary report, to do a whole other set of work streams around modernising the media framework, around having some sort of oversight for advertising, for example where certain representations are made about eyeballs. So to take that bit about modernising the media, when you have over-the-top players like, and this is straying into the area of streaming services, when you have those over-the-top players, what makes them distinct from what we would call the legacy media environment is that they are not regulated for issues such as content requirements. So again we took this to the last election which I thought was a very sensible policy and the industry broadly welcomed it. We should be regulating consistently. We should recognise that convergence has taken effect, that we need to support Australian content, and that could be done in a number of ways. It could be done through a tax for example, through some sort of levy, but recognise that it's not only the free-to-air broadcasters, and indeed subscription is part of that ecosystem as well, but the telcos are increasingly getting into this space. They've even said that video is their future. So we need consistency in how they're regulated.

KENNY: Does that mean we need to treat organisations like Facebook, businesses like Facebook, as publishers responsible for the content they publish it in a legal and commercial sense?

ROWLAND: That's very interesting because there was even a recent decision on this that pointed out that for different media organisations, and I'm summarising very briefly here.

KENNY: It's a vast area. We could talk for two hours on this I know.

ROWLAND: We could, but there's this whole question about the responsibility of publishers and what comments are actually put on their pages and who is liable for that. So it opens up a whole aspect there of liability. But I think it's fair to say that in all of this, the consumer has utilised this in what the preliminary report calls some sort of a contract, the sort of the bargain that you have by giving over your data and agreeing to give your attention, so agreeing to see ads and so forth, you get to utilise this vast array of services. But it's sort of come full circle. The question now that many people are asking is how did my data get monetised by everyone else except me?

KENNY: Indeed, indeed. They know more about us than we know about ourselves. Just briefly, I suppose a corollary of all this, we're seeing a lot of job losses again in regional media through WIN newsrooms being shut down. This relates to what's happening with digital convergence, it relates perhaps to the ABC where they get a lot of competition as well. A suppose there's not much of a role for government, but it's worrying isn't? It's a concern.

ROWLAND: Well, we do want to have as many voices as possible, particularly in the regions and that news of the latest closures by WIN, which as you would well know is not the first, in fact, there's been a long line of regional newsrooms being closed. That newsgathering function is vitally important for these communities. It's going to be small businesses, local councils, consumers in those areas who will have less choice over their news. The conundrum of course Chris is that people value localism.

KENNY: Yeah. They sure do. 

ROWLAND: But localism is expensive, and as the Digital Platforms Inquiry has pointed out, the vast amount of advertising dollars going to digital has seriously impacted there. But we do need a plan Chris. We need a plan to address the need to support public interest journalism, particularly in areas where the legacy media, so TV for example, is still the most stable ubiquitous, free platform there is, and where broadband is often not up to scratch to get anything else.

KENNY: Michelle, thanks so much for coming in for a chat. Easy, wasn't it? As friendly as an ABC show. Thanks very much. 

ROWLAND: Pleasure.

KENNY: Michelle Rowland there, the Shadow Communications Minister.