SUBJECTS: Senate Media Diversity Inquiry

KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: Joining me live now is the Shadow Minister for Communications, Michelle Rowland. Michelle Rowland, thanks for your time. The Senate Committee, the majority report, calls for judicial inquiry with Royal Commission powers into News Corp and other private media. Firstly, does Labor support such a move?

MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Kieran, this is not a Labor Party policy and with all due respect to the Senate, it performs its functions and undertakes its inquiries and makes its recommendations as it sees fit. I will acknowledge there is deep concern in the Australian society about the health of our democracy and in particular, the fourth estate, which has been very important during the pandemic, and is facing very challenging times. Again, that is not new. I would also note that there have been some 20 reports with a multitude of recommendations over the past 10 years alone into the media landscape. What I would take, as a very pragmatic approach, is that the time for action is now. I think there is broad agreement that there needs to be harmonisation across the regulatory framework. The Broadcasting Services Act turns 30 years old next year and there are some very serious emerging, but also older, issues that still haven't been dealt with by this government, in every area from the issue of prominence to anti-siphoning that need to be addressed.

GILBERT: We'll get through a few of them in a moment, but just for clarity, why then did the Labor Senators not issue a dissenting report, as Andrew Bragg did, as opposed to simply go along with the Greens with this call, if as you said, you do not support a judicial inquiry, or a Royal Commission of this nature?

ROWLAND: As you said, this was a Greens-chaired committee and it's incumbent on the Senators to choose whether they put their names to reports or whether they choose to issue dissenting reports. The key thing here Kieran, is this is done in confidence. The Senate in confidence undertakes these - it's not undertaken as part of a party policy process, the Senate performs its functions, as it has just done now. I can tell you clearly that this is not Labor Party policy. But we are very keen to ensure the health of our democracy is preserved by taking appropriate actions in the media space that has simply gone missing in action over the last eight years.

GILBERT: So this isn't a deal with the Greens behind the scenes to say if we get elected, we'll throw this in? Can you guarantee there won't be any deal, as Chris Bowen did, on emissions reduction, that you won't undertake some media regulation deal with the Greens in order to form government?

ROWLAND: I'd never heard that suggestion before. But I can guarantee you that to my focus, and certainly, the focus of Labor, is to get elected in our own right and increase our primary vote and doing any backroom deals on any area of policy, including in the communications portfolio is simply not on the agenda at all.

GILBERT: And just finally, before we move on from that inquiry, because obviously, you know, there are many,you know, companies and the owner of this organisation as well, which are looking at this very closely, you rule out a judicial inquiry or royal commission if Labor wins?

ROWLAND: I can rule that out right now. What I will certainly rule in is ensuring that we take on board the recommendations that have been made under successive inquiries, including acting on the press freedoms report, acting on the public interest journalism report. Again, I would note that the recommendations in this latest Senate inquiry repeat the recommendations that have been made many times over. I think it is incumbent on policymakers to ensure that we have proper funding for media literacy, ensure that we have proper oversight of misinformation, and that the regulator is empowered to do its job. We currently actually have been asking the regulator at successive Senate inquiries about how many newspapers there are in Australia and we simply haven't been able to get an answer. It's vitally important that we have clear evidence base upon which to work here. It's important that we are pragmatic in ensuring that we have a vibrant fourth estate into the future, including the broadcast platforms.

GILBERT: Well, the point that Andrew Bragg made in his dissenting report is that the traditional media essentially are subject to thousands of pages of regulation, it's big tech that isn't. Where does Labor stand on the regulation of big tech platforms as publishers? Will you go further than what the government suggested it will do?

ROWLAND: It's not exactly novel to note that there are different forms of regulation applying to the traditional broadcast platforms as opposed to the digital platforms. That's one of the reasons why I have consistently been calling for a harmonised framework in this area. I note that Minister Paul Fletcher has said at the beginning of his tenure that he supports the same – hasn't done it. But it is very clear from work such as that undertaken by the ACCC in its Digital Platforms Inquiry, that there is an opaque set of fundamentals around here, including in relation to algorithms, that need to be explored. The ACCC Digital Platforms Inquiry had a plethora of recommendations that have not been acted on, and the time for action is now. That's to ensure that we have healthy competition in our media sector, that this ecosystem that includes the traditional broadcast platforms, but also includes over the top players and increasingly the telecommunications providers, is one that is harmonised and ensures that the framework is fit for purpose. Having a Broadcasting Services Act that's 30 years old does not achieve that purpose, unfortunately.

GILBERT: And is this report also looking, is it looking back instead of looking at the reality of today, as Rod Sims points out, that there is more diversity now than ever before, a multitude of different voices? You know, two thirds of Australians get their news via mobile phones, for example. Do you agree with that assessment in terms of diversity in the media?

ROWLAND: I think there's a few things there. Firstly, the internet, of course, has opened up the landscape to access any number of services as opposed to the pre-internet age. That's simply a fact. I would also point out that many of those voices that we see on those digital platforms have voices that are also replicated in the traditional broadcasting market. The key here, Kieran, is to see where there may be market failure and for regulators to act where there is market failure, including failure to protect consumers and to ensure that the national interest is upheld. One of those key areas, as I mentioned, is misinformation. It is abundantly clear that the opaque nature of the algorithms is something that the regulators have failed to come to grips with. And that's certainly no fault on them, it is a very complex area, and it's one in which the ACCC has done a lot of work. But when it comes down to it, the way that you address this is through evidence. It's through having a harmonised framework that treats all media outlets on a level playing field. And that's what the Australian competition landscape has always been based on. That is what I would be arguing, certainly, as the alternative Minister for Communications.

GILBERT: The ACMA website says there have been numerous detailed investigations into both commercial broadcasters, and the ABC, and adverse findings made under the codes of practice. Is there evidence to suggest that the broadcast regulator isn't working?

ROWLAND: Well, I think that if complainants are not happy with their outcomes, then certainly that's one of the arguments that they would make. But let's be very clear, we have separate regulatory functions, depending on those separate types of outlets. Now, whether or not they are working well is one that should be overseen by the Minister, and certainly one that should be overseen by the ACMA as the independent regulator. It’s an area where I think more work needs to be done. I have consistently argued that there needs to be a program of work to actually measure news consumption. We know that the ACMA has developed a framework for measuring it, but it actually hasn't been implemented yet. So we are lacking that evidence base, not only in terms of what is being consumed, but also in terms of what sort of consumption leads to particular complaints and the outcomes of those complaints. Bear in mind, Kieran, it's important to note that people are very concerned about this, I wouldn't dismiss their concerns for a moment. I note that there was some half a million Australians who put their names to having an inquiry of this nature. Let it be known that there is always concern about the health of our democracy and, in particular, the role of the Fourth Estate in doing that. It's just a pity that this Government over the past eight years has been so late and so lacking in getting an updated regulatory framework in place that actually responds to those concerns. We've had so many inquiries, so many recommendations. What we need now is action and implementation.

GILBERT: Senator Bragg has accused the Greens of hypocrisy because they're pushing now for this judicial inquiry into private media and yet wouldn't accede to a Senate committee investigation into the complaints process of the public broadcaster. Is there hypocrisy in those actions?

ROWLAND: Senator Bragg is welcome to his point of view. But the fact is that the motion for this particular inquiry was put forward by the Government and the Government lost that on the floor of the Senate. They could have chosen to have it recommitted, and they did not. So, as I said, Senator Bragg is entitled to his point of view and his character assessment on the Greens and I'll let him have that.

GILBERT: Now, Anthony Albanese. My understanding is he played a role in 2013 in knocking off the Conroy proposal – Stephen Conroy, who was on this program about 20 minutes ago, in fact – but his proposal for a tougher media regulator, that Anthony Albanese played a role in knocking that off. Do you believe in a free press where governments, no matter what their political persuasion, should not be able to exert control directly or indirectly over the media?

ROWLAND: I certainly believe in a free press, just as I believe that the public broadcaster, the ABC, is a public broadcaster, not a state broadcaster. I also believe that the findings of the press freedoms inquiry that I alluded to earlier should be implemented in full. And as to any goings-on in 2013, I can tell you at the time, Kieran, I would have been quite a humble backbencher. But as you know, having come from a background in the law, where I specialised in media and communications, one of the principles that I have always upheld is the role of the free press. It's just as Bob Carr said: A free press and everything that goes with it is the price we pay for democracy, and I'm happy to pay it.

GILBERT: Appreciate you paying a bit of that today, Michelle Rowland, thank you, talk to you soon. 

ROWLAND: Pleasure.