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Ministers for the Department of Communications and the Arts

Senator the Hon Mitch Fifield

Minister for Communications

Minister for the Arts

Manager of Government Business in the Senate

Sky News Richo with Graham Richardson

10 March 2016

E & OE

Subjects: Media reform, ABC, SBS, NBN

RICHO:

Well all that being said, in our Canberra studio we have Mitch Fifield from that very, very same government. Our Minister for Communications, welcome Mitch.

FIFIELD:

Graham good to be with you.

RICHO:

Mate I won't blame you for the budget morass, what's going on, I think, is probably not part of your deal. But you've just brought down some very, very important legislation. Now from my reading of it, and I can always be wrong, these things are so complex it seems to me you're almost inviting the networks to buy the regionals. But it seems no network wants to buy its regional. Ten doesn't want Southern Cross, Seven doesn't want Prime, Nine doesn't want Bruce Gordon's mob. So what do you do if that doesn't happen, does it matter to you?

FIFIELD:

Well I'm essentially ownership agnostic, it would be fair to say Graham. Our intention through introducing the abolition of the 'reach rule' and 'two-out-of-three' is to make it easier for media organisations to configure themselves in the way that they think is right for their business. In the way that they think will better place them to meet the needs of their customers. That's the intention.

As you know our media laws don't reflect the way that the world is. Just take the 75% audience 'reach rule'. You have the Free-to-Airs – some of them are streaming. So that renders that law completely redundant. I want to give the freedom to these organisations to make the business decisions that suit them.

RICHO:

Well I think this is 80's legislation and obviously in thirty years the changes in technology is massive, and nothing has changed in the legislation. So it does look pretty stupid to me. By the way, I don't even care about 75% or 100, I just don't think any of that matters anymore. With the internet coming in, there are how many places where I can get my news now? Thousands, just untold numbers of places where I can go and get news if I want to seek it.

But getting back to the changes now. What do you say to the networks and also to Foxtel whose platforms are in danger? I mean they've now got Netflix and these other mobs breathing down their necks, bringing in movies which really hurts those big – Foxtel, of course, is really being damaged by that. It's only got sport left.

Then you've got the networks who are having their series and things run by Netflix. It's making life very difficult for them. Are we smart to let this go on? Because it seems to me that we've got probably the best Free-to-Air television in the world, we've got a pretty good Pay TV platform. What can we do to make sure they stay around looking after us?

FIFIELD:

Well I think one of the ways that we can assist Free-to-Air TV is, as I say, by giving them the opportunity to reconfigure themselves in different ways. That's partly through the abolition of the 75% 'reach rule'. Also we're proposing to get rid of the 'two-out-of-three-rule' which as you know prevents more than two of the three regulated platforms merging in a particular market with one owner. So they are TV, radio and print. Getting rid of 'two-out-of-three' again gives these organisations the capacity to get scale, to be more competitive, to take on some of their new competitors. So I think that's the first thing.

RICHO:

But one wonders. I mention with Foxtel, if you say movies are no longer going to drive subscriptions – and they can't because you can get them on Netflix for two bob basically – what do they do? They rely on sport, and news to some extent, but sport obviously is going to be huge for them. But it would be a very courageous government that changed those laws on siphoning wouldn't it? Because I mean if you, for instance, allow the Free-to-Airs to buy the Grand Final in AFL, the Grand Final in the NRL, there will be riots in the streets. So you are caught a bit there aren't you?

FIFIELD:

Well at the moment to some extent it's academic, because the rights for AFL and NRL are tied up, I think, to the mid 2020's. Really I think the debate is around some of the other events. Now I don't think anyone is proposing, not even subscription TV, that we don't have NRL, AFL, the Commonwealth Games, the Olympic Games, not on the anti-siphoning list. They're not proposing that.

And I think there are some misconceptions about the anti-siphoning list. There is, I think, a view abroad that it provides a guarantee that those events will be on Free-to-Air, where as in fact it doesn't. It doesn't mandate that the Free-to-Airs have to purchase them. It doesn't mandate that if they do purchase them that they have to show them. And it also doesn't mean that they can't buy them and then on-sell them to subscription TV.

So it doesn't really operate the way that people think, but sure, it does provide a degree of comfort for the public about some of those events that they love. The approach I am taking Graham is that I think if there was to be change to the anti-siphoning list – which I'm not proposing in this particular media reform package – if there was to be change there would need to be a better community understanding as to what the anti-siphoning list does and doesn't do. But there would also need to be broad support in the Parliament. And those circumstances aren't presently there.

RICHO:

No they certainly aren't and I wouldn't hang by the neck waiting for them to change if I were you. But the other thing I spoke today to a fairly senior executive of a free-to-air television network and I think they're still concerned about licence fees. What are your proposals there?

FIFIELD:

Well I entirely understand the argument of the Free-to-Airs. Licence fees were introduced in the late 1950s for radio and TV when there were no alternatives in terms of electronic media. It was, if you like, the original super profits tax. It's a very different operating environment now. The networks are under competition, they're challenged. We've indicated that we'll examine the issue of licence fees in the context of the current budget, but obviously we're in a tight budget situation at the moment. I can't indicate one way or the other what will happen, but we have undertaken to examine licence fees.

RICHO:

What about the ABC and SBS are they quarantined from further cuts? And I suppose more importantly what do your Government think of them these days, I mean there's been a lot of people in your party very openly being critical of them for an anti-Government bias. What's your view?

FIFIELD:

Well I think the ABC isn't just once culture, it's a big organisation and it has a whole range of cultures. I think the ABC Canberra press gallery has a culture which is very different to other parts of the organisation.

I had an early experience, Graham, in terms of the community's attitude toward the ABC when I became the Comms minister. I was on the Patricia Karvelas Drive program on Radio National and I said what I thought were fairly reasonable and balanced things about the ABC. And the 'Twitterverse' on the left went berserk saying I was an ABC hater. And then a few nights later I was on Chris Kenny's show on Sky and I said pretty much the same sorts of things and then the 'Twitterverse' on the right went berserk saying I was an ABC lover. So I got an early insight in terms of community views of the ABC.

But look I think the attitude of the public to the ABC is really a bit like that of being in a long term relationship. Sometimes you just can't get enough. Sometimes you don't want to be in the same room. But ultimately you keep coming back for more.

RICHO:

Yeah, I think we all know all about that but I won't go into that any further. But obviously it is a problem for a lot of people in your Government. I mean when you speak to some of the harder line figures, they are bitterly critical of say, Q and A, although you know Q and A had Alan Jones on this week, I wouldn't call him a mad leftie. But they have been critical of the sort of panel and the sort of audiences that are assembled. And I note this week that there was a little bit coming across the bottom of the screen, a little bit of ticker, saying there was 42% Liberal and 35% Labor in the audience. So do you think the ABC have got the message?

FIFIELD:

I think one of the good things about the ABC's independence is that any Member of Parliament can offer their views about the ABC without any fear of it being seen to compromise the independence of the organisation. So I think it is a good thing when colleagues express their views about the ABC. The ABC doesn't always get it right. It gets a lot of things right but it also gets some things wrong.

So I think it's healthy that there are views expressed. The public have a strong sense of ownership of the ABC which we saw at the end of last year when the ABC made some changes to regional radio. And often it's been people in rural and regional Australia who have been the big defenders of the ABC. So the public have a strong sense of ownership, and it's a good thing that people express their views about the organisation. And look Ministers should also be allowed to express their views of the organisation too.

RICHO:

And they do. Can I ask you then about SBS as another example. Are you satisfied that they use their money wisely? I mean they've started to come under some more criticism than they used too, I think they were hiding behind the ABC for a long time, it's getting harder to hide isn't it?

FIFIELD:

Yeah, look I think SBS is a very lean and efficient organisation. They do a lot of good work with the budget that they have. And I was speaking at a function at the Islamic Museum of Australia a couple of nights back, and I said that I think one of the reasons why we have a really good bedrock of tolerance in Australia is because of the work that SBS has done over the years.

RICHO:

There's no doubt about that and in the limited time left to me, can I ask you about the NBN? I keep reading that the cost overruns, during the time that Malcolm Turnbull had the job because you've only been in it five minutes, they actually make things a whole lot worse than they were under Stephen Conroy and Labor. What's your response to that?

FIFIELD:

It would be impossible to make things worse than they were under Stephen Conroy. Malcolm Turnbull as Minister brought order to bear where there was chaos Graham. Stephen was pursuing a theological approach to the NBN. Malcolm brought to bear a technological approach. A technology agnostic approach where you pick the mode, you pick the technology that will see the NBN rolled out fastest and at lowest-cost. And Graham what that means is NBN is going to be rolled out 6 to 8 years sooner than under Stephen and at about thirty billion dollars less cost.

There are no cost overruns. Things are on track. We have about 1.8 million premises in the nation who can access the NBN. There's about 820,000 premises that are doing that. Under Stephen there were only about 50,000 premises who had access. The NBN has hit every milestone over the last six quarters. Under Stephen they only achieved 15% of their rollout target. And I just pose this question to you Graham would you have more faith in a plan designed by Stephen Conroy or a plan devised by Malcolm Turnbull for the NBN?

RICHO:

Well I think you shouldn't ask me that question, I think I'm definitely the wrong person to ask that question because,

FIFIELD:

I'm not so sure Graham, I'm not so sure.

RICHO:

Well no trust me I am. But I'll just put a practical thing to you then, I've had a complaint from someone who's very close to me, only in the last couple of weeks. They want to start a business, they're in the Gold Coast but in their area of the Gold Coast of Broadbeach you can't get an internet connection. Not enough portals and Telstra just don't do anything about. Now you don't run Telstra, it's an independent organisation but complaints about that are pretty serious. What can you do about it?

FIFIELD:

What we can do about it is roll out the NBN as quickly as possible. The Telstra exchanges are sometimes constrained by space, so what we can do is to roll out the NBN as soon as we possibly can. We released at the end of last year a three year rollout plan for the NBN so people can jump online and see when the NBN will come to their neck of the woods. But the good news is people are going to get the NBN six to eight years sooner than they would under our predecessors, and the NBN will be rolled out nationwide by 2020. So that's some good news.

RICHO:

Well I hope so, but what does it do to the people of Broadbeach what do they do? If you want to start a business in Broadbeach and you can't get internet what do you do? Move? I mean you're saying to them well you'll have to leave?

FIFIELD:

No we're not saying that Graham, at all. The NBN, like the NDIS, it can't fall from the sky. It can't be rolled out everywhere simultaneously. It needs to be rolled out in a staged manner. That's what we're doing. We're rolling it out as quickly as we possibly can, and people will get it a darn sight quicker than they would have under our predecessors.

RICHO:

Yeah but a thing like this it's pretty serious. How do you prioritise, it seems to me that if there's an area that can't get any internet connection then it's a huge problem for individuals. And you're the party that says the individuals gotta come first.

FIFIELD:

Well underserved areas are prioritised under the NBN rollout. There are a number of factors that go into determining where and when the NBN is rolled out. But one of the really important things that is factored into the rollout plan is those areas that are currently under-serviced.

RICHO:

Alright then well I'll chase you up after the show and you can tell me exactly when things will get better in Broadbeach.

FIFIELD:

Please do.

RICHO:

Then I can satisfy somebody that I need to satisfy, in a hurry. Thanks very much Mitch Fifield, I appreciate your time.

FIFIELD:

Thanks Graham, good to chat.

RICHO:

I think those changes, by and large, are pretty good. I've had a look at them and I'm very comfortable with what the Government proposes. I'll be back in just a moment.

[ends]

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