Go to top of page

Insiders with Barrie Cassidy

E & OE 
CASSIDY:
Senator, welcome.

FIFIELD: 
Good morning Barrie.

CASSIDY:
So further concentration in an already concentrated market. Is that the result?

FIFIELD: 
Look, the greatest danger and threat to diversity with Australian media would be if a significant Australian media organisation went out backwards. We don't want that to happen. The media laws that we had were crafted in the 1980s before the internet existed. I'm very fond of the 1980s, but we don't live there anymore. And we need media laws that recognise the world that we live in.

CASSIDY:
The point of the changes is to encourage more mergers and more acquisitions and won't that mean big players swallowing up some of the smaller ones?

FIFIELD: 
There could be consolidation. That's ultimately a matter for media organisations to configure themselves in the ways that best support their viability. We're still going to have important diversity protections. We have something called the 5/4 or voices rule which says you've got to have five independent voices in metro areas and four in the regions. We're still going to have the two to a market radio rule which says you can't have a crowd that has more than two radio licences in one market. We're still going to have the one to a market TV rule which says that you can't have more than one TV licence in a market. We're still going to have the ACCC competition ruler. And we're still going to have the important underpinning of media diversity courtesy of a small and struggling media organisation called the ABC.

CASSIDY:
Let's look at the arrangements with Nick Xenophon and Pauline Hanson. Starting with Pauline Hanson. To get these changes through, you've agreed to her demands around the ABC and you have said quite confidently this week that you think they'll get through the Senate. What will change at the ABC?

FIFIELD: 
It is important to honour your commitments. And we have said that we will introduce legislation to give effect to some changes to the ABC. One of those is to put in the ABC act the words “fair and balanced”. There's been bit of uproar about that. But there shouldn't be. Because Chapter 4 of the ABC's own editorial policies talks about the importance of "fair treatment". It also talks about a "balance that follows the weight of the evidence". So, these are not new or strange journalistic concepts.

CASSIDY:
So you're adding fair and balanced. What do you actually mean by "balance"?

FIFIELD: 
I go by the ABC's own editorial policy which is "a balance that follows the weight of evidence". These are not strange or new journalistic concepts. If you look at the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance journalistic code of conduct, it talks about fairness on no less than six occasions.

CASSIDY:
Fairness yes, but the question of balance. And this is One Nation's idea and we know what they mean by balance. They've given an example. They say that you should give equal time, equal space, to the climate change scientists and the climate change sceptics, those who think that the whole thing is a hoax. Is that balance? Is that the kind of balance that you want to see?

FIFIELD: 
What I'm talking about is effectively enshrining in legislation that which is already in the ABC's own editorial policy.

CASSIDY:
So that won't necessarily mean that you don't have to give equal time to the two thoughts on climate change?

FIFIELD: 
It's a balance that follows the weight of evidence. But this isn't it the only area...

CASSIDY:
Who decides the weight of evidence? Who decides whether we should give equal time to the scientists and the sceptics?

FIFIELD:
It will operate exactly as it does now. And that is the ABC will make judgements on these matters. The Government doesn't have a role in editorial arrangements at the ABC. That's not going to change. We're simply reinforcing through legislation that which is already in the ABC's own editorial policies. But as I was just about to mention, we're also looking at putting the words "rural and regional" in the ABC charter. A lot of people would assume that that was already in the ABC charter. It's not. We just think that it is a good statement of the important role that the ABC has for rural and regional Australia.

CASSIDY:
The ABC has a good record in rural and regional Australia?

FIFIELD: 
The community is very close to and very fond of the ABC in rural and regional Australia. What we want to do is make sure that that is explicit in the charter of the ABC. And we'll also legislate that there has to be two people from rural and regional Australia on the board of the ABC. Now we've already appointed two people. So we've done that. But we think it's a good thing that it is enshrined in legislation.

CASSIDY: 
Now the deal with Nick Xenophon, the sixty million innovation fund and the cadetships that will be directly funded to some media organisations. Why is that not straight out protectionism?

FIFIELD:
Well, the whole basis of our package, and the elements that we've agreed to with Nick Xenophon, is to support those elements of the Australian media industry that have been disrupted. Regional newspapers, in particular, have faced a very hard time. So the $60 million package that we've agreed to will have an innovation fund which will help those businesses, particularly in regional areas, to re-engineer themselves so that they're better positioned to face the new challenges.

CASSIDY:
But they're not the first industry to face new challenges? And yet, it's very rare for the Government to bail them out?

FIFIELD: 
We're not bailing anyone out. This is a short-term program. For three years.

CASSIDY:
Where the media is the exception to the rule? Why the media?

FIFIELD: 
A limited amount of money. $60 million. Yes, that's real money, but it's pretty small when you compare it to the billion dollars plus that the ABC receives. So we want to provide some targeted assistance to these businesses to be better prepared for the new media environment that they operate in. And Barrie we know...

CASSIDY:
That's not what SPC heard when they were in trouble?

FIFIELD: 
We don't make any apology for recognising that the media plays an important role in underpinning our democracy. They hold us to account. They tell the Australian public the stories that they want to hear about what's happening in the community. That's important. We didn't want to see Australian media companies fail. That's why we're changing our media laws. That's why we're effectively providing tax cuts for commercial free-to-air broadcasters. That's why we have this package of measures to support regional media. We think these are good things. We think these are important things.

CASSIDY:
And the Guardian Australia misses out, even though they're a small organisation, but they do employ Australian journalists. Why do they miss out?

FIFIELD: 
We haven't applied any ideological tests here. What we wanted to happen was to see this support focused on Australian media organisations and those that had been disrupted. And that's the way we've structured this $60 million package.

CASSIDY:
So if a parent company is foreign, they're excluded?

FIFIELD: 
That's right, that's one of the tests that we have. We have a principle purpose test that they've got to be engaged in civic journalism. We have an independence test that they can't be associated with a political party or a trade union or an organisation that beats a drum, as it were.

CASSIDY:
But the parent company, the foreign parent company rule. You gave $30 million in the budget to Fox Sports, so that they would cover niche sports and women's sports. And that's a company wholly owned by an American, Rupert Murdoch.

FIFIELD: 
We have our agreement with Nick Xenophon which is focused primarily on rural and regional publications.

CASSIDY:
But it's not Nick Xenophon's fault that you've done this. He argued against it but he eventually went with it in the end because he wanted the package as a whole to get up.

FIFIELD: 
We have a range of discussions with crossbenchers. They put different propositions forward. But something that I absolutely wasn't going to do in the context of this $60 million package was see dollars go to organisations that are part of foreign operations. I also...

CASSIDY:
But you gave $30 million to Rupert Murdoch in the budget.

FIFIELD: 
As I was going to say Barrie, we have this package with Nick Xenophon. We also have the media reform package, as a whole. And that media reform package, you've got to look at, in context. Now we had good reasons for cutting licence fees for free-to-air broadcasters. We also wanted to see that there was a community dividend from that in the form of further restrictions on gambling advertising. But we did recognise that subscription TV has a different operating environment. They don't pay licence fees and what I didn't want to see was that there were effects on women's sports or niche sports as a result of the fact that they operate in a different environment.

CASSIDY:
And they don't reach many people either, 30% of the audience. So if you want to promote sports, niche sports, why would you give it to an organisation that only reaches 30% of the audience?

FIFIELD: 
A recent Sports Commission survey found that 70% of the coverage of women's sport occurred on subscription TV. This is an organisation that has four dedicated sports channels. They've got a good track record when it comes to covering women's sports and niche sports. Yes, the ABC does some good work as well and they're supported to the tune of more than a billion dollars a year. But we thought that this was a good and an appropriate measure to decide.

CASSIDY:
Have you set in place performance standards? Viewers reached? Number of sports covered and that kind of thing?

FIFIELD: 
There will be a deed of agreement for funding which is currently being negotiated with Fox Sports which will cover those matters.

CASSIDY:
On the NBN, about half way through the rollout and yet fewer than half of the premises passed have signed up. Are you disappointed with that?

FIFIELD: 
Well, you're right Barrie. The NBN is more than 50% complete. In regional areas it's two thirds complete, because we deliberately front end loaded the work for regional areas given that they have had poorer broadband compared to metro areas. And we've got good take-up. NBN expects about 75% of people will choose...

CASSIDY
Are you satisfied with that? That's a good result?

FIFIELD:
What you have to appreciate is that there's an 18-month migration window from when the NBN comes to your area to when you actually have to switch over. Some people take their time. What we're finding though, is over that period, it is hitting 75%. And remember Barrie, only about 75% of people actually have a landline in their house. So the percentages that are hooking up to the NBN are about the same as those who choose to have a landline in the pre-NBN world.

CASSIDY:
The bigger problem is that many of the people say that they're ending up with an inferior service and they feel dudded.

FIFIELD: 
There is a period of transition. NBN when connecting people gets it right first time on about nine out of ten occasions. But I never want to diminish in any way the experience that someone has if it's not all that it should be.

CASSIDY: 
And what do you do about that? How do you turn that around? If people are actually getting an inferior service after all they were told would happen?

FIFIELD: 
There are two things. Firstly we want to improve and are improving the migration process. Secondly, when it comes to the experience that people actually have on the network. One of the issues is retail service providers - your Telstra's, your Optus', your TPG's - whether they purchase enough capacity to service their customers. Now, we have instructed the ACCC to undertake performance monitoring, speed monitoring, where there will be 4,000 probes embedded in premises around the country. And people will have visibility of the service that's actually being provided. The ACCC has also issued fresh guidance to retailers to make sure that their advertising is clear for consumers - something that it hasn't always been.

CASSIDY:
Just finally on the vilification laws around the same-sex marriage postal survey. Some of the impacts of voting yes in the survey.

FIFIELD: 
There will be claims and there will be counterclaims when you are having a debate of this sort. I think the Australian community is well capable of determining what are spurious arguments and what are valid ones.

CASSIDY:
And was the vilification amendments necessary saying that all along you wanted a civil discussion?

FIFIELD: 
That will be in place for about eight or so weeks during the campaign period. When the campaign period is over, that will sunset. Yes, the Australian community are capable of, and are conducting themselves in a civil way. There will always be a few outliers at either end of the debate. But we'll be through this soon and I think people will be wondering what all the fuss was about.

CASSIDY:
Minister, thank you for your time.

FIFIELD: 
Good to see you.

[ends]