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Interview with Patricia Karvelas ABC RN Drive

26 July 2018

E & OE

Karvelas:
Senator Mitch Fifield is the Communications Minister and I spoke to him a short time ago.

Minister welcome to the program.

FIFIELD:
Good to be with you Patricia.

Karvelas:
When did you first become aware of this merger proposal?

FIFIELD:
I found out last night and spoke to Fairfax this morning.

KARVELAS:
So were you aware it was on the cards before that?

FIFIELD:
No that was the first occasion that I became aware that this was a proposition that was going to be put forward by Nine and by Fairfax.

KARVELAS:
You changed the laws that made this possible, was this always what you had on your mind?

FIFIELD:
Well what we wanted to do was to give Australian media organisations greater flexibility in terms of who they could combine with, who they could partner with. Because our Australian media organisations, print, radio, TV, are under sustained competition from global online media organisations. And we wanted to give our media organisations the best chance of fighting and the best chance of surviving.

KARVELAS:
How does this help protect media diversity for Australian consumers in a moment that it's needed most with the onslaught of the Netflix, Facebooks, Googles, Fake News?

FIFIELD:
The greatest threat to Australian media diversity would be the failure of an Australian media organisation. So it's important that we give Australian media organisations the opportunity to become strong, to combine with other media organisations where that improves their viability and will help them to survive. No one would be helped if an Australian media organisation failed. But we also, we should never forget Patricia, have more than $1.3 billion worth of Commonwealth commitment to media diversity in the form of support for the ABC and SBS. They're both very important underpinnings of media diversity and civic journalism.

KARVELAS:
Will you commit to greater levels of funding to public broadcasting to support diverse media and democracy, given what you just said?

FIFIELD:
What we will ensure is that the ABC is well resourced. That the SBS is well resourced. That they receive that funding on a triennial basis. And what we can absolutely guarantee is that just as today, and in the future, the ABC will have greater funding certainty than any other media organisation in the country.

KARVELAS:
Labor is calling on the Government to strengthen both the ABC and the SBS in the wake of this announcement. The ABC is of course facing an effective funding cut due to a freeze in indexation, should you revisit that now?

FIFIELD:
Well you're right, we have announced a freeze in indexation for the next triennium for the ABC, which is a little less than a year away. We have paired that with an Efficiency Review to ensure that the ABC continues to be the best possible steward of taxpayers dollars that it can be. But the important point for your listeners is that the ABC will continue to receive in excess of a billion dollars a year. That is greater funding certainty than any other media organisation in the country. And that's a good thing.

KARVELAS:
But when you made that decision to freeze ABC's funding or indexation, when you made that decision, this merger of Fairfax and Nine wasn't on the cards, now it is. Does it mean, given what you've said about the ABC and SBS being important, mean that you need to revisit that decision because the dynamics are different now?

FIFIELD:
Well the media environment is always evolving. What we want to ensure is that we have a good and a strong ABC. And a good and a strong SBS. But we also want to have strong commercial media organisations that survive. And we've given Australian media organisations greater flexibility to combine with their peers to ensure that they can be strong. And if they're strong, if they survive, they can continue to employ Australian journalists. They can continue to provide Australian content, so that we hear our stories in Australian voices. That's what we want.

KARVELAS:
So you don't accept that things have changed since your original budget announcement that mean you may need to revisit decisions.

FIFIELD:
Well the ABC will, as I say, continue to have greater funding certainty than any other media organisation...

KARVELAS:
There's a freeze in indexation though.

FIFIELD:
There's a pause in the indexation. But there is no media organisation in the country that knows at the start of every year, that they will get a guaranteed billion dollars a year.

KARVELAS:
Yeah but Minister, on one hand you say that the ABC and the SBS is more important than ever as we're seeing now less, or fewer - if I can use the word that ABC listeners always want me to use – fewer media players than before. If you believe that, then you put your money where your mouth is, don't you?

FIFIELD:
There are more media players than before because of the online platforms, because of the global competition, because of new domestic online news outlets. There are more media outlets than before. But what that means is that media of longstanding, on traditional platforms of print, radio and TV is facing greater competition. Now we want to see good, strong Australian media organisations. And that's what our media reforms last year were intended to do.

KARVELAS:
Former Prime Minister Paul Keating has described this as an exceptionally bad development that he says was bound to happen after last year's changes to media laws. Your government has effectively paved the way for this takeover. Paul Keating says this is going to make the media less effective in Australia than ever before?

FIFIELD:
Paul Keating's argument is the same as Bill Shorten's argument, which is that media laws drafted in the 1980s - when Kylie Minogue was still singing the Locomotion - that they remain fit for purpose. That's the contention of Paul Keating and Bill Shorten. Now, those media laws did not recognise that the internet existed. And for good reason. The internet didn't exist.

What we've said is we need to modernise our media laws. We need to unshackle Australian media organisations so that they can compete with the global online media. That's what we want to do. Labor, their approach, is essentially that we still live in 1980 and they're happy for Australian media organisations to wither and fade away. We're not. And we changed the law to give them a fighting chance. So that they can get scale. So that they can compete. So that we can still have Australian news. So that we can still have good Australian content. So that we can still hear our own stories in our own voices.

KARVELAS:
It's been reported that the cultures of the two workplaces are very different. Would you like Fairfax to adopt a more Nine culture?

FIFIELD:
I am ownership agnostic. It's for commercial media organisations to configure themselves in the ways that best supports their business operations. When they do that, we'll continue to have Australian journalists employed. Which is what we all want.

KARVELAS:
We've seen hundreds of jobs go right across Fairfax, many from the newsrooms. Channel 9 says operations will be streamlined. That's code for more job losses, isn't it?

FIFIELD:
Channel 9 has a deep commitment to news. Obviously Fairfax has a deep commitment to news. They are combining because they want to be strong. They want to make sure that we still have Australian journalists employed and our stories told. So, it's now up to the independent regulators. It's now up to the relevant shareholders. It's a matter for them to consider.

KARVELAS:
Fairfax operates many regional papers that carry less and less local content. Will this even further reduce that local content?

FIFIELD:
What I keep coming back to is that standing still, pretending it's still 1988, isn't an option. You can't wind the clock back. The internet exists. There is online competition. And Australian media organisations do need to adjust. Now, how they adjust is a matter for them. Individual media organisations are in the best position to know what is in their best business interests. But if Australian media organisations fail, then you will have less local content.

KARVELAS:
What do you say to Paul Keating's line that Nine has the ethics of an alley cat?

FIFIELD:
Well, I'll leave it to Paul Keating to commentate-

KARVELAS:
[Interrupts] Well you have views - you always have views about the ABC, for instance. What views do you have about the ethics of Nine?

FIFIELD:
Look, I'm happy to leave it to former prime ministers and journalists to commentate on each other.

KARVELAS:
Your former boss Peter Costello - for those who don't know, you were a staffer to Peter Costello when he was Treasurer - will be chairing the new Nine TV-newspaper company. Does that mean it's a kind of cosy arrangement - a media company that's very happy about the government?

FIFIELD:
I treat all my stakeholders equally. They're all important, but-

KARVELAS:
[Interrupts] You know what I'm asking. You know what I'm asking.

FIFIELD:
Look, people are entitled to a post-political life. And he's making a good contribution.

KARVELAS:
So, you don't see this as a consolidation of a sort of pro-Coalition media landscape?

FIFIELD:
Look, Patricia, you know that I have on occasion registered my views about the ABC on particular matters. But, rest assured, I have registered my views with commercial media outlets on occasion as well.

KARVELAS:
Okay. Before I let you go, are you going to complain about this interview?

FIFIELD:
Patricia, you know my position. More Karvelas is never enough.

KARVELAS:
Communications Minister Mitch Fifield, thanks for your time.

FIFIELD:
Good to be with you.

KARVELAS:
That is the Minister for Communications.

[ends]