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Interview with Rafael Epstein ABC Drive Melbourne

26 July 2018

E & OE

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:
There was a lot of cajoling to get the media laws through the Senate that allowed Channel Nine to take over Fairfax newspapers. The Communications Minister Mitch Fifield was a massive part of that. Good afternoon.

FIFIELD:
Good to be with you Raf.

EPSTEIN:
Do you want to address Paul Keating's concern that the puss of Channel Nine's poor news judgement will seep into Fairfax?

FIFIELD:
Firstly Raf, someone's really got to work on their PJK impersonation at the ABC so …

EPSTEIN:
[Interrupts] It wasn't an impersonation. It was just a straight-out reading. We couldn't do the impersonation.

FIFIELD:
[Laughs] Look, I'll let Paul Keating be a commentator. But what we're about is helping to ensure that Australia media organisations survive. They've never been under more competition from global online platforms. Before we changed the media laws last year, there was a straightjacket on our media organisations preventing them from getting together when it made sense to support their viability. We've ensured that they now have that capacity. Because, Raf, the greatest threat to media diversity to Australia would be an Australian media organisation going out backwards. I want to see strong Australian media organisations that can continue to employ journalists and continue to make Australian content so we can hear our stories in our voices.

EPSTEIN:
So I guess you're taking some of the credit for their ability to merge. Doesn't that mean you also bear responsibility for the lost jobs and the closed regional newspapers?

FIFIELD:
Well, it's up to each media organisation to determine what is in their business interests. We have created an environment where they've got more options open to them so that they can put themselves in a position where they can survive and continue to employ people.

EPSTEIN:
I'm not questioning whether or not they have more options but if you give them more options, doesn't that mean you bear some of the responsibility if, say the Newcastle Herald closes or the Launceston Examiner closes?

FIFIELD:
I would bear much greater responsibility if we didn't change Australia's media laws and we simply allowed Australian media organisations to wither and to close one by one.

EPSTEIN:
Job losses are inevitable though, aren't they?

FIFIELD:
Hugh Marks today has said that his organisation has a deep and abiding commitment to news. We know that Fairfax does, but together …

EPSTEIN:
[Interrupts] I'm not asking about editorial, I'm just asking whether or not job losses are inevitable?

FIFIELD:
The employment profile of the organisations, that's something that you've got to direct to the merger partners. But what I do know is that Australian media organisations, when they get scale, when they're in a position to survive, when they're in a position to compete with the global online platforms, they're in a better position to employ people.

EPSTEIN:
Fewer voices. We've got less media diversity, don't we?

FIFIELD:
Well we've got, at one level, more diversity than ever before because of all of the online platforms, both foreign and domestic …

EPSTEIN:
[Interrupts] But most Australians will get their news from four big organisations. News Corp, ABC, Seven and Nine, that's fewer voices, no?

FIFIELD:
People choose to get their media where they choose to get it. There is a much larger array of options that people have. But you mentioned the ABC and it's important that we recognise that with the more than $1.3 billion a year that the Government provides to the ABC and SBS is one of the Commonwealth's big underpinnings of media diversity.

EPSTEIN:
And I want to get onto the ABC, Minster, I'm happy to, but I just want to know if you think there are fewer or more voices?

FIFIELD:
Well we have more, just as a matter of fact, by the introduction of the internet and online platforms. We have a wider array of media options than ever before. But what we don't want to see is Australian media organisations failing as a result of that competition. Now, we can't pretend that we're in 1988. The internet exists. There is competition. And media organisations need to address that. And that means that, on occasion, they will get together to support their viability.

EPSTEIN:
Should people have any concerns if there's a former senior Liberal being the Treasurer, Peter Costello in charge of Channel 9. Do you think people should have any concerns about impact one editorial decisions with The Age and Sydney Morning Herald?

FIFIELD:
No.

EPSTEIN:
None at all?

FIFIELD:
He's a professional Chair. And I've got confidence in the management and also the journalists who will be employed by the organisation.

EPSTEIN:
And just in a vein of more voices, why are you having a look at the ABC and its digital spending? There's no examination into whether or not this program is taking advertising away from 3AW or Triple M. We exist in the same realm. By nature of our existence I take advertising away from my commercial competitors. What's the difference in the digital realm? Why is that different?

FIFIELD:
Well Raf, the ABC doesn't take advertising away from commercial competitors.

EPSTEIN:
Right, but that's not true. If you shut your station down tomorrow, there'd be more listeners to the other radio shows that are on right now and those proprietors could charge more money to their advertisers. There's no doubt about that.

FIFIELD:
But Raf, the ABC is going to remain in government hands and the ABC is not going to take advertising.

EPSTEIN:
Oh no, I'm not saying you're going to shut us down. I'm just asking you, why look at with this review of the ABC's digital activity, why would you query what theABC could do, say, spending on a Google search or writing stuff online. What's the real difference between that and the fact that right now I'm taking listeners from commercial radio stations?

FIFIELD:
Raf, as you know, there have been a range of issues raised by commercial broadcasters as to whether the ABC andSBS use their position as government funded entities to compete in ways that are unfair. So, what we did in response to that was to establish a competitive neutrality inquiry. So that those organisations can put their views forward. But also, so that SBS and ABC can put their views forward.

EPSTEIN:
I'm not asking you whether or not it's unfair, I'm asking you if there's any difference between the ABC trying to get its search result promoted, which all news organisations do. Is there any difference between that activity and the fact that people are listening to me, and not listening to Nova?

FIFIELD:
They're two separate things Raf, but I'm happy to await the work of the competitive neutrality inquiry.

EPSTEIN:
How are they different? I'm just ask- I don't know, you tell me if you think they're different in principle, tell me how they are.

FIFIELD:
Raf, you being a broadcaster and the commercial entity being a broadcaster is a different scenario to the ABCpaying to have search results in a particular position. I don't think entirely get the analogy that you're drawing.

EPSTEIN:
We pay to broadcast you and me talking right now and we pay to get search results in Google. We pay to host a webpage with an opinion column. What's the difference? I'm asking you if there's a difference in principle. And I'm open-minded. I just don't understand what you say is the difference between me taking radio listeners from commercial stations right now and in the digital realm, us taking some eyeballs away from commercial providers of news. What is the real substantive difference?

FIFIELD:
Look Raf, I don't think they're directly analogous but I don't have a settled view on this and that's one of the reasons why we've established the competitive neutrality inquiry.

EPSTEIN:
Mitch Fifield is the Communications Minister. Can I ask you – I hope you're able to and willing to comment on this one unprompted; Lee Lin Chin is quitting SBS after almost 40 years of presenting. She, I guess indirectly, she's part of your portfolio. She will read her last news bulletin on Sunday. Let me read this, Minister, if I can. I shall reveal – there's one big reason that she is quitting, it'll give me more time to go to the pub and re-reading the complete works of Shakespeare. Anything to say about her leaving SBS?

FIFIELD:
It's a sad day for Australian broadcasting and news presentation. She has been part of our lives for a long time. She's someone who is able to have a laugh at herself, who does a really professional job but also doesn't take herself too seriously. So, it's sad but I wish her all the best for whatever's in store next.

EPSTEIN:
Are you going to grab a seat off Labor over the weekend?

FIFIELD:
Look, this is really a test for Bill Shorten. It is almost unprecedented; it's only happened once that a government wins a seat from their political opponent. This is all about…

EPSTEIN:
[Interrupts] So make a prediction. Peter Dutton said…

FIFIELD:
This is all about Bill Shorten.

EPSTEIN:
Peter Dutton told us on Tuesday that they will win in Longman. Are you that confident?

FIFIELD:
We'll leave it to the voters in Longman and Mayo and Braddon. But we've got terrific candidates there. We'll know Saturday night. No point in me predicting.

EPSTEIN:
Thank you so much for your time.

FIFIELD:
Good to be with you.

[ends]