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Media reform at last

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The Australian government’s media reforms were finally passed by the Senate on Thursday night after it agreed to amendments by Senator Nick Xenophon to set up a fund for regional and small publishers, ending a two-year battle to bring the legislation into the 21st century.

The long-awaited reforms will modernise current media law and allow publishers and broadcasters to acquire scale to better compete for revenue against the likes of Google and Facebook.

Under the reforms, the two-out-of-three law will be abandoned and the reach rule – which restricts media owners broadcasting to 75 per cent of the population or less – will be repealed. Axing the two-out-of-three rule will allow ownership in all of the traditional media channels, television, radio and print by one company.

Labor and the Greens staunchly opposed the repeal of the two-out-of –three rule, despite it pre-dating the internet – and voted against the reforms again on Thursday. The final vote was 31 – 27.

Fairfax Media chief executive Greg Hywood welcomed the reforms and was quick to congratulate the government.

“We welcome the introduction of the Federal Government’s media reform legislation today. Fairfax Media has long supported the modernising of media laws to better reflect the current media environment.

“We congratulate the Prime Minister The Hon Malcolm Turnbull, and the Minister for Communications Senator The Hon Mitch Fifield, for bringing media legislation into the modern age. It is no small feat having the sector united on what is the best legislative setting for the future. Fairfax acknowledges that there was broad support by the Senate crossbenchers.

“Mention must also be made of the efforts of Nick Xenophon and his team for getting behind and pushing for material support for regional journalism.”

“Fairfax will act in the best interests of shareholders to take advantage of any opportunities created by the changes.”

Michael Miller, News Corp Australasia executive chairman, said that the changes would give media a competitive future.

“News Corp Australia welcomes the passage of the Government’s media reform legislation.  

“This finally addresses the restrictions that have held back the competitiveness of media companies in Australia for far too long.  

“The additional initiatives put in place, through the well considered work of the Nick Xenophon Team and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, mean there is now a holistic approach that can directly benefit Australian communities, local businesses and media companies focused on Australia.

“These reforms are important. They will better enable the nation’s media operations, particularly in regional areas, to have certainty and invest in local communities and jobs in appropriate ways for a multi-platform digital age.”

The Nick Xenophon Team sought the establishment of a three-year $60.4 million innovation fund for regional and small publishers, among other initiatives, to boost competition and employment in the sector in return for his party’s support for the changes.

The funds can be accessed by companies with an annual turnover of between $300,000 and $30 million to purchase or upgrade equipment and software, and training.

To be eligible, media organisations will have to meet a primary purpose test of producing civic and public-interest journalism from a local perspective and an Australian residence test, which potentially would exclude foreign multinational companies such as The Guardian or the Daily Mail

Companies affiliated with a political party, union, superannuation fund, financial institution, non-government organisation or policy lobby group will be excluded.

To garner the support of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, the package also includes a number of amendments in regard to the ABC and SBS.

These include a legal requirement for ABC and SBS news and information services to be fair and balanced, and the disclosure of salaries of ABC and SBS staff that earn more than $200,000 a year.

Another key element secured by Senator Hanson is agreement to stage an inquiry into competive neutrality in the public broadcasting sector, in the wake of the ABC’s use of taxpayer funds to gain commercial advantage over news publishers in digital media.

Other inclusions in the government’s bill include the abolition of free-to-air broadcast annual licence fees which affect television and radio. The fees that net the government around $130 million annually will be replaced with new annual spectrum fees that will generate $40 million in revenue.

Content on free-to-air services also has featured heavily in the proposed changes, with a focus on sports and children’s programing. Australia’s anti-siphoning laws, which dictate the sports rights that must be offered first to free-to-air broadcasters, will be amended, reducing the list and updating other sections of the law.

The government also will pledge $30 million over four years to paid subscription services that feature women’s and niche sports.

Further restrictions will be placed on gambling advertising during sporting events. The advertising will be banned until five minutes after the conclusion of play or 8:30pm, dependent on which comes sooner. Current exclusions will remain.

Children’s programing will undergo a review by the Department of Communications and the Arts, Screen Australia and the Australian Communications and Media Authority to ensure the demographic is substantially serviced.

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