Dr Derek Wilding (Communication Law Centre)
: University of New South Wales
Regional Television News
The ABA’s New Licence Condition
Excerpt from a Paper Delivered to the Regional
Central Queensland University, Rockhampton.
The Communications Law Centre has followed
this review of local news from the outset.
We made a couple of submissions to the Inquiry
and I went to the public hearings in Newcastle.
But I should also add that It was the CLC
who wrote to the ABA in July 2001 when Prime
pulled their local television news services
out of Canberra, Newcastle and Wollongong.
We asked the ABA to investigate and, perhaps
somewhat arrogantly, we told them that the
market had failed, the objects of the Act
were not being complied with, and that the
regulator should establish an industry standard
to provide for set levels of local content
in regional televisional news services.
Some two and half years later, the ABA’s
new licence conditions are about to commence
in a matter of weeks (although compliance
won’t be required until February next
year), and I have to concede that the ABA
was right to be cautious about its powers,
because it certainly is constrained by the
scope of the relevant provisions in the
Broadcasting Services Act, and because a
standard was not the right course of action.
At the end of it all, our Centre would certainly
commend the ABA on persevering with the
intention to impose a licence condition
on regional broadcasters, rather than acquiescing
with industry requests for this matter to
be enforced by way of an industry code.
(On this subject of the type of instrument,
I might add that a parallel case in point
is the current investigation in relation
to allegations of breaches of the Commercial
Radio Standards by – who else - John
Laws and Alan Jones and their respective
licensees. In our view that’s probably
an even stronger case for action by the
regulator rather than the industry).
As Professor Flint has explained, the ABA
scheme requires a minimum of 90 points per
week which, if provided by news programs,
means 45 minutes per week or, if provided
by way of local content other than news,
means 90 minutes per week.
Whether or not this is enough is a difficult
question and in the absence of resources
to test people’s views on this, our
Centre suggested trialing this quota now
and stepping it up when the licence conditions
are reviewed and renewed. One thing, however,
is certain: the ABA local content scheme
is vastly superior to the local content
scheme set out in the Media Ownership Bill.
Having said that, I don’t support
some of the weakening of some aspects of
that scheme as a result of industry lobbying
following last year’s report of the
I’m particularly concerned about the
decision to water down the current affairs
and local content quota by allowing 50%
of this content to be ‘local’
to the entire post-aggregation licence area
rather than the local area itself.
In addition, I don’t support the decision
to award points to repeats of community
And I still have concerns about a regulatory
philosophy that is articulated in such tentative
terms such as those used in the recent media
release, “the ABA expects that each
local area will have at least a daily bulletin
containing local news” (ABA NR 22/2003,
8 April 2003).
But in the end, the ABA has used an enforceable
instrument to achieve its goal and in taking
a cautious approach it is, after all, complying
the regulatory policy that Parliament has
set, not something that the regulator itself
An issue that concerns me more is the mix
of news and other local content. Part of
the thinking that underpins the ABA’s
local content scheme is that there will
be at least one provider of local news.
The option provided to broadcasters to fulfil
their quota either via news points or via
local information points means that no one
will actually be required to provide news.
This seems to me to be a potential weak
point. At some stage in the Inquiry there
was a discussion of a scheme whereby the
benchmark would be one local service in
each area. This, it seemed to us, set the
threshold too low, because certainly there
would be areas where there is a genuine
problem in achieving two services, but there
will a number of areas where one service
is not enough, and where a second or third
service does not affect the viability of
the enterprises, just the profit margin.
Accordingly, a one-per-market rule could
sell some markets short.
But in the end, the ABA opted to not require
any news service. We don’t oppose
this decision outright, and it was made
clear during the Inquiry that some broadcasters
are in a far different position than the
three capital city networks. However, we
do feel that it will be important for the
ABA to review this question of the balance
between news and local information.
The views expressed by participants at the
Newcastle hearings are relevant here, given
their conviction that when one news service
withdraws, the whole news culture of the
city or town is affected and standards decline
– that is, the withdrawal of a television
news service affects all news services,
not just other television services.
Professor Alan Knight, Central Queensland
Nakano, Hong Kong University
S. Parker, Central Michigan University, USA
Robertson, Central Queensland University
University of Canterbury, New Zealand
Stockwell, Griffith University
Zayed University, United Arab Emirates
Quinn, Zayed University, United Arab Emirates