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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 Media Conference
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 inquiry.

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 service announcements.

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 has developed.

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.

Editor

Professor Alan Knight, Central Queensland University

Advisory Panel

Dr Yoshiko Nakano, Hong Kong University

Elliott S. Parker, Central Michigan University, USA

Dr Philip Robertson, Central Queensland University

Jim Tully, University of Canterbury, New Zealand

Dr Stephen Stockwell, Griffith University

Philip Cass, Zayed University, United Arab Emirates

Dr Steve Quinn, Zayed University, United Arab Emirates

     

Ejournalist is published by ejournalism.au.com, Faculty of Informatics and Communication, Central Queensland University