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Xenophon defends media reform deal

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The Turnbull Government’s media ownership deregulation bill is set to pass the Senate this afternoon, including a $60 million fund negotiated by Nick Xenophon to allay concerns the new laws will allow large media companies to dominate markets like Adelaide.

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The media reform package will scrap the “two out of three” rule, which prevents a media company from controlling more than two out of three platforms – commercial TV, commercial radio and newspaper – in any licensed market.

Journalists’ union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), is warning the change will hasten journalism job losses and worsen media concentration in Australia.

But Xenophon, whose support is needed to get the package through the Senate, defended the deal this morning.

“This is the best package to ensure that we can actually get more journalists being employed not fewer,” he said.

In exchange for Xenophon’s support, the Government has agreed to establish a $60.4 million fund for regional and small media publishers.

Under the program, grants will be made available for small media companies to buy or upgrade equipment and software, develop apps, train journalists and undertake “business activities to drive revenue and readership”.

Only Australian media companies with an annual turnover of not less than $300,000 and not more than $30 million will be eligible, excluding giants News Corp and Fairfax.

Additionally, 30 scholarships to study journalism will be funded each year, as well as 50 cadetships at regional and small media organisations, with up to $40,000 of wages subsidised by the Government.

Between 40 and 45 of the cadetships will be hosted at regional publications.

As part of the deal, the Government will ask the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to hold an inquiry into the impact Facebook, Google and other internet titans are having on the media industry.

Xenophon said negotiations over the package were “the most difficult, protracted and robust set of negotiations in 20 years of being in parliament – state and federal”.

“I’ve done my level best to try and redress the crisis that journalism is facing in this country,” he told reporters.

Communications Minister Mitch Fifield said he believed the overhaul would boost the long-term viability of Australian media.

“The media laws were crafted for an era which today is barely recognisable,” he said.

“This is not 1988 – the internet does exist.”

But MEAA chief executive officer Paul Murphy said the deal abandons “the last important protection” for media diversity in Australia.

“Any initiative to support new investment in journalism is welcome, but it should not come at the price of existing safeguards being removed,” Murphy said.

“The last important protection – the two-out-of-three rule – has been abandoned and there is nothing in its place.

“Australia, which already has one of the highest concentrations of media ownership in the world, is now saying that a plurality of media voices doesn’t matter.

“And history shows that once diversity is lost, you cannot get it back.”

He said “structural challenges” faced by the Australian media sector would be “slightly stalled” by the package.

However, “as companies amalgamate, more media jobs will be lost and with their loss, public scrutiny will be further reduced”.

Labor and the Greens also oppose scrapping the “two out of three” rule.

Opposition Communications spokesperson Michelle Rowland told InDaily: “It will be interesting to see where all the new journalism cadets work when the media mergers, consolidations and job losses that follow the repeal of the two out of three rule occur.”

“Media diversity should not be traded away in exchange for support for journalism or local content.

“It is not an either/or proposition – Australia needs both.”

Senior Labor Senator Don Farrell told the Senate this afternoon removing the “two out of three rule” would mean fewer journalism jobs in Australia, and that it was cruel to offer scholarships to students who may never find work in the industry.

“What’s the point of the agreement to give (… scholarships) to young students who can’t find a job?” said Farrell.

“[It is] cruel to them – because you are leading them up the garden path.

“This benefits not just some of the wealthiest people in this country but the wealthiest people on the planet,” he added.

Greens leader Richard Di Natale said more voices were needed in the Australia media sector, not fewer – and incentives were needed to get more journalists on the ground.

“There’s no point training cadets if there are no jobs for them,” he told ABC radio.

The deal will also repeal the ‘reach rule’, which currently prevents a media company controlling commercial television broadcasting licences over an area that exceeds 75 per cent of Australia’s population.

Xenophon conceded that the changes will allow for a consolidation of the media but says he does not want to see more companies go into administration.

Liberal Senator Jane Hume said the Nick Xenophon Team had argued strongly during negotiations to safeguard rural jobs.

“My hat is tipped to the Xenophon Team for working hard for regional and rural jobs and regional and rural opportunities and also to maintain media diversity,” she told reporters.

The Government already had the support of One Nation – on the proviso it would introduce separate legislation to force the ABC and SBS to publish the salaries of employees earning more than $200,000 a year.

One Nation won agreement to have the national broadcasters face an inquiry into “competitive neutrality” and have the words “fair and balanced” inserted into the ABC charter.

Di Natale warned the latter risked the ABC becoming Australia’s Fox News, and might also result in paywalls being put up on the public broadcaster’s on-demand service, iView.

“One Nation wants to take the axe to the ABC,” he said.

– with AAP

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