Australian Fabians Review
Michelle Rowland MP, interviewed by Bryce Craig
Michelle Rowland MP has served as Shadow Minister for Communications for most of her time in Parliament, being first elected in 2010 as the federal member for Greenway. Prior to this, Michelle worked as a senior lawyer specialising in technology, media and communications, and competition law. As we recorded this interview in the sunlit offices of her former (and my current) workplace, Michelle offered a damning take on Coalition communication policy.
Bryce: What do you make of the almost eight years that the Coalition has been in charge of federal communications policy?
Michelle: It's been playing catch up on issues that really needed to be dealt with a long time ago. And it's a crying shame that a lot of the work that was initially initiated under [former Labor Minister, Senator] Stephen Conroy, for example, in terms of Labor’s Convergence Review, and the ACMA’s work on ‘broken concepts’ and ‘enduring concepts’. They were important pieces of work on which an agenda could have been built over the last eight years.
But what we saw in the first term was basically the dismantling of the NBN. Only in the last six months or so have they conceded that copper is not the technology of the future. In the second term, a failure to acknowledge the need for media diversity or respond to that crisis in the media sector productively. And this term, really, is playing catch up. All the while, you've just got these relentless attacks on our public broadcasters in particular, the ABC. In many senses, the approach has been half-hearted and incompetent.
In the meantime, you have regulatory uncertainty, which is bad for business, particularly small business. It does not augur well for a sector that has been undergoing massive technological change. And it doesn't augur well for Australian consumers as a whole.
The amount of waste, not just in terms of time, has a cost as well. It has a cost on consumers. It has a cost on lost innovation. In addition to the obvious budgetary cost. All of this points to the Coalition being bad managers of the communications portfolio and bad economic managers, too.
Bryce: The Coalition may argue that they were in fact rather proactive in their communication policy, pointing to reforms such as the encryption amendments in 2018, the ‘Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material’ amendments in the wake of the Christchurch terrorist attacks, and the more recent News Media Bargaining Code and Online Safety Bill. Do you think they have offered some strong interventions in this space?
Michelle: Quite frankly, that is the business of government. It should be the business of government to undertake laws that protect citizens, that remedy power imbalances in instances of market failure, and to ensure that Australian consumers have access to the best in innovation.
And, I would point out for example, the Briggs Review was completed over two years ago, and we still do not have the ‘Online Safety Act’. But in the meantime, you have Ministers out there spruiking, on more than one occasion, that they have this Online Safety Act in place. It is not law. So there is mismanagement when it comes to swift enactment.
It also could not have been made easier for this Government to achieve this.
Labor has not stood in the way - we have asked questions where appropriate, and we have conducted due diligence, as is required by not an Opposition. But Labor has never stood in the way of sensible proposals. We're not going to fight around the edges - it's all about being a responsible Opposition.
On the News Media Bargaining Code
The News Media Bargaining Code has been one of this year’s hot topics in communication policy, and one with a very pronounced public debate. Labor broadly supported the introduction of the Code with some important amendments.
Bryce: Do you think that the Code was the most pressing reform item for the Government to pursue from the ACCC Digital Platforms Inquiry (DPI), and why do you think it might have been pursued over other recommendations that might have had a more felt impact in the community?
Michelle: You’re right in that there were around 23 DPI recommendations. But I think in the minds of many, this was the only recommendation that mattered.
And to be quite frank, and I don't say this as a criticism, but it was about money. Money that goes towards jobs, that goes to the survival of journalism, especially in regional parts of Australia where we've seen hundreds of titles and newsrooms and jobs close. This has been a long brewing storm as well. This didn't happen overnight, the digital disruption, the fall in advertising revenues. And then when COVID hit, the media sector was left particularly exposed.
This was a very important recommendation from the DPI - Labor never disputed that. But I guess your question is, why was this prioritized? I think it was because this issue had been identified, even before the pandemic, as something that wasn't going to get any better. From the bleed of the advertising revenue, to just the pure competition principals and the power imbalance. In the absence of regulation, it doesn't correct itself and is just reinforced.
However, it’s no silver bullet for a number of players in the media sector, such as small and regional publishers who don't have the bargaining clout of the mainstream media. And it's also our understanding that even some of the larger independent organizations still haven't struck deals with both Google and Facebook yet. So whether this ends up working in practice across the entire sector, in order to foster that diversity, that's something that remains to be seen. There’s a statutory review of it within a year.
Unfortunately we've already seen jobs going in the mainstream media, newsrooms have closed and are still closing. I, for example, don't have any local papers in outer metropolitan Sydney. It's all online and I don't see new publications. Regionally it's worse, with news deserts emerging across Australia.
Bryce: Tech sector stakeholders obviously had concerns with the Code. They expressed that this type of law reform, including the uncoordinated way in which it is introduced, will disincentivise investment in the Australian technology sector and harm jobs. How concerned is Labor about that prospect?
Michelle: To be perfectly honest, I don’t buy those arguments.
Australia is a big market, we are big early adopters and we have always shown that to be the case. When firms look to invest in markets they consider a multitude of things, including ease of entry, ease of exit, regulatory certainty, innovation, etc. So making those arguments about a reform stifling investment are always really hard to make out. A firm acting rationally will always choose to go where there is a market, will always choose to go there and they accept the risk. As long as those other factors are there, they will invest.
When there was discussion of Google exiting the market, Paul Fletcher spoke about the availability of other search engines. Microsoft steps forward and says ‘we’ll invest’, you know, ‘if left to be the last search engine we’ll invest’. You should invest anyway, and you will invest anyway. Stop acting like you will only invest in this country, and that Australians only deserve the best, where you’re going to have a monopoly. Australians deserve the best in innovation. And in all rational circumstances we should get it because we have demonstrated that we are early adopters. We are well-recognised as having the environment for private-sector investment, and for having a market that welcomes innovation.
So I don't buy a simplistic, binary argument, that even the government plays into: “we will always stand up for Australians against big tech”. Yes, we should always stand up for good, robust regulation and safety when it comes to big tech. But let's not kid ourselves, even the tech sector knows that Australians and the Australian regulatory environment will always want them to invest. And ultimately, again, it comes down to the long term interests of end-users. We always want, and every Australian public office holder should want, Australian consumers to get the best of everything.
On media diversity
Michelle and I discussed the amendments made to broadcasting legislation under Turnbull in 2017. Among other things, these reforms removed the “two-out-of-three” cross-media ownership rule. The Coalition boasted that the reforms would breathe fresh air into Australia’s media landscape and foster diversity. In reality these reforms have served to further cement Australia’ status as the most heavily concentrated media market of any advanced democracy.
Bryce: Knowing the reputation that Coalition-led law reform has for not delivering when it comes to media diversity, was enough done by Labor to challenge the focus and extent of the News Media Bargaining Code, that also promised to support media diversity?
Michelle: I think there's two things there. Firstly, there is only so much that can be achieved from Opposition. We are committed to media diversity, we are committed to properly funding our public broadcasters. You need to elect Labor governments in order to ensure that. We opposed, for example, the two-out-of-three repeal in 2017. But in the end, if you're not in government, you're not not calling the shots.
And the second thing is that a lot of discussion was had around whether the revenues flowing from the Code would be put back into journalism. The ABC committed to do it, because it can. But we examined a number of proposals for the Code and the sheer complexity of being able to codify revenue allocation - not only is it something that's really hard to do as the Opposition, it's really hard to do in general from a legislative perspective.
There are limits to the amount of regulatory intervention that can guarantee expenditure. But we asked the relevant questions on the floor of Parliament regarding how these guarantees can be worked toward for the sake of media diversity. We utilized every opportunity in the Parliament, and in the Senate inquiry, and outside of Parliament too, to keep the Coalition accountable on this.
Bryce: In the recent Senate Inquiry into media diversity, News Corp executive chairman Michael Miller said that the industry is “a picture of diversity, not monopoly”. He said that diversity is not just about ownership and insisted that the diversity of views, sources and mode of access in Australia was incredible. How do you respond to that?
Michelle: I think media diversity has been viewed through the prism of ownership for a very long time. I think that Paul Keating's ‘queen of screen or prince of print’ view of cross-media ownership remains sound. But let’s remember that this was before our current internet and technology age. Where you have voices in mainstream media, whether that is in radio, TV or print, they are often still the same voices that are prominent online. You only have to look at the top 10 news sites in Australia to see there is still a correlation between ownership and the variety of voices that are being accessed online.
I think what Michael Miller was saying, particularly in relation to the internet, was that you've got different journalists and an ability for anyone to be a journalist. But I think that does a disservice to the Fourth Estate in some respects. As a consumer of news as well, people’s opinions can be a dime a dozen, but I would prefer to have content that is from someone who has written it with a journalistic intent.
I think that we will have that kind of diversity that Michael Miller thinks we have now when smaller publishers are given a better chance to get bigger, or to be niche, but still economically viable and self-dependent. Which is why I think the Code is so important to enable that cohort to survive.
But I also think this Government has really let down the sector by not commissioning better modelling of what our media market should look like. The Government recently admitted, in an explanatory memorandum to one of their own pieces of legislation, that there was market failure in rural and regional television. What work has been done to design new models for regional media, a new regulatory environment? Nothing. It's purely looked at through the prism of ownership.
On a Royal Commission
Bryce: Over 500,000 Australians called for a Royal Commission into media diversity, which could produce recommendations and solutions to the media diversity crisis. Is that something Labor would support?
Michelle: It’s not Labor party policy. And I think part of the issue here is that I don’t need a Royal Commission to tell me that Australia has one of the most concentrated media markets in the world in terms of ownership and control. And that is not going to change overnight, but I don't need a Royal Commission to tell me that. And purely from a policy priority perspective, there are some pretty important things to be examined by Royal Commissions today.
I can appreciate that this has exercised the minds of Kevin Rudd as a private citizen and a former prime minister. He has every right to champion this. And I think the hundreds of thousands of Australians who have supported his petition have every right to demand that something be done on Australia's high levels of media concentration. But what recommendations are going to come out of this, and how much are they going to differ from those of the countless inquiries we have already had on this topic.
Ultimately the way that we remedy this is through actually doing the hard work around not only ownership, but all the other regulatory markers as well. From tax reform, encouraging investment, to fostering public interest journalism by supporting journalists and new, viable business models. But to do that, you need to elect a Labor Government.
It’s not just about diversity of ownership, it is about the voices too. I want to see more first nations media, I want to see more ethnic media. The most common surname in my area isn’t Smith or Jones, it's Singh. People need to see themselves on screen. This is why the SBS has been so successful - because they are actually walking the talk when it comes to diversity of voices.
So yes ownership remains important, but when I say media diversity I'm also talking about geographic diversity, ethnic diversity, Indigenous inclusion, disability inclusion.
Bryce: I take your point about a Royal Commission having the potential to rehash things previously investigated. However, unlike other efforts, a Royal Commission with this kind of mandate could provide unparalleled insight into Murdoch’s media empire, one of the world’s most influential media conglomerates. Isn’t that a worthwhile endeavour?
Michelle: Don’t get me wrong. I see exactly where Rudd is coming from. And I see exactly where your question is coming from. We saw this happen in the UK a couple of years ago. You actually need that structure, under the imprimatur of a Royal Commission. But my response to that question is that we need to always be outcomes focussed. And if that outcome is not going to produce diversity, isn't going to produce extra investment, isn’t going to produce inclusiveness, I would rather spend the energy designing proper regulatory structures that achieve that.
Don’t get me wrong. All of these are very valid concerns. Me and my Party have been on the front pages of Murdoch titles since forever. One of the games that we play between us is: “Headlines We’ll Never See”. Imagine if Labor was in Government when Ruby Princess happened, the headline: “Labor Death Ship Infects the Nation”. I personally feel like there isn’t enough being done by mainstream media to hold conservative governments to account. And there is a different standard of accountability. I don’t need a Royal Commission to tell me that there’s a different standard. This is happening. The question is, am I going to change the outcome through a Royal Commission.
By the way, how much bigger is Nine these days too? The two-out-of-three repeal meant that the Nine Entertainment Co happened, chaired by Peter Costello, you know? Run by people who are personal friends with the Minister, who fundraise for the Liberals on the set of a TV show. I’m happy to have a Royal Commission into that sort of fundraising. If you want to have a Royal Commission into the influence of the Fourth Estate on democracy, be my guest. I just don’t know how you craft those terms of reference.
And I also have thought about how any recommendations would work in practice. Some people might want to see forced divestiture. But if these are loss making, loss leading ventures does that just mean less news overall in some areas. We have to build diversity structurally as well. There's structural issues, there's new standards issues. There's free speech issues, vacuums being created and then filled by ultra conservative voices. There’s the online and streaming services versus linear broadcasting issue. So, you know, for the eight years the Coalition have been avoiding proper media reform, that brings up issues around media standards, the differential regulation of broadcast print online, they haven't gone there.
Michelle Rowland is the Federal Member for Greenway and the Shadow Minister for Communications. Michelle was previously a senior lawyer working in technology and competition. @MRowlandMP
Bryce Craig is a lawyer working in the technology and digital space, and is part of the editorial team behind the Australian Fabians Review.
Series: Australian Fabians Review - Issue 2
Author: Michelle Rowland, Bryce Craig