McCormack tight-lipped on media reform

Nationals backbencher Barnaby Joyce (left) and Nationals leader Michael McCormack (right). Pictures: Sitthixay Ditthavong, Elesa Kurtz
Nationals backbencher Barnaby Joyce (left) and Nationals leader Michael McCormack (right). Pictures: Sitthixay Ditthavong, Elesa Kurtz

Nationals leader Michael McCormack has resisted calls to support changes to ensure the ongoing viability of regional media.

It comes as his predecessor warned leaving local news services to wither would leave people getting their news from social media, which was "basically the equivalent of getting your news on the back of a lavatory wall in a pub".

Regional broadcasters Prime Media Group, WIN Network and Southern Cross Austereo have partnered with ACM, the publisher of this newspaper, to call on government to relax the voices test - which requires there to be at least four voices in regional commercial radio licence areas.

They are also asking for the one-licence-to-a-market rule - which prevents television broadcasters from operating more than one TV licence in a market - to be loosened, so companies can merge instead of closing.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese said on Tuesday without reforms, there were likely to be more newsroom closures.

"Without reform we know there will actually be less voices in the regions," Mr Albanese said.

But Mr McCormack would not be drawn on whether the party would support structural changes to help regional media survive in the long term.

He said the government had provided substantial assistance to Australian media this year through the $50 million Public Interest News Gathering Program, under which 93 broadcasters and publishers have received their first payment so far.

Government grants records show Prime has received $4.7 million under the program, while WIN has received almost $4.5 million. ACM has also been approved for a grant but the amount has not been made public yet.

"The Nationals recognise the value and importance of regional media," Mr McCormack said.

"In 2017, we delivered the most significant media ownership reforms in a generation, which abolished the 75 per cent reach rule and permitted ownership of commercial TV, commercial radio and newspapers in one licence area.

"Just last December, we announced commencement of a staged approach to further media reform, moving towards a platform-neutral regulatory framework. This is a large, complex and ongoing piece of work.

"The Nationals in government will always stand up for regional media outlets, because we know local content produced by local journalists plays a vital role in ensuring local communities can keep informed."

But former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce called for further changes to the regulatory landscape.

"The big thing for me is this, there has to be licence to earn advertising revenue from reporting politics and current affairs in Australia," Mr Joyce told The Northern Daily Leader.

"Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and all of these other platforms that know they get advertising revenue from displaying current affairs, should have to pay a licence fee for it."

Facebook has threatened to block Australians sharing local news articles, in response to an ACCC proposal which would force the social media giant to bargain with media companies over payment for news content on its platform.

Google has also warned it may withdraw free services from Australia if the code went ahead.

The future of Australian democracy would be bleak without regional media, Mr Joyce warned.

"Conspiracy theorists would love it because you could say anything unchallenged, people who defame people would love it because your comment can be made without attribution, but democracy will hate it because it's no longer an honest appraisal of the issues," he said.

"People will always have their own filter when they consume news and take away the basic message, and the overwhelming message is regional outlets are good at what they do.

"If that is lost, then we will be left to get our news from social media platforms. That is basically the equivalent of getting your news on the back of a lavatory wall in a pub."

The National Party itself last week drew condemnation from the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance over plans to set up a free news website that would only focus on good news from regional Australia.

The plan, from the Victorian branch of the National Party, relied on unpaid contributors writing stories that would be vetted by Victorian Nationals leader Peter Walsh.

MEAA media acting director Adam Portelli said the Nationals should direct their efforts towards helping regional media rather than competing against it.

This story McCormack tight-lipped on media reform first appeared on The Canberra Times.