The communications minister, Mitch Fifield, has signalled he will consider introducing a new tax break for smaller publishers to encourage them to employ more journalists, as part of the government’s long-running deliberations on media reform, which could wrap up within the week.
Fifield is now in talks with both the Nick Xenophon Team and the Greens to see if the government can pass its media reforms, which have been deadlocked for months, largely because One Nation has refused to support the package as it stands.
The Greens are a recent entry to the talks with the government and, along with the NXT, are pursuing policy measures favourable to smaller, independent publishers as a mechanism to boost diversity.
The Greens have long opposed scrapping the two out of three rule, which would mean media moguls could control television, newspapers and radio stations in the same market – but the party is now signalling it could consider that change if the government will countenance safeguards to encourage quality independent journalism.
As well as scrapping the two out of three rule, the government’s package also includes scrapping the 75% reach rule, which prevents Nine Entertainment, Seven West Media and the Ten Network from owning their regional affiliates, due to restrictions on a TV network broadcasting to more than 75% of the population.
Fifield was asked on the ABC whether he would support measures being pursued by the Greens and the NXT, including tax breaks for small publishers.
The minister said he was happy to hear proposals to improve the viability of Australian newsrooms. “We want to see strong media organisations. And part of that is strong newsrooms continuing to employ journalists.
“That’s part of the basis of our media reform package, that you’ve got media organisations that are more viable, that can configure themselves in ways that support their viability.”
The government has been forced to deal with the crossbench, because Labor is strongly opposed to scrapping the two out of three rule on the basis that it would make Australia’s media market even more concentrated than it already is.
Australia’s media market is one of the most concentrated markets in terms of ownership in the developed world.
The talks have been deadlocked despite assiduous lobbying by Australia’s major media companies because the Greens have been disinclined to negotiate until very recently, and because One Nation has been seeking as part of its wish list a reduction in the ABC’s funding, which the government has seemed reluctant to deliver.
The progressive thinktank the Australia Institute took out full-page advertisements on Wednesday calling on the Coalition and all crossbench senators to rule out trading away ABC and SBS funding or independence as part of the current negotiations on the media package, which are now moving towards crunch point.
“The ABC should not be used as a bargaining chip to progress a political agenda,” said the executive director of the Australia Institute, Ben Oquist. “One Nation accusations against the ABC have ranged from cultural Marxism to ‘abandoning patriotism’. Revelations this week show that the ABC is part of closed-door negotiations between the government and the crossbench.
“It would be concerning if the Turnbull government was willing to put the independence and funding of a treasured national institution on the table in order to progress a deal on media reform.”
While the Greens have been cautious in their public comments, other Senate players think a deal to pass the package could be concluded by late this week, or early next week.
Fifield was asked on Tuesday whether he was prepared to cut funding for the ABC in order to fund other remote and regional radio services, or agree to a spending review of the public broadcasters in return for One Nation’s support for the package.
The minister said the government had not yet entered any agreements with the crossbench and he said the government had already laid out the ABC’s triennial funding in the 2016 budget.
“That wasn’t altered in the last budget, that’s the fact,” Fifield said. “But I think it’s important to acknowledge the work that Michelle Guthrie has done within the ABC where she’s created a new content fund and part of the purpose of that is to employ more regional journalists. And I think that’s great”.