Media reforms to pass Senate, way clear for mergers

A dramatic reshaping of Australia's media industry is imminent after the Turnbull government's plan to scrap "outdated and irrelevant" media ownership laws received endorsement from crucial Senate crossbenchers at the end of a day of furious backroom horse trading.

In exchange for his support, Senate kingmaker Nick Xenophon secured a suite of concessions from the government, including a one-off, $60 million fund to support small publishers, journalism scholarships and subsidised journalism cadetships.

This includes $50 million over three years in grants to regional and small publishers, capped at $1 million per publication that is available from mid-2018. He believes these grants will create more jobs and "is there to expend civic journalism".

News Corp and Fairfax Media, which own many regional newspapers, are ineligible for the new funding, which will be distributed by the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

Grants are only available to companies incorporated under Australian law with central management in Australia and majority Australian owned. They must also pass an independence test and cannot be affiliated with a union, super fund or lobby group.

Only publishers with turnover greater than $300,000 a year but less than $30 million year will be eligible.

Critically, Treasurer Scott Morrison has also agreed to have the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission conduct an inquiry into Google, Facebook and other internet giants.

Senator Xenophon said Google and Facebook were "hoovering up" $4 billion in advertising revenue in Australia, but paying little tax.

"Australia's commercial media companies continue to be in a period of profound change," Senator Xenophon said. "Indeed it's not an exaggeration to say our media ... is in a state of crisis. Our media companies large and small are under a great deal of pressure."

The deal represents a major victory for the Coalition, and executives from the country's biggest television, radio and newspaper companies who had all urged the Parliament to recognise the challenges facing the industry.

The existing laws were first introduced in the 1980s under the Labor government as a way to maintain diversity amid a flurry of company takeovers and mergers. The cross-ownership laws forbid a single person controlling print, radio and television in a single city, and ruled no one could broadcast to 100 per cent of the population, hence our regional-only broadcasters.

The new laws will scrap the two-out-of-three rule and the 75 per cent reach rule, but still contain some ownership controls and local content requirements. For example, a single person cannot control more than two radio stations or more than one television station in a single market and there must be a minimum of four "voices" in regional cities and five in big cities. Each regional market requires 21 minutes of local content a day.

Communications Minister Mitch Fifield said its looming passage was a "shot in the arm to Australian media organisations and provides them with a chance".

The government entered Wednesday with the support of three crossbenchers and four Pauline Hanson's One Nation senators, but remained two votes short. Senator Xenophon's bloc of three votes secured the numbers.

Labor and the Greens will vote against the bill when it likely comes to a final vote on Thursday.

"You are better than this dirty deal that has been done at the eleventh hour," Labor senator Sam Dastyari told Senator Xenophon.

"We are selling our journalism for 60 scholarships? That's it? I am not against a deal, but make it a good one. How cheap do we have to go in this?"

Senator Xenophon added he would not vote in favour of any funding cuts to the ABC or SBS.

Earlier, One Nation's Malcolm Roberts gave a speech criticising the ABC and calling it a "monster".

The ABC should be "restricted in its charter and sold to the highest bidder", Senator Roberts said.

Pauline Hanson announced support for the media deregulation package in August after the government agreed to a number of conditions, including introducing legislation requiring the ABC to be "fair and balanced".

The One Nation deal may also force the ABC to disclose the salaries of high-profile presenters and staff earning more than $200,000 a year.

Labor and the Greens attacked Senator Xenophon for dealing with the government and warned the reforms would lead to a reduction in the ABC's budget.

The story Media reforms to pass Senate, way clear for mergers first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.