Australian Community Media owner and executive chairman Antony Catalano has accused the federal government of ignoring regional Australian voices and putting jobs at risk after Communications Minister Paul Fletcher appeared to shut the door on changes to ownership laws that would allow regional media companies to form alliances.
Mr Fletcher was questioned at the National Press Club in Canberra on Wednesday about the need for further regulatory reform so that social media giants like Facebook were treated as publishers and struggling regional media businesses were allowed to merge.
The Minister said the government had already overhauled ownership rules in 2017.
Those changes had cleared the way for Nine Entertainment Co to buy the former Fairfax Media and had also allowed Seven West Media's current takeover bid for Prime Media Group.
"The rationale for the transaction is to take advantage of those changes to the law which would allow greater scale," Mr Fletcher said of Seven's bid for Prime.
"Of course, how the particular transaction plays out and what individual shareholders do is a matter for them and not something that I would comment on."
Criticising the Minister's inaction in a strongly worded statement, Mr Catalano, who has a 14.5 per cent stake in Prime and intends to vote against Seven's plan to swallow its regional affiliate, said Mr Fletcher was "out of touch with the communications industry" if he believed more reform was not needed.
"Mr Fletcher is choosing to ignore every regional media owner and operator, all of whom are saying the same thing - that the laws need to change," he said.
"Is he waiting for one of us to fall over before he takes the issue seriously?"
Partnering with Alex Waislitz and his Thorney Investment Group, Mr Catalano took control of ACM in July. The regional network of more than 160 newspapers and websites includes The Canberra Times, Newcastle Herald and The Border Mail.
Mr Catalano said regional media companies needed to be able to consolidate to be more sustainable and protect the local voices of regional Australians, who made up 36 per cent of the population.
"We need a vibrant and sustainable media landscape," he said. "We can't have freedom of the press if we don't have the press. We need to protect that first."
The Minister was putting at risk the jobs of thousands of people working in the regional media industry.
"The very fact that the legislation fails to recognise the existence of Facebook as Australia's largest voice, reaching more than 15 million Australians every day beggars belief," Mr Catalano said. "With the stroke of a pen he can change the legislation to include Facebook in the voices test and we won't have the restrictions that currently prevent regional media companies from forming strong alliances.
"The government can choose to ignore the impact of the legislation, but Australian Community Media won't ignore it, nor will every other regional media operator in the country."
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