SPA CEO Matt Deaner. 

Screen Producers Australia CEO Matt Deaner used his opening address to the organisation’s Screen Forever conference yesterday to call for greater support from regulators and government in order to consider strategic interventions that will address competition and trade issues that have emerged in the digital era.

Deaner argued there is a dynamic between “the powerful and the powerless” in the screen industry which stifles change, and made particular emphasis on the role of the industry’s agencies and regulators to speak truth to business and government in order to affect change.

“There is much work to do if we are to speak truth and allow our industry to grow. At its core is the unspoken truth that no one wants to bite the hand that feeds. And this is true for our mavericks as they come up against powerful business as much as it is for our regulators and agencies who face powerful business and their powerful funders in governments,” he said.

“No one wants to talk truth to power when it threatens your business or agency or career advancement in government or the opportunities you have to work in this great industry. I see this every day in weak leadership, in brutalised small businesses, in poorer and poorer deals, siphoned equity, forced circumvention of the regulatory schemes, a general malaise and inertia. We have seen it most recently in some of the problems that have been playing out for the ABC.”

In light of the market power imbalances caused by digital disruption, Deaner called for strategic intervention from the ACCC, the ACMA and Screen Australia. In particular, he said “the time has come”  to consider the efficacy of mandatory codes of conduct and legislated terms of trade.

“On this note, we welcome the Government’s review into unfair contract term legislation and the protections they afford for small businesses, which is due to commence this month,” he said.

“It contrasts a current mindset driven at full speed particularly within the ACMA – where regulatory forbearance is given to stakeholders rather than actually regulating by using the various options at its disposal, such as enforceable undertakings, remedial directions or pursuing civil penalties.

“This light-tough approach is no longer feasible to ensure our cultural objectives are met in the digital era. It no longer balances the needs of industry with our community. The Authority has oversight of these issues and more and we encourage them and encourage the organisation to take on a leadership role in addressing these imbalances of power to help create a level playing field and fulfil the ACMA’s regulatory mandate to actively contribute to the continuous improvement of regulatory frameworks.

“We also encourage the ACMA to fulfil the recommendations of last year’s ACMA Review – to consider the impacts of competition as part of its day to day thinking and decision making and engage in greater cross-consultation with the ACCC. We also encourage the ACMA and its counterpart, the Bureau of Communications and Arts Research, to take on a greater research function in the screen industry to assist with evidence-based policy outcomes.”

Deaner argued that government agencies and regulators can “fall prey to operating in a prism of fear”, however said they are the industry’s gatekeepers and custodians. When the sector’s challenges are ignored or overlooked, decisions can be made which put “punctures” in policy, or lead to what Deaner argues we are seeing now – policy inertia.

“When opportunities are scarce and so much is reliant upon gatekeepers in government, it creates a culture of fear which breeds discontent and eventually, silence. It forces those in our industry to cannibalise opportunities, rather than work together. It takes away the very freedom of expression that is so essential to seeing our industry thrive.”

With regards to the impact of the three government reviews into the sector and content regulation – the content review, the House of Reps inquiry and the Senate inquiry – Deaner said the industry waits with “baited breath”.

However, he welcomed the recent report published by the Bureau of Communications and Arts Research which showed the creative industries contributed more than $111 billion in value to the Australian economy, with more than $25 billion in output coming from the broadcasting, electronic or digital media and film industries.

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