Prime Media chairman John Hartigan defends push for media reform

John Hartigan says the campaign for media reform is picking up. Photo: Louise KennerleyPrime Media Group chairman John Hartigan has defended the company’s push for media reform and said that an attack by Seven Group chief executive Ryan Stokes is aimed at securing a seat on the regional broadcaster’s board.

“I wonder why Seven is so scared of what the competition may look like in the event that the media laws change. Their concerted campaign to stop them suggests that concern, I simply don’t understand it,” Mr Hartigan said.

He refuted claims that Mr Stokes made to News Corp that Prime was undermining its own business in its campaign to have the government act of media reform.

“It suggests to me that [Mr Stokes] might be trying to persuade some of the bigger shareholders that Seven should have a seat on the board and this is something that he has been actively doing over the past few weeks,” Mr Hartigan, who is a former chief executive of News Corp Australia, said.

Seven is Prime’s second-largest shareholder with more than 11 per cent of the company.

Regional television operators, as well as Nine Entertainment Co and Fairfax Media, publisher of The Australian Financial Review, have all argued that media laws are outdated and need to be relaxed.

Seven West Media, which is more than 39 per cent owned by Seven Group and is chaired Mr Stokes’ father Kerry Stokes, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp have been opponents for changes to media ownership laws. News Corp would ack change only  if Foxtel, of which it owns 50 per cent, can get more exclusive sports rights, which would mean changes to anti-siphoning.

Prime, along with WIN, Southern Cross and Imparja, launched a campaign across their networks to raise awareness of the reform issue and garner public support.

“Our Save Our Voices campaign is not about Prime, it’s about regional jobs, it’s about regional advertisers, it’s about regional community support and the future of those regional voices,” Mr Hartigan said.

“It’s not dissipating at all. We see it as continuing to build momentum, not just for the next weeks but for the next months. We’re in this for the long term and you’ll see all sorts of new ingredients brought into it over the coming weeks,” Mr Hartigan said.

Prime executives, along with the other regional networks, have continued to meet with politicians on all sides to try to push media reform forward. It is understood the regionals have also put forward the proposition of removing legislation that would prevent mergers and acquisitions between them.

Seven Group said as Prime’s second-largest shareholder, it had the right to question the broadcaster’s strategic choices.

“It’s absolutely in our commercial interests for Prime to flourish, not the reverse, given we get a percentage of their revenues; we want them to make as much as they possibly can,” a spokesperson said.

“There is simply no demonstrable link between calls to scrap the reach rule and the sustainability of local news. Their continued focus on regulatory change rather than the future of their regional broadcasting business is short changing their shareholders and regional viewers.  Both deserve better.”

Seven noted that Prime on Thursday delivered profit growth for the past financial year, but it had no interest in buying the regional broadcaster even if the reach rule were changed.

“This week Prime has yet again delivered a best-in-class result for which they are to be congratulated.  But it defies credibility that a regional broadcaster with a net profit of over $35 million cannot afford to deliver local news to the communities it is licensed to serve.”

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