How the government and One Nation may use media reforms to clip the ABC’s wings

It would be easy to set up an inquiry into the ABC – with the findings already known. Shutterstock

Among the four concessions concerning the ABC that senator Pauline Hanson extracted from the federal government in exchange for her support of its recent media ownership law changes, one in particular has the potential to do real damage to the national broadcaster.

This is the promised inquiry into the ABC’s competitive neutrality.

It has been on the agenda of News Corp for years to have the ABC’s wings clipped, for the obvious reason that it sees the ABC as a commercial rival. If News Corp had its way, the ABC’s big strategic move into digital broadcasting more than a decade ago would have been cut off at the pass.

So Hanson, whether she knew it or not, has played into the hands of New Corp on this, and given the government a political opportunity to do yet one more favour for Rupert Murdoch.

Since the government does not need a vote in parliament to set up an inquiry like this, it is easy to see how it might unfold.

An eminently well-qualified chairman could easily be found. To pick a name at random: Maurice Newman, former chairman of the stock exchange, former chairman of the ABC and now public ideologue opposed to public-sector broadcasting. He wrote a polemic in The Australian in April asserting that the ABC and SBS no longer served a public purpose.

The government could effortlessly craft terms of reference consistent with that axiom of politics – you never hold an inquiry without knowing the outcome.

A high-profile firm of economic consultants could be engaged to conduct an analysis of the impact of the ABC’s activities on private-sector media.

Using suitable assumptions, a selection of data and a fitting framework of economic theory, it might easily find that the ABC, despite manifold inefficiencies, was indeed using its public funding in an anti-competitive way to crowd out the private sector.

Recommendations would naturally ensue that the range of ABC activities had strayed well beyond the confines imagined by its founding fathers in the early 1930s. It would therefore follow that its funding should be cut in order to see it focus on outputs that no commercial broadcaster would touch with a barge pole.

Perfectly respectable.

Of the other three concessions to Hanson, the one likely to do the most mischief is the one requiring the ABC to publicly disclose the salaries and conditions of all staff whose packages amount to more than A$200,000 a year.

While in principle it seems reasonable that the salaries of people on the public payroll should be public, in fact the pay of individual public servants is generally a private matter.

This is the case not only because a person’s financial affairs are inherently private, but because it is a disincentive for good people to join the public sector if their private affairs are going to be trawled over in public for political purposes.

It has already happened with ABC salaries when they were inadvertently released under freedom-of-information laws a couple of years ago.

The combination of fame and their type of work magnifies the privacy issue for high-profile ABC journalists and presenters. No-one cares what some obscure under-secretary in the Department of Veterans Affairs gets paid, but politicians like Hanson salivate over the pay of people like Leigh Sales and Barrie Cassidy.

The remaining two concessions are not likely to have much impact on the ABC.

The one that got all the attention at the start was the insertion of “fair” and “balanced” into the ABC’s charter.

This is a sideshow. The ABC’s charter is contained within section six of the ABC Act, so amending it will require a parliamentary vote. Senator Nick Xenophon has said his team will not support it, and since his team’s support is likely to be necessary, it looks like an empty gesture by the government.

In any case, the requirements for fairness and balance are already built into the ABC’s editorial policies, which are binding on ABC journalists, so the practical effect would be nonexistent.

However, a parliamentary debate on the ABC’s impartiality would keep this matter bubbling along in the public mind and furnish an opportunity for reactionary politicians to further ventilate their suspicions.

Finally, there was a concession concerning provision of broadcasting services to regional areas. The ABC has already announced a A$50 million package to enhance regional services. And anyway, this is a level of operational detail that generally lies beyond the reach of politicians.

A bit of cosmetic arm-wrestling between Communications Minister Mitch Fifield and the chair of the ABC, perhaps some pointed questions at Senate estimates, and a tweak of the ABC’s budget will probably satisfy this concession.

Taken together, then, three of these concessions have considerable nuisance value. But the fourth contains the seeds of a serious challenge to the ABC’s future.

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