A hard landing for the ABC's version of soft diplomacy
Cutting funding and abandoning the Australia Network attacks the ABC's international role via the back door, argues Rodney Tiffen at Inside Story.
The Australia Network, the ABC’s international television service, has been in the Coalition’s sights — and, not coincidentally, in the Murdoch press’ sights — since 2011. That was when the Gillard government awarded the ABC a 10-year contract to deliver international TV, bringing a definitive conclusion to a ludicrously mismanaged tender process.
So it came as no surprise when the Abbott government axed the network in the budget. The decision came despite the fact that the ABC Act requires the national broadcaster to transmit news, current affairs, entertainment and cultural programs “to countries outside Australia” in order to “encourage awareness of Australia and an international understanding of Australian attitudes on world affairs” and “enable Australian citizens living or travelling outside Australia to obtain information about Australian affairs and Australian attitudes on world affairs”.
The government hasn’t proposed changes to the act to remove this requirement; rather, it has removed the financial means for the ABC to fulfil this role in television. It would obviously have been more honest and proper to seek a change in the ABC legislation rather than attempting to bypass parliament by administrative fiat.
The budget decision is the culmination of a sorry sequence of events. In his last great gift to the Coalition as foreign minister, Kevin Rudd decided to open the tender process for the international broadcaster to commercial broadcasters. With a single exception, no other country that broadcasts internationally outsources its service to the private sector. The exception was Australia under the Howard government. In July 1996, within months of its election and without warning, the government announced the intended privatisation of Australia Television, as it was then called. The decision, made without any preparatory work by any section of the bureaucracy, came as a complete shock to ABC management.
When a decision was announced in July 1997, Kerry Stokes’ Seven Network was the successful tenderer. But three years later Seven stopped the service because it couldn’t make a profit. When foreign minister Alexander Downer called for a fresh round of tenders, the ABC was not among the applicants. To his credit, Downer approached the national broadcaster, and it was ultimately awarded the contract.
But the idea of outsourcing international broadcasting was not dead. In Rudd’s tender process, the ABC faced competition from Sky News, whose owners are the same Seven Network that bailed out in the late ’90s, and Rupert Murdoch, who in 1994 had removed the BBC’s news from his pay TV offering in China in order to please the Beijing regime.
Rudd’s assessment team preferred the Sky tender. Cabinet asked it to reconsider, and again it opted for Sky. (Its grounds for doing so have been kept secret under commercial-in-confidence provisions.) The Gillard cabinet intervened, handing carriage of the tender to communications minister Senator Stephen Conroy; then, seeking to lock in the national broadcaster’s position, it added a provision under which only the ABC or its associated companies could provide government-funded international services. As a result, amending legislation will be needed to allow Sky or any other commercial broadcaster to participate in a new tender process.
Sky News, which has become a valuable part of the Australian news mix, had every reason to feel aggrieved by Labor’s follies, and received a payment from the government as compensation.
The grounds on which Rudd’s committee decided in favour of Sky should now be made public. We might discover, for example, that some provisions were loaded against the ABC. It may be that one condition was for the tenderer to provide extra funds from elsewhere, but if the ABC diverted funding from elsewhere in its budget it would contravene its governing legislation. Similarly, the ABC would be wary of arrangements with other broadcasters that might compromise its editorial independence. We don’t know if such considerations were a factor, and that leaves a hole at the centre of this important episode.
But the botched process was clearly a turning point in Coalition attitudes. According to Prime Minister Tony Abbott:
“We’ve had for a long time very serious issues about the Australia Network tender process. Twice the tender process gave that particular operation to someone other than the ABC, and then, because of leadership problems inside the government, the decision was changed. And the Audit Office itself has said that the whole thing was badly done.”
It isn’t clear that the Australia Network could have done anything to redeem itself in the eyes of the new government. In 2014, the ABC won the most extensive access afforded to any Western broadcaster in China, with the Australia Network to be made available to the entire Chinese population. But even such an unprecedented achievement counted for nought.
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