ABC managing director Mark Scott is a lucky man. He got to stay in Canberra overnight Monday, but escaped a grilling in front of the Senate Estimates Committee.
Yes, it was the first Estimates hearing for the year in Canberra and the teams from the various departments and authorities were queued, waiting for their turn under the griller at the Senate Committee for the Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts.
There they all were: representatives of Australia Post, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, the departmental heavies led by the Minister, Senator Helen Coonan, SBS, and finally a lonely trio from the ABC.
Telstra was absent now the divorce from Canberra is official, and haven’t attitudes changed. From monstering Telstra for not fronting last year, the Senators were complimentary, led by Minister Coonan, who is obviously very grateful her troublesome charge is now grown up enough to be free and private.
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With Telstra out of the frame it seems ACMA, the key media regulator, is now in the sights of the likes of Labor Senator Stephen Conroy to monster and question endlessly with little result.
Australia Post was first starting from just after 9am. Then ACMA was wheeled in, led by chairman Chris Chapman, and around and around they went on digital roll out, internet p-rn filtering, the new A and B digital broadcast licences, advertising and community radio. On and on and on.
It wasn’t till late (10.03pm) that SBS was called, led by CEO Shaun Brown (he of the new ad breaks structure in SBS programming). Lo and behold, who should appear on the transcript for the first time but Santo Santoro’s clone, Senator Fierravanti-Wells from NSW, who started asking questions (now standard) about bias in some SBS programs. She was obviously warming up for the ABC.
But after fluffing a question about SBS’s audience share and how it was inferior to the audiences of other ethnic broadcasters (the Senator confused free to air TV, which SBS is, with subscription services), the Senator went all silent. It was then the turn of Mark Scott, his Chief Operating Officer David Pendleton and his Director of Strategy Murray Green.
They started at 10.53 pm, but with the time allowed for the hearing expiring at 11 pm, only a few questions were managed before the interrogation had to stop. Around seven minutes of inconclusive argument between the Senators followed about who could and couldn’t return at 9am on Friday. Senator Coonan said she couldn’t.
Commonsense prevailed and the ABC was accommodated Tuesday morning.
So Mark Scott and his two companions were spared the joys of being quizzed extensively by Senator Conroy. NSW Labor Senator George Campbell hadn’t appeared on the transcript and he gave the previous ABC management a rough time, especially on bullying and harassment. But the key inquisitors, judging from the appearance last November, would have been Senator Fierravanti-Wells and her Victorian counterpart, Senator Ronaldson.
So after waiting 14 hours or so, just six questions were managed of the ABC MD (all on the problems at the Toowong ABC site in Brisbane where there’s a cluster of cancers).