The Australian gives ABC Managing Director Mark Scott a huge boost this morning by making him its media person of the year.

I think the timing is weird, because the signs for Mark Scott’s ABC agenda are not good, and despite the real achievements trumpeted by the Oz, it seems to me he should be pretty worried.

Last week, Scott took a massive slap in the face from Government, when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced the new A-Span public affairs channel to be launched by Foxtel, Sky News and Austar.

The ABC apparently did not know this announcement was coming — which is extraordinary, because what the pay TV Czars have done is pinched Scott’s idea, and then got Prime Ministerial approval for doing so.

The ABC is not admitting a backward step. Requests for comment on what Rudd did last week have not elicited a response. Clearly the ABC thinks biting its lip is, for the moment, the better part of valour.

The idea of a public affairs digital channel, broadcasting parliament, press conferences and annual general meetings as well as providing opportunities for citizen interaction, is central to Scott’s often touted vision of the ABC as the “town square” for all Australians in the new media age.

I remember Scott first talking about this idea more than two years ago. He went public with the notion in the ABC’s ideas paper before the 2020 summit. He put some detail around it in his September Press Club address and it then formed an important part of the ABC’s triennial funding submission — which is now before Government in the crucial decision making phase.

So what on earth is the Prime Minister doing undercutting Scott in this way? The most optimistic explanation would seem to be that Rudd is not aware of, or engaged with, the ABC’s plans. In other words, that the launch of A-Span was a cock-up rather than a deliberate slight.

But at a time when Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy has publically stated he is going in to bat for more ABC funding, such Prime Ministerial disengagement bodes ill for both the ABC and Conroy’s influence.

Was it really as simple as John Hartigan — head of News Limited and Chair of the company behind Skynews — ringing up the PM and asking him to do the launch, and agreement being given without a thought for the ABC’s position?

John Hartigan, of course, was on the Steering Committee of the 2020 Summit, at which the public affairs channel idea was floated by Scott. A nice conflict of interest.

The other possible explanation is that the Prime Ministerial slight was deliberate, and this would mean the ABC has Buckley’s chance of getting the funding for its own public affairs channel.

There is also the fact that Skynews is in good odour in the Canberra hothouse. David Speers did the Great Debate, and has been breaking stories. Contacts, contacts.

Yet outside the closed circuit of Canberra, it seems clear that a public affairs channel is the sort of thing the ABC is best placed to do, particularly if it can become a new form of democratic participation.

It has been pointed out that the model of a national affairs channel originated with Pay TV in the USA, with C-Span, and this is true. But in the United States Pay TV reaches around 85% of homes, whereas in Australia the figure is just 25 per cent — making Pay TV an inappropriate platform for new democratic forms, I would have thought.

Given that Internet Protocol TV is about to offer even more content for free, it is likely that Pay TV, having been slow to get started, will never reach majority penetration in Australia. If so, this will be one of the key differences between our media future and that of the USA and Europe.

Pay TV in Australia hasn’t chosen to do a public affairs channel before, which makes this look like a defensive move on its part — part of the emerging battle between free-to-air and pay as the kick-arse TV model of the future.

Meanwhile Auntie is cracking hardy, remaining committed to its own public affairs channel, and pointing out that its offering would be available to all Australians — not only the minority who have pay TV.

But you don’t have to be Einstein to see that it would be harder to justify spending tax payer’s money on a public affairs channel when there is already one on offer — despite the shortcomings of the model.

Scott might well be reflecting that of the bug bears of needing to tout for funding is that you can’t keep your best ideas to yourself. But it must be grim to watch the PM give the opposition a hand when they get pinched.