What is it with the ABC under current managing director, Mark Scott?

Today’s launch of the A-pac public information channel on the Foxtel pay-TV platform features a prominent ABC radio personality anchoring Australia Day coverage from Cooktown. The presenter is Richard Fidler of 612 ABC Brisbane. He is also heard in Sydney hosting the Conversation Hour series on that city’s top rating 702 Local Radio station.

The fact that A-pac is a direct competitor to the ABC’s proposed 24 hour news channel — which, like A-pac, will feature live coverage of parliament — seems to have been missed in the corridors of power when someone in ABC management approved today’s broadcast.

Apart from the absurdity of the ABC allowing one of its presenters to anchor a Day One broadcast on a competing channel, Fidler’s A-pac stint highlights an extraordinary double-standard that has been allowed to flourish under Mark Scott reign.

Fidler’s colleague on the ABC’s Brisbane station, morning presenter Madonna King, is a regular contributor to Channel Nine’s Today Show. Recently, she did a live cross from the Gold Coast propped under a large umbrella featuring several enormous Nine logos. She also writes for The Courier Mail — for which she no doubts receives a fee – and of course it’s been noted in Crikey previously that her husband is the editor of the same paper. This is another clear conflict of interest that is allowed to continue on Scott’s watch.

Scott’s regularly claims that the ABC is the point of difference, the last bastion of editorial rigour in Australia’s electronic media. What nonsense that is, when a prime-time presenter on the ABC’s third largest radio station is writing for her husband’s newspaper in a one-newspaper town!

Then there was the staggering example of King’s other prime-time colleague, breakfast presenter Spencer Howson, anchoring an entire week of the Extra program on Nine in Brisbane. Heavily cross-promoted by Nine, it was simply unbelievable to see one of the ABC’s highest rating breakfast hosts helping to boost Nine’s flagging six o’clock news results by hosting the all-important 5:30pm lead-in show.

King, Fidler and Howson are not alone. Radio presenters around the country are actively encouraged to editorialise in newspapers. Again, they get a fee but what does the ABC get in return? It’s argued, internally, that the columns are a “free” cross-promotional opportunity but really, it’s nothing more than another chink in the ABC’s independence from its major commercial competitors.

And make no mistake: the ABC does see itself as competing in the commercial media space. Mark Scott has personally driven the ABC’s charge into the online space and in particular, is poised to sell-off the entire chain of ABC Shops to a major high street competitor. Scott sees the shops as a liability. The “rivers of gold” are in the ABC’s back catalogue of audio and video content which Scott intends to distribute, not via CD and DVD through ABC Shops, but online via Internet downloads. Distribution costs slashed, profits enormous!

But back to the contradiction of ABC presenters spruiking for other commercial organisations: what about top-rating ABC Melbourne breakfast presenter, Red Symons, fronting TV commercials for hardware chain, Thrifty Link? Is there a more blatant abuse of the ABC’s commercial independence? Yet the ABC allows it to continue, without question.

There is an additional hypocrisy at play here. The conditions of employment for the majority of ABC radio broadcasters — the hundreds of “non-stars” who present programs across Australia from 60 local stations in city and regional centres — simply forbid ABC employees from engaging in anything with even the slightest hint of commercial activity. There would be hell to pay if the ABC breakfast presenter in Dubbo took on a second job reading WIN News at night, or if the morning presenter in Bunbury made a few extra bucks by running off a few TV spots for the local hardware store.

So why is it okay for some “names” in capital city markets to work for rival, commercial organisations and not okay for the overwhelming majority of ABC employees? The answer is, it’s not okay for any ABC employees to commercialise their positions within the ABC. The ABC and its managing director shouldn’t be allowed to have it both ways. Either the ABC is independent — truly independent — or it’s not. And right now, you’d have to say, it’s not.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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