Two high-profile on-air ABC stars continue to have their taxpayer-funded ABC blogs reproduced by commercial rival News Limited, in apparent breach of the national broadcaster’s editorial policies.

The ABC’s Off Air blogs, penned by part-time Lateline host Leigh Sales and veteran PM radio host Mark Colvin, have appeared in two identical incarnations since June — on the ABC site and fledgling News Limited group blog The Punch.

Since The Punch‘s inception, the duo have held forth on popular topics including MasterChef and Second Life, alongside more serious tracts on obsessive compulsive disorder and the Iranian uprising.

But curiously, neither site acknowledges the other’s presence. And the arrangement appears to fall foul of the ABC’s thunderous editorial policies designed to ring fence its content:

“Any use of ABC content by external parties must be authorised and appropriately licensed by ABC Enterprises,” the policies say.

“Except where properly authorised, individual ABC staff do not have the right to give away, license or otherwise supply any ABC content.”

News Ltd does not pay for Sales’ or Colvin’s posts, with the ABC apparently seeing the extra exposure as a means to cross promote their stars and the ABC brand.

An ABC spokesperson told Crikey that ABC Enterprises were not involved in The Punch deal and as such it constituted a “different situation”.

The Punch provided “clear references” to the ABC and “directed traffic” back to ABC sites, the spokesperson said. But while The Punch namechecks the ABC, the link love is sorely lacking, with no references to either Off Air or The Punch on each other’s sites. Interestingly, the headlines used on the rival posts are often identical.

According to Colvin, the content-sharing deal was struck in the Twitterverse. Both Colvin and Sales are prolific users of the micro blogging service, with Sales spruiking the News Limited venture just hours after it went live on 31 May:

“checking out which has just gone live – News Ltd’s new online opinion website headed by @penbo”.

Colvin regularly corresponds with Punch employees including Managing Editor Paul Colgan — it is believed editor David Penberthy noted the duo’s presence and offered them a commercial outlet. The deal was then approved my ABC Managing Director Mark Scott, on the proviso the posts would appear on the two sites simultaneously.

ABC columnists regularly spruik their wares in other outlets. Sales has done interviews and published books outside of her ABC role. Other on-air talent, including Philip Adams and Sally Neighbour, have regular gigs writing for The Australian. But the blog deal isn’t a private arrangement — the ABC Off Air content is being reproduced by The Punch verbatim.

The deal also raises potential conflict-of-interest questions. Would a Colvin-penned anti-Rupert salvo make the cut? Does Sales’ Punch presence compromise her Lateline agenda?

Head of ABC News Online Gaven Morris told Crikey that he didn’t see the deal as “giving content away to News Limited” but as “another platform to share information.”

Morris’ boss Mark Scott is a known subscriber to the so-called “link economy” theory of open web access. Sources told Crikey that Scott was a firm admirer of US journalism academic Jeff Jarvis, who yesterday used his Guardian column to expound on his stance. Keeping content exclusive cuts off its “Googlejuice”, Jarvis claims.

However, News chief and Punch overlord Rupert Murdoch appears to be moving in the opposite direction. In a conference call for investors yesterday, Murdoch announced he would now be charging for news, contradicting the central tenant of the Off Air/Punch deal.

Meanwhile, Penberthy told Crikey that he welcomed further contributions to The Punch from the full stable of ABC broadcasters. He singled out a recent op-ed contributed by Triple J’s Lucy Carter as a sign of things to come.

“Mate, if anyone else from the ABC would like to submit their content to us, I’d welcome it with open arms”, he said.

Peter Fray

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