Anyone watching the media over the past week might have been tempted to think that there was a war going on between News Limited and the ABC.

News Limited has attacked ABC managing director Mark Scott for suggesting that Auntie’s content is free to the user, when in fact it is paid for by the taxpayer. But boy, is there a gap between the rhetoric of media leaders and what actually happens, because News Limited is quite happy to use that taxpayer-funded content on its own sites, for free.

And even more astonishingly, the ABC is happy for it to happen.

It’s all about News Limited’s new online-only publication The Punch. Respected ABC “brand” journalists, including Lateline presenter Leigh Sales and PM‘s Mark Colvin are writing material that appears on the ABC’s Unleashed site and on The Punch.

The ABC’s personalities are being promoted as regular Punch contributors and their copy appears with advertisements run alongside. News Limited gets this content for free. No reimbursement is made to the ABC or the individuals.

In June, Colvin and Sales were announced on the site as “our latest punchers” among others described as being “from other media outlets who are traditionally regarded as competitors of News Limited”. Since then, The Punch has made liberal use of material from the ABC Unleashed site, including most recently an article by director of television Kim Dalton.

Leigh Sales has been promoting her column on Twitter with links to the ABC Unleashed site and to the Punch. This morning Sales did not return calls asking for comment, and Mark Colvin declined to comment.

Why is it so? Surely the taxpayer has paid these people’s salaries, and indeed has supported the careers that have made them “known names”.

The editor of The Punch, David Penberthy, said that the idea for columns by Sales and Colvin came from The Punch, not from the ABC. “Mark Scott said that they would be behind it, providing the material also ran on the ABC Unleashed site,” Penberthy said.

He said the benefit to the ABC was that appearing on The Punch brought its journalists a new audience, people who were not necessarily traditional ABC viewers or listeners. Asked whether he saw an irony in News Ltd’s use of taxpayer-funded content given the current debate, Penberthy said, “I can see why people would think there was an irony … people have every right to raise their eyebrows and discuss it, but in the context of the sort of site we are the fact that there is a debate does not mean that we are going to turn around and back away from it.”

Apparently the ABC sees the deal as being part of its new media-savvy philosophy of being a more porous institution — indeed less of an institution and more of a collaborative network and a provider of content, pushing it out to audiences wherever they can be found. Many commentators (including me) think this is the way forward for media. But does it mean giving commercial operators something for nothing?

Despite its apparent contempt for taxpayer-funded media, News Limited is quite happy to take advantage.

An ABC spokeswoman said this morning:

The piece written by the ABC’s director of television Kim Dalton yesterday was published on ABC Unleashed and on The Punch — it is no different from writing an opinion piece for say The Australian or the Sydney Morning Herald or Crikey. It is an opportunity to lay down an argument to a readership around an issue that is generating a lot of debate — in this case the ABC’s new program, John Safran’s Race Relations.

Currently, Leigh Sales and Mark Colvin’s ABC “Off Air” blogs are also published on The Punch as a way to extend the readership of the blogs and share the content on the ABC’s News Online site, broadening the offering to audiences. The journalists are not paid by The Punch.

Even if one agrees (as I do) that the ABC’s role is changing, and networking is what it is all about, there is another reason why this deal is on the nose to some. Normally the launch of a new title is a cause of celebration among journalists, but in this case the pleasure was muted by the fact that The Punch does not pay its contributors. Nor, it should be said, does its rival, Fairfax’s National Times.

What happens to journalists, particularly freelance journalists, if commercial publications are able to source quality content without having to pay for it, thanks to the public “broadcaster”?

Meanwhile, I hear on the grapevine that the Punch may not be with us forever. Apparently within the News Limited organisation, very tight deadlines have been imposed on the newbie to prove itself as a commercial proposition.

Nice of Auntie to help Rupert, isn’t it?