It didn’t take long for Sky News’s Angelos Frangopoulos to lash out at the ABC’s announcement of its new 24-hour news channel.  A media release emerged shortly after Mark Scott’s statement, raising the spectre of core ABC services being starved of funding and “needless duplication of services already available to Australians.”

One CEO’s “needless duplication” is of course another’s discipline of the market place.

The ABC announcement has fed into what has become perceived to be a News Ltd v public broadcasting debate.  But Sky News isn’t actually controlled by News Ltd.  It’s a one-third-each venture of PBL, Seven and BSkyB, which is itself less than half-owned by News Corporation, although noted BBC fan James Murdoch is BSkyB’s chairman.

Even so, News Ltd takes a proprietorial interest in the local Sky.  Former company lobbyist Malcolm Colless fills in his time waiting to replace Piers Akerman as the company’s Conspirasist-in-Chief by writing richly amusing political “commentary” and regularly putting the case for Sky to replace the ABC as operator of the Government’s international broadcasting contract.  Colless never reveals that in 2005 he tried to convince the Howard Government to do just that but was unable to, despite the Coalition then being at its most Ultimo-phobic.

Nevertheless, it’s possible to have some sympathy for Frangopoulos, given Sky has, on oily-rag level resources, built up a fair dinkum 24 hour news service over the years, only to see the publicly-funded entity barge into its carefully-nurtured space, leveraging off its vast newscaff output and reputation, offering for nix what is currently a subscription business model.

Charging people for news content just got that little bit harder, at a time when media companies desperately need to find a way to do just that.

That the ABC stuck its hand out for an extra $35m a year for a similar proposal in 2003, but now appears to be able to do something even more resource intensive without any extra call on the taxpayer, also raises questions about how seriously the ABC’s funding bids should be treated.

But sympathy for Sky was possible only up to the second paragraph of Frangopoulos’s press release, where he said the new ABC service “goes against the ABC charter to provide services that commercial broadcasters are unable or unwilling to provide Australians.”

I’ve seen some funny interpretations of the ABC Charter in my time, but that one pretty much takes the cake.  For a moment I thought Stephen Conroy had somehow snuck through a new ABC Charter that required the ABC to do only the crap that no one else wanted to do.  But no.

As always, the ABC “shall take account” of services provided by the commercial and community broadcasting sectors, and its Act specifically enjoins it to “have regard to” SBS.  But its charter obligation is to “to provide within Australia innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard as part of the Australian broadcasting system consisting of national, commercial and community sectors.”

Moreover, news programming is the only genre singled out in the ABC Act as a requirement – the effective provision of news by the ABC imposes specific duties on the Managing Director.

We’re talking here about legislated requirements.  This isn’t ABC Shops, a decidedly non-core activity that, leveraging off taxpayer-funded content, directly competes with the private sector in a manner that for mine barely avoids breaching the notion of competitive neutrality.  Private sector concerns about the ABC competing with them should not always be dismissed out of hand.

It may be no consolation to Frangolopoulos and the hard-working and talented people at Sky News whose futures are directly affected by the new ABC service, but, funny thing is, the new service is exactly in accordance with Frangopoulos’s peculiar interpretation of the Charter.  It will provide a service commercial broadcasters are unable to provide, by definition – an independent news service.

That’s the phrase in the Act, by the way – “independent service for the broadcasting of news and information”.  That can only be provided by a non-commercial broadcaster, because however rigorous, however watertight the editorial independence of a commercial media outlet, there must always be, by definition, the possibility of a link between revenue and editorial judgement.  No commercial media outlet (not even Crikey) can escape that reality.

The ABC is thus the only media outlet capable of providing a fully independent news service, and that’s a far more important role than local drama or encouraging the arts or any of the many middle-class welfare roles that luvvies and ABC purists insist should be publicly-funded.

The ABC hasn’t always fulfilled the requirements of its Act. For years it was a laggard in business reporting.  Maybe the fair trade soyaccino types at the ABC preferred not to sully themselves by taking capitalism seriously.  But as the only possible source of independent business coverage – as the only media outlet not itself a business story – it has a particular responsibility to comprehensively cover business and finance.

It only really started doing so properly in the mid-1990s, and with more success when the much-maligned Jonathan Shier got funding from the Howard Government to improve the ABC’s business coverage.

And if you want a demonstration of why media companies can’t always be relied to provide genuinely independent news coverage, here’s a small example.

Last weekend, after many months of maneuvering, the UK media regulator OfCom ruled that BSkyB would have to sell access to sporting content and movies to other subscription television providers for dramatically lower prices.  This will enable competitors like BT and Virgin to undercut BSkyB’s dominant market position in premium content, which has been a key driver of BSkyB’s success in the UK market.

The Telegraph broke the story, and the Guardian followed up shortly afterward.  The decision has major repercussions for BSkyB, which is under regulatory threat on a couple of fronts in the UK (yesterday it lost its battle to avoid selling much of its stake in ITV).

How did the News Corporation press cover it?  Well, they didn’t.  Not a mention in the Times, the British journal of record, or in the News tabloids.  That proud tribune of the British people, The Sun, could easily have attacked OfCom as threatening the future of British sports, since lower prices for BskyB may eventually mean lower returns for sports rights holders.

But nary a word from the News Ltd stable about how sports fans might be able to get cheaper access to their favourite sports from other providers than BSkyB, even though OfCom’s decision was reported as far afield as Bloomberg and Hollywood Reporter in the US.

It’s a minor demonstration of a very important point: independent news can only really be provided by non-commercial media, which is why the ABC announcement is good news.

Peter Fray

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