Today we have the interesting sight of recent ABC board member Janet Albrechtsen joining in the round of kicking of the national broadcaster for its disappointing performance last Wednesday night when news of the Gillard leadership challenge was breaking.

This is a return to form for Albrechtsen. She was a regular critic of the national broadcaster before joining the board in 2005, as one of the Howard government’s several idiosyncratic appointments. She left the board at the end of her term in February this year and has obviously ended her self-imposed embargo on ABC criticism. Instead, she is today barracking for pay television channel Sky News.

Albrechtsen’s column in The Australian today compares the ABC’s performance unfavourably with Sky, stating that the commercial rival “showed how it should be done” in breaking to live news. “The rawness of it was riveting” she says, of the political pundits examination of entrails on the night — the comparing of text message from anonymous sources and so on and so forth.

The Australian editorial echoes Albrechtsen (or she echoes it), claiming that the national broadcaster, having broken the news, was then caught napping.

Several things can be said about all this. The ABC’s performance on the night left a lot to be desired. Media Watch did a forensic analysis on Monday night focusing on the worst aspects.

I have been told today that an internal review is under way at the ABC to examine its performance on the night across all platforms. But the particular focus of the review, rightly I think, is not television but radio, where the failure to use the dedicated news channel effectively and the somnambulant performance by some local radio stations across Australia was particularly disappointing.

Yet the focus of The Australian’s criticism is television, and the comparison is made between ABC1 — a general news channel — and Sky News, which is a dedicated news service. A moment’s thought should tell us that this is an unfair comparison.

While journos might be frustrated at the failure of ABC1 to switch to entrail reading and text message comparisons (and let’s face it, there was very little real news until late in the evening), the bulk of the audience don’t agree. I am told Sky News attracted an audience of 100,000 that night, whereas the ABC’s line-up of Spicks and Specks, Gruen Transfer and United States of Tara peaked at 1.5 million. Not everyone is a current affairs junky.

So why does The Australian focus on the unfair Sky News/ABC1 television comparison?

What goes undeclared is News Limited’s stake in Sky News through its one-third owner, British Sky Broadcasting, where James Murdoch chairs the board. News also owns 25% of Foxtel. British Sky is an increasingly important part of the empire’s plans, with Murdoch seeking total control. As The Australian’s media commentator Mark Day said recently.

“If I were a betting man, I’d say that some time down the track Murdoch will move to increase his stake in Foxtel. In the meantime, if the BSkyB deal goes through … expect to see News Limited, Murdoch’s Australian arm, move to buy BSkyB’s stake in Sky News Australia … News can see the obvious benefits of putting its journalists into multiplatform roles. It has studios in each of its capital city editorial hubs and local ownership of the channel would better enable it to compete with the ABC’s new 24-hour news channel.”

Exactly.

And so we have today’s Australian editorial, which concludes in self-serving fashion:

“The ABC’s flat-footedness on the biggest news night of the year provides little confidence that it is ready to use its forthcoming 24-hour news channel to break news … It begs the question why the ABC should be allowed to take on another taxpayer funded channel when the corporation plainly cannot manage the one it already has.”

Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they.

Tensions around when to break into the television schedule of the ABC with breaking news are not new, and the issues involved are not easy. Half a decade ago there were famous fallings over this issue between the then directors of news and the director television, Sandra Levy, who fiercely protected her schedule from the demands of the journos.

There are legitimate criticisms to be made of what the ABC did and failed to do last Wednesday night. There are legitimate issues to do with resourcing the new 24-hour news service, and the news breaking culture of ABC newsrooms.

But let’s be clear that we are also seeing yet another example of what I have previously described as one of the main media battles of this decade — between public broadcasters and those who want to persuade us to pay for content, with News Limited in the front ranks of the battle.

So how did the ABC perform on television? It broke the news at 7pm, followed up on the 7.30 Report, and tried again on Lateline with Tony Jones’ awkward interview with Peter Garrett, who really wanted to talk about saving the whales and knew nothing about saving Rudd, but was nevertheless the only cabinet minister available.

A decision had been made to cut to news the minute there was any firm announcement. That was done when Rudd fronted the media, but was spoiled in some areas by the failure of the new Media Hub to deliver a glitch-free performance — something that has also been, I am told, the subject of “intense engagement” internally in the past few days.

If the Media Hub had worked properly, and perhaps if there had been a news kicker on the foot of the screen at times during the evening, I think ABC 1 would have achieved a defensible balance between the various interests and desires of its mass audience.

But radio, surely, should have done better. It is probably unfair to attack Philip Adams, as Media Watch did. While he was broadcasting live, it is also the case that his program is repeated several times through the week and has a big podcast audience. Adams defends himself elsewhere in Crikey today, without mentioning that issue, but it would surely have limited his ability to make ‘live’ references.

On the other hand, local radio’s performance was patchy, and ABC news radio barely varied its normal unflappable ‘cover the field’ tone. Someone should have put a rocket up the bum.

And what does it say about the new 24-hour news service? Not much, if anything.

Peter Fray

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