This is not a trick question. What is the difference between the Rooty Hill RSL and the Canberra Press Club?
And what is the difference between a public event that is screened on television, and a television program that involves the public?
These are the distinctions being thrown around between Sky News and the ABC in the wake of last night’s Rooty Hill forum involving Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard.
On Tuesday the ABC put out a strongly worded media release protesting that Sky News had fallen down on its public duties by refusing to provide a live, clean feed of the Rooty Hill forum, in which the political leaders addressed a hand-picked audience of swinging voters.
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The ABC’s director of news Kate Torney protested that Auntie had made available live clean feeds of the National Press Club and every other major appearance involving the two leaders and the major policy debates.
Torney said: “The costs of these events were borne by the ABC, resulting in a significant subsidisation of the activities of all other media outlets. We did this because the ABC is committed to public access to key campaign events. We believe that as many Australians as possible should have the chance to engage in events of national significance, not just the 30% of households who have access to subscription television.”
Instead, Sky News kept the Rooty Hill event to itself, providing snippets only later in the day for news bulletins, thus preventing the ABC’s new channel, ABC24, from screening the event live.
So what does Sky News have to say for itself? Foxtel spokesman Adam Suckling claimed to Crikey this morning that Rooty Hill was not a public event, but rather a “program”.
The correct point of comparison, he said, was not the Canberra Press Club, but the ABC program Q&A, which had Gillard as its guest last Monday, and will host Abbott next week. Q&A also involves each leader speaking to a hand-picked audience, and answering questions, and the ABC is not providing feeds of this program to other media.
Sky News and the Daily Telegraph, he said, had organised the Rooty Hill event, booked the venue, and paid for the selection process that was used in choosing the audience. Thus it was a program, and not a public event. And the ABC disagrees, of course, maintaining that it was a public event, not a program.
Which means so far as Auntie is concerned, the differences between Rooty Hill RSL and Canberra Press Club are confined to geography, the cost of the drinks, the food and the patrons. So far as democratic processes are concerned, they are the same.
Given that the foundation stone of ABC managing director Mark Scott’s vision for the ABC is that it should be the “town hall” for citizens to discuss their concerns, it must have been galling to be shut out.
Meanwhile, there is accompanying controversy on which “program” (or event) did the best job of audience sampling. Most commentators agree that the Rooty Hill audience was more hostile to Gillard than to Abbott, and Fairfax newspapers are reporting the political pollster Galaxy is investigating how the son of a former Liberal MP ended up in the theoretically unaligned audience.
Meanwhile Sky News is reporting a battle of the Tweeters, with some saying that only Q&A does a proper job of sampling, and others alleging the program is a left-wing talking shop, and Rooty Hill represents the real Australia.
One could go round and round with the semantics between “public” and “program”, but in the meantime it seems the ABC has the last word when it comes to sheer audience heft. Scott was on Twitter this morning, boasting about the audience numbers last night. The ABC’s line-up pulled the following figures: Spicks and Specks, 1.46 million viewers; Gruen Nation, 1.57 million; Yes We Canberra, 1.34 million; Lateline, 617,000.
And the Rooty Hill event on Sky News? Just 95,000 viewers.
Such is the audience dwindling power of paywalls. No wonder all those who hope to persuade us to pay for content have the public broadcaster in their sights.
And so the battle goes on between pay television and the public broadcaster, in with each side trying to paint itself as more public, more comprehensive, more fleet of foot and generally more betterer than the other.