It’s fair to say I and the rest of the Crikey editorial crew were surprised to wake up this morning and find our fearless leader, publisher Eric Beecher, all over the cover of The Australian’s media section — not an organ normally friendly to us, or him.

Beecher was quoted as attacking the ABC , and in particular its website The Drum, which is run by former Crikey editor Jonathan Green. The Drum, Beecher said, should not be competing with independent media — to whit, Crikey.

So Beecher joins a line of ABC critics who have protested at taxpayer dollars being used to compete with their commercial operations. The line-up includes Fairfax CEO Brian McCarthy, who objected to the ABC Open project because it would compete with Fairfax Media’s rural newspapers, and pay television’s Sky News which has suggested the ABC should not spend taxpayer’s money on ABC News 24, because a commercial 24-hour news service already exists.

I can only imagine that McCarthy, at least, would be somewhat gobsmacked this morning to find himself apparently on the same side as Beecher. McCarthy can’t stand the man, and his confidants have often heard him pay out on Beecher’s character and antecedents.

This is a long-running set of arguments. I have been writing for more than two years now that one of the key battles in this decade will be the one between public broadcasters and all those who want to persuade us to pay for content, which includes Crikey, Foxtel and News Limited. (How strange to be bracketing those names together.)

The Australian and News Limited have skin in this game. Murdoch has interests in Sky News which will expand if he succeeds in taking over its British parent, BSkyB. No coincidence, I am sure, that The Australian has served as a platform for many an attack on the ABC.

So was Beecher being used in the News Limited campaign? Undoubtedly there is an element of this; Beecher told me this morning he had been accurately quoted, although: “I was a bit surprised by the treatment.”

When I put to him that he was arguing the same line as McCarthy and Sky News, he disagreed. He was talking only about The Drum, he said. Sky News had to be paid for, and ABC News 24 was free. That alone was sufficient justification for taxpayer dollars being spent on 24 hour news. Journalism was a “key ingredient” of what the ABC should be doing.

As for ABC Open: “I don’t pretend to be an expert on that, but I would have thought that Fairfax Media are not doing regional Australia to the same extent and quality as the ABC.”

But The Drum is different, he said. It was operating in exactly the same field as Crikey, and so was a direct challenge to one of the nation’s few independent media outlets. Why should taxpayer dollars be used to do that?

But wouldn’t the pay/free comparison also be relevant here, just as much as for Sky News and Aunty? After all, Crikey’s best content is available only to subscribers; The Drum is free to all. Beecher responded: “That might be an argument if other media weren’t providing the same kind of content for free. But The Punch is there, there are blogs, it is all over the place.”

I have to say I disagree with the boss on this occasion, at least in part. I can’t really see the difference between his argument and those of Sky News and Fairfax.

And while the role of a public broadcaster in the new media world is certainly up for discussion and redefinition, I have never been convinced by the notion that the ABC should abandon a platform or a form of media content merely because others are already there. If that idea had been adhered to, the ABC would never have been created in the first place.

I have written on this matter before, but to my mind the most eloquent defence of the role of public broadcasters was in this speech by the BBC Director General, Mark Thompson. Thompson said that in the United Kingdom and comparable societies there have always been two models for delivering media and culture: the untrammelled market, and public space. He drew the comparison with universities, museums and galleries, orchestras and theatres and the education and health systems. He said:

“So much of our collective cultural and social life exists not in James’s [Murdoch’s] bi-polar universe of market and state, but in a third space. Public space. Public space is not-for-profit space, not by accident but by design. It exists not to make money but to serve the public and it is accountable to them, not just as customers in James Murdoch’s formulation, but as citizens. Wherever it can be — and certainly in the case of the BBC — public space is free at the point of use. And the more people who use it the better.”

Running this line may well be against my own self interest. Not that I have anything to fear from Beecher, who has always made it clear I am free to write as I see fit, including when it concerns Crikey or his other businesses. But there is no doubt that The Drum does make life harder in the Crikey bunker. This is not so much because of competition for readers, as for writers.

So far as audiences are concerned, there has been no discernable impact from The Drum. Crikey’s subscriptions and website traffic have continued to increase. But what has caused gnashing of teeth in the Crikey bunker is the poaching of writers. Since Green switched camps, he has aggressively recruited writers who previously filed for Crikey.

He is able to do so partly because he is popular, but mostly because The Drum pays contributors a taxpayer-funded $200 a piece. Crikey pays its modest crew of staff journalists industry-standard rates, and people like me get modest retainers, but casual contributors are lucky to get $100 a piece.

On the other hand, sites like News Limited’s The Punch and Fairfax’s National Times pay nothing at all. That’s right. Zilch. It’s shameful.

Elsewhere in The Australian today, Mark Day suggests Crikey might be worth as much as $10 million. I have no idea whether or not that is correct, and Beecher declined to comment, but I do know that Crikey turned a small profit last financial year after years when all proceeds have been ploughed back into the business. But it did so while paying low contributor rates.

Why, asks Beecher, would the public broadcaster make an opinion site like The Drum a priority, paying more for writers than independent media can do, when the ABC is spread so thin and already so vulnerable to attack? Why push the line, by coming up with semantic distinctions between opinion and analysis, so that its journalists can file for The Drum?

Beecher and I agree on most things to do with the ABC. We both think the ABC, in particular as a source of journalism, has never been more important. But for my liking, there is not enough difference between what he is arguing concerning The Drum and Crikey, and the arguments of Sky News, Fairfax and News Limited.

Of course a public broadcaster makes life harder for commercial outlets. That on its own is not sufficient argument for it to exit any particular field. And if The Drum creates a modest upward pressure on freelance rates, making it harder for Fairfax and News Limited to get away with the scandalous business of paying nothing, that in itself might be a worthwhile contribution.

Peter Fray

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