The tender for operating the Australia Network international television broadcasting service has been changed by adding an additional criteria demanding that competing bidders specifically address how they would meet the national interests of Australia, according to a spokesman for the Minister for Communications, Stephen Conroy.
But Crikey understands that neither of the competing tenderers — the ABC and Sky News — have yet been shown the new criteria, even though the whole decision-making process was meant to be done and dusted weeks ago. Nor could Conroy’s office enlighten on whether this additional criteria was a mere motherhood statement, or something more specific.
It is the latest step in what can only be described as a smelly mess of a process, in which the federal government has missed every deadline, and pissed off all sides.
One of the extraordinary things is that a process which, back in 2005, was decided by bureaucrats alone is suddenly a high-stakes political game.
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It is partly about a battle between Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd, who is once again cosying up to News Limited powerbrokers, and Minister for Communications Stephen Conroy, a street-fighter in the ABC’s corner. But as well, the battle over the 10-year, $223 million contract has framed a great deal of the debate over the role of the public broadcaster and pay television over the last five years. That is an important debate in itself, and the political shenanigans are stuffing it up.
Today’s Fairfax broadsheets carry a story clearly based on a leak out of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade — and insiders suspect Rudd himself — alleging the Gillard government has interfered in the tender process for the Australia Network because it didn’t like the probable result, which was to take the gig away from the ABC and give it to Sky News.
Rudd announced the contract would be up for competitive tender in November last year. That was no surprise; Sky News had been lobbying for a competitive process for years. A panel of public servants was meant to make a recommendation, that would be signed off on by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade chief Denis Richardson.
But late last month it was announced the decision would be made by Cabinet instead — meaning, effectively, Stephen Conroy. Strange enough.
Not that the idea of having the process decided within Conroy’s portfolio is in itself stupid. Historically, DFAT has shown little interest and less enthusiasm for Australia Network. And the funding for Radio Australia used to reside with the Communications portfolio, before being rolled into ABC recurrent funding. So why should TV be different?
Because now, someone in DFAT — perhaps Rudd himself — apparently cares. That’s new.
What’s messy, unforgivably so, is changing horses midstream. Over the last week or so, the scuttlebutt coming out of Rudd’s office has been that the public service panel was leaning towards Sky News. Nobody involved knows for sure whether that is true, but one insider told Crikey this morning “the whole thing is much more complicated than that”. A number of people believe the Fairfax story is an oversimplification.
Conroy’s office told Crikey Cabinet had not yet been advised of the panel’s recommendations — which is in itself extraordinary, given the whole thing is meant to have been decided by now, and the plans of both the ABC and Sky News are being disrupted by the delay.
Conroy’s office says the rules for the tender process allowed amendments to the specifications. And: “the Commonwealth has legal and probity advice that including an additional evaluation criterion is consistent with the RFT Conditions of Tender. The additional evaluation criteria will ask tenderers to specifically address how their operation of the Australia Network service would meet the national interests of Australia.”
The excuse for this late change is the Arab spring, the rise of China, etcetera. It is not a convincing excuse. And is this extra criteria merely a motherhood statement, or something quite specific? Nobody, including Conroy’s spokesman, seems to know. If the tender specifications needed to be changed, why wasn’t it done weeks or months ago?
Quite apart from purity and fairness of process, both Sky News and the ABC have been put to considerable expense for this bodgeyed up process. ABC Managing Director Mark Scott has said that if the ABC does not retain the contract its already stretched foreign bureaus will suffer, and some may close.
The battle over the Australian Network is suffused with political and commercial self-interest. In November 2009, when it became clear the ABC would have to compete to hang on to the Australia Network, Scott made a speech that got tagged “Mark Scott takes over the world”. He laid out a plan to make the ABC the heart of Australia’s “soft diplomacy” effort, with a three-stage process to open more bureaux in Asia, the Pacific and India, before expanding into Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.
And in a statement designed to speak to government anxieties about Murdoch’s dominance of Sky News, Scott said: “Reflecting Australia to the world, without conflicting commercial objectives, requires credibility, a track record of effective engagement, and an ability to be diplomatically deft, without sacrificing key attributes and values of quality journalism. In my view, the mission can only be delivered by your ABC.”
Meanwhile Sky News has given the ABC a run for its money, staking its claim to be a competing national broadcaster. Rudd, then prime minister, launched the Australian Public Affairs Channel, produced by Sky News, in early 2009.
Rudd showing Sky News favour was at the time a political blow to the ABC, which had applied for triennial funding for its own public affairs channel. The ABC bid for funding for that channel was unsuccessful, but Scott decided to go ahead in any case with ABC News 24, funded from cost cutting elsewhere in the ABC.
And since then ABC News 24 has come under persistent attack from News Limited newspapers. True, it has not helped its own cause with some spectacular stuff ups, while Sky News has gone from strength to strength.
There are strong arguments for leaving the Australia Network in ABC hands, but if that is what the government wanted to do it should never have put the stuff out to tender. Having done that, to delay, stuff around and open itself to allegations of favouritism is nothing short of shambolic.