How much trouble is ABC managing director Mark Scott facing over his lobbying on the Australian Network contract deal?
How much trouble is ABC managing director Mark Scott facing over his lobbying on the Australia Network contract deal?
There are now persistent leaks coming from inside the Department of Foreign Affairs
, and many suspect from minister Kevin Rudd himself, over Scott’s activities in pushing the ABC case on the messy and mishandled business of the Australia Network contract.
Two ministers -- Nicola Roxon and Martin Ferguson -- have told cabinet that they were approached by Scott or his right-hand man, Michael Millett, in a way they thought improper. As well, Scott has been pinged
for a speech he gave that broached Australia Network matters at a time when tenderers Sky News and the ABC were forbidden from talking publicly about the process.
There doesn’t seem to be any doubt that Scott, probably the most politically adroit managing director the ABC has ever had, is now suffering from some push-back to his smooth skills. This does not bode well for the public broadcaster, given that that we are coming up to the period in which its triennial funding will be decided. But the issue of his lobbying activities is going nowhere.
I understand that the ABC has been seeking legal advice before, during and after its lobbying and public activities around the Australia Network, including during the drafting of the speech. This can be read as either prudent, or as an intention to sail as close to the wind as possible as this high stakes political issue is decided.
A few things need pointing out. Clearly, the whole smelly business of the Australia Network tender became intensely political (as opposed to just normally political) when it was taken off Rudd’s department and effectively given to cabinet and Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, one of the ABC’s doughtiest defenders. At that stage Sky News and the ABC would have been worse than naïve if they had not realised that the gloves were off.
If Roxon and Ferguson were lobbied as the process deteriorated, it is a fair bet that all cabinet ministers were lobbied. After all, there is nothing in particular about Roxon and Ferguson’s portfolios that mark them out as significant in the process. Yet only Ferguson and Roxon complained. What about the others? Either they are keeping improperly mum, or, more likely, they saw nothing improper in a political approach to a political issue.
Cabinet ministers do not sign on to the tender process. Their obligation is not to breach cabinet confidentiality. There is nothing to prevent them from listening up. And we can safely assume that Sky News and the ABC were talking. So there will be little will in government to rap the knuckles of either Scott, or Sky News director and News Limited CEO John Hartigan.
Sky News and the ABC have access to the powerful. Hard to imagine that Scott and his director of communications, Michael Millett, would not be circulating in the green room of Q&A
, talking up the ABC’s role. Hard to imagine that similar advantage is not taken at Sky News. There is a great deal of conversation that can be had without breaching the letter of probity rules.
And if the ABC had not participated in this murky business, then one can imagine that the view in Canberra would be that sweet old Aunty ABC just didn’t understand how things work.
The background to all this, of course, is a realignment of magnetic poles as a result of the News of the World
fallout. The Australian arm of News Corporation is untainted by allegations of illegality. In Australia, the News Corporation story is about the uses and abuses of power, not law breaking.
Politicians all over the Western world are in the middle of realising that sucking up to Rupert Murdoch and his journalists is no longer necessarily a smart thing to do. Our own cabinet can be roughly divided into three camps: First, those who are close to News Limited figures -- either executives or journalists. Rudd is among these.
Second, those who are actively hostile to News Limited, and determined to take it on. Conroy is a leader of that camp, trying hard to be an attack dog but more of an attack poodle, given the standing of the government at present.
Third, there are those who are fence-sitting or not yet engaged in these debates.
The whole tender process has been mismanaged and mishandled from beginning to end. If the government didn’t want to consider giving the contract for the Australia Network to Sky News, then it should not have put it out to tender. In truth, at that stage nobody in government was prepared to tell News Limited and the commercial broadcasters to go away.
To put both organisations to all the expense and trouble of participating in a tender, then to try to derail it at the last minute, is pathetic process.
Has Scott transgressed? Whatever the answer, there will be no political will to punish him. Which won’t stop Rudd from operating behind the scenes. And when the triennial funding application is before cabinet early next year, some cabinet ministers may be in a mood to punish. That is the more significant story.