Now the shabby and shambolic tender process for the Australia Network has come to its end, the remaining questions are to do with how this service, now permanently part of the ABC, (whatever permanently means) will proceed.
In other words, will it get better? Because it needs to. And, in getting better, how will it fit with the ABC charter, and in particular the public broadcaster’s independence from the government of the day.
Foreign Affairs sources, including former Howard minister Alexander Downer, are quoted in today’s Australian talking about discontent over the ABC’s more corrosive content, the way in which its news and current events programs criticise the Australian government and society in general.
How is that compatible with “soft diplomacy”?
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In his statement to staff yesterday, ABC boss Mark Scott said he would be sitting down with DFAT to talk about the building of a converged broadcasting presence in the region. Nice to be a fly on the wall.
Will those discussions address content? And if so, how will the independence line be drawn?
It will be a complex trick. The more so because in the long-running campaign to retain the service, the ABC has played cards such as its ability to present 24-hour television news.
Those resources now form the foundation of possible improvements in the service, and also a potential hot spot for conflicts over what Australia Network is. A service provided under (permanent) contract to serve the Foreign Affairs priorities of government, or core ABC work?
Too much to expect, given the shambles, that these questions have been thoroughly thought through by government. Let’s hope Scott has given them some time.
Meanwhile, the Auditor-General’s inquiry is still under way, meaning more pain and controversy ahead, almost certainly.
Everyone will be very surprised if the leak inquiry by the Australian Federal Police comes to anything. Mark Day declares today that his information came second, perhaps even third, hand and he doesn’t know the identity of the leaker. Hard to trace, then. And leak inquiries are usually more window dressing than reality in any case.
The auditor-general is a different matter. From him we can hope for enlightenment on the extent to which this smelly affair was a fix, or just a mess.
Other questions for government and the ABC include how the service will be funded: separate contract, or wrapped in to recurrent funding? Scott referred to the charter in his mail to staff yesterday. Is this new service a charter matter, or a service provided for a fee?
Will the terms of the contract be released?
And another thing we have yet to hear about is whether the ABCs triennial funding will be dealt with in the next budget, or put off until easier times, as was being mooted a few months ago.
In short, the headaches aren’t over yet.