Those with long memories for the forgotten backwaters of Australian media history would have been amused by the spray Kim Williams gave the ABC yesterday for its record as a news-breaking organisation.

Speaking on Sky News’ Australian Agenda (of which, as Murdoch’s CEO here, he is the boss), Williams got stuck into the ABC for its lack of accountability and claimed that while News Limited broke “thousands” of stories every year, the ABC only broke “dozens”.

Twenty years ago the shoe was on the other foot. In late 1991, Williams was hired by then ABC managing director David Hill to head the corporation’s foray into what was to be the brave new world of the pay TV. The ABC received a start-up grant of $12.5 million from the Keating government to get their planned subscription services going.

Central to the Williams plan was a 24-hour ABC news service in partnership with Fairfax. It promised world’s best rolling news programs with scoops aplenty. Lavish new studios and offices were built at the ABC’s site at Gore Hill and 110 staff hired.

All that remained was for Williams to secure a transmission deal to deliver the ABC service to subscribers via one of the three pay TV licensees — Australis, Optus or Foxtel (jointly owned by Telstra and News Limited). But in April 1995, shortly before transmission was due to start, Williams suddenly resigned from the ABC to become the chief executive of Fox Studios, owned by News Limited.

All three pay TV licence holders then declined to carry the ABC pay channels, and the entire project collapsed.

A week later Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer announced their Sky News joint venture, and that service began transmission in early 1996.

The ABC might today be in a better position as a news-breaking organisation had Kim Williams been better, two decades ago, at setting up their still-born pay TV channel.

Peter Fray

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