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Dec 3, 2013

The ABC v the Murdochs: your guide to the battlefields

The ABC and the Murdoch family are competing in a number of media, and the ABC keeps winning. That's why News Corp is attacking the ABC, Glenn Dyer and Bernard Keane write.


Rupert Murdoch Lachlan Murdoch ABC

News Corporation and its management have no idea where their obligations as a media organisation and the interests of the controlling Murdoch clan start and finish. Distinguishing them is an impossible task for the people at Holt Street in Sydney.

That’s why at the moment there’s plenty of criticism from News Corp of the ABC, but no criticism whatsoever for the dire ratings and ordinary financial performance of the Lachlan Murdoch/James Packer-controlled Ten Network (and why James Packer’s plans for a Sydney casino were exempt from criticism at News).

There are a number of areas where News’ commercial interests, plus those of the Murdoch clan, are running into the ABC’s operations, and hurting the empire, particularly online, where the weakness of the Murdoch operations here and around the world is being exposed daily. So it’s no wonder News Corp has been all guns blazing in attacking the national broadcaster — from Miranda Devine and Janet Albrechtsen to Liberal Party apparatchik Chris Kenny and court jesters and News Corp placemen like Piers Ackerman, bolstered by those pompous, execrably written editorials.

The full extent of the ABC threat to News Corp isn’t clear until you closely examine their competing activities.

First there’s television, and the years-long saga of the ABC’s Asia Pacific service, a national vanity project costing tens of millions a year, which the Howard government begged Jonathan Shier to take on in 2001. After the ABC began producing a reasonable, if low-cost, service, News coveted it for Sky News (of which News Corp has an interest via its holding in one-third owner BSkyB) to improve its international clout at taxpayer expense and tried twice, in 2005 and 2010, to win it, getting knocked back both times, although for very different reasons the second time around.

Then there’s ABC News 24, a direct rival to Sky News itself and to News Corp’s half-owned Foxtel, which carries Sky News. News 24 reaches about 14% of metropolitan audiences a week, far ahead of Sky News.

And free-to-air: Lachlan Murdoch’s Ten Network has been regularly losing its third spot in the evening television ratings to the ABC. The ABC pointed out yesterday that it had lifted its prime-time share to a 14.6 share, up 1 percentage point from 2012 and the best performance of any free-to-air network this year. Ten’s share fell and in fact spent all of 2013 behind the ABC, consigning it to fourth in metro markets, while its regional performance was even worse. ABC management has simply outclassed Lachlan’s conga line of executives. The former head of ABC TV, Kim Dalton, was behind the suite of programs that enabled the ABC to have programs that viewers wanted to watch when Ten imploded in August of 2012, and continued to slide this year. Lachlan Murdoch has removed two CEOs and is now on his third in three years. Ten’s problems are as much his problems as those of the poor decision making by former management.

Lachlan Murdoch also slashed and burnt the previous Ten management’s carefully developed news and current affairs presence, at a time when the ABC was strengthening its position as the most trusted source of news for Australians across radio and television, far ahead of commercial broadcasters and newspapers — with News Corp’s increasingly biased mastheads bringing up the rear as Australia’s least-trusted newspapers.

“Plainly there are good leaks involving government secrets, which embarrass the ALP, and bad leaks, which make life difficult for the Coalition.”

The ABC’s online iView service is also a threat. It’s now the most popular TV replay source online, and it competes directly, and for free, with Foxtel.

ABC Radio also competes directly with Lachlan’s DMG radio stations in each state capital; Nova FM only beats the ABC’s metropolitan local stations in Brisbane and Perth. And ABC Radio is planning a development that will not be greeted warmly by News or Ten or DMG Australia. Fairfax won’t be happy either. In an email to staff two weeks ago, ABC Radio head Kate Dundas revealed that, among a long list of changes and new ideas, were state-based online news editions planned for 2014, a new e-mag for Radio National, a huge revamp of the Triple J Dig multiplatform, and a second online music stream for Classic FM.

Probably the most important will be the first version of the ABC audio player — the audio equivalent of iView. Podcasts for programs such as Conversations (which attracts hundreds of thousands of listeners a month) and RN programs will move to this new player site. ABC Radio Multiplatform also has a lot planned for 2014, with mobile versions of key sites like ABC Rural, Dig Music and ABC Local news sites.

That will up the ante for commercial radio stations, many of which do the minimum in providing news in metro markets like Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. The ABC will also be creating state-based news pages that will compete with News Corp and Fairfax sites and The West Australian‘s site as news hubs. With metropolitan print newspapers haemorrhaging money and likely to vanish in coming years, successful local ABC news sites pose a big threat to other news providers, although both News Corp and Fairfax offer considerable extra content beyond news — Fairfax has a dating and lifestyle sites, for example, while News Corp’s tabloid sites have any number of galleries of scantily clad women.

The ABC’s will be similar in some respects to what the BBC planned for regional parts of Britain until opposition from local newspapers and other media forced the BBC Trust to end the idea.

At the 2014 ABC TV launch last week, it was revealed that the broadcaster will start charging people in 2014 who want to access archival programs and other more specialist material through iView. News Corp won’t be so unhappy about that because it’s a paywall — although we’ll probably see some News Corp drone bagging the ABC for asking Australians to pay for content they already own.

A further irritant for News Corp was the Indonesian tapping story, broken by the ABC in co-operation with the local arm of The Guardian, which broke the phone hacking story, caused the News of the World to be closed, embarrassed Rupert Murdoch, derailed James Murdoch’s career, caused Murdoch favourites Les Hinton and Rebekah Brooks to leave their high-powered News Corp jobs, and sent Brooks into court, where she’s now on trial, and cost the company upwards of a billion dollars in legal, restructuring costs, lost revenues, redundancies and asset impairment. And there will be more to come when the US Justice Department finally does a deal on breaches of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

You might recall that The Australian assiduously chased WikiLeaks stories sourced from whistleblower Chelsea Manning that embarrassed involving the former Rudd government, after Fairfax released the relevant cables. Plainly there are good leaks involving government secrets, which embarrass the ALP, and bad leaks, which make life difficult for the Coalition. But yesterday, one of The Australian‘s reliable press gallery drones, Sid Maher, absurdly demanded of Tony Abbott whether NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden could be prosecuted under Australian law.

When you’re so desperate to attack a rival outlet that you start talking about extraterritorial prosecution of the whistleblowers who are their sources, you’re very confused about what exactly it is you’re doing as journalists.



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29 thoughts on “The ABC v the Murdochs: your guide to the battlefields

  1. mikeb

    There is an argument for the ABC charter to exclude providing content that is provided by Commercials. That would leave the ABC with regional and possibly national news, rural & regional radio, specialist TV and Radio (e.g. children, education, arts & culture etc). This would of course leave the ABC with vastly fewer audiences and presumable a vastly smaller budget. It would also lead to claims from vested interests that the ABC had lost relevance with content that few actually wanted to consume. It would be a win/win for the commercials and a lose/lose for the Australian public.

  2. zut alors

    mikeb, the Australian taxpayer simply wouldn’t wear it.

    See how easily alarmed the Abbott government became once they realised their non-Gonski stance was copping major flack. I doubt they’d dare take on the ABC – although stacking of the Board is guaranteed.

  3. mikeb

    @zut. They’ve stacked the board before. Donald McD was a close friend of JWH and he became a staunch defender of the ABC. The current MD Scott is an ex Liberal staffer also appointed by JWH. Have a look at the board over the last 20 years and you’ll see a prominence of conservatives. TA will undoubtedly do more of the same, but short of appointing Murdoch himself as chairman I can’t see the status quo changing. Board members do tend to take their jobs seriously, & I suspect that seeing first hand the inner workings of the ABC many come to realise that things aren’t so crook after all.

  4. SusieQ

    Agree mikeb.Re stacking the board, well, Sophie Mirabella is free……

    Which of the commerical outlets would cover the rural areas the same way the ABC does? What would happen in times of an emergency, such as fires or floods? Bushfire coverage interrupted by ads?

  5. zut alors

    @ SusieQ: “Bushfire coverage interrupted by ads.”

    And promos for The Project or some godawful dreck called The Bachelor.

  6. mikeb

    “Hmm – that disturbing report from the bushfire scene”….

    “and now a word from our sponsors Get It Here insurance company. We take the heat out of insurance”.

  7. Steve777

    The ABC Board in a couple of years’ time: Maurice Newman, Piers Ackerman, Andrew Bolt, Sophie Mirabella, Greg Sheridan, Gerard Henderson, Peter Reith, …

    If the Libs are still in power in 2020 the ABC will have been broken up with the profitable bits sold off and the rest shut down.

  8. klewso

    It’s “Rupert’s way or no way”? He is a selfish old coot.

  9. Warren Joffe

    Like wars in faraway places, a boring subject after the first ten or twenty years. The Murdoch press has a legitimate gripe about the amount of competition it has to suffer from a taxpayer funded entity. And those of us who no longer identify with Fairfax Media attitudes – not least their whingeing correspondents – need someone to counter the mob of self interested apparatchik who can’t recognise how obvious their pursuit of their own self-interest is but grossly exaggerate the wickedness of others trying to make a buck in a competitive world.

  10. graybul

    @Joffe – Should we take your considered view to mean you support Murdock adding to his current 70% control of Australian Media? If so . . would also welcome your viewpoint on FOREIGN MAJORITY CONTROL of Australian Media?

  11. klewso

    Murdoch runs a sheltered workshop for one-eyed trolls.

  12. leon knight

    Klewso – I am not even sure that one eye of the Murdoch trolls can see anything clearly..!!
    And Jones spews filth over the elderly from a cave of utter darkness and despair.

  13. Steve777

    Warren (9 above) – “…need someone to counter the mob of self interested apparatchik who can’t recognise how obvious their pursuit of their own self-interest is but grossly exaggerate the wickedness of others trying to make a buck in a competitive world”

    I assume that refers to News Corp Australia.

  14. klewso

    Someone’s gotta feed ’em.

  15. AR

    Jones’ splenetic “treasonous ABC” was lower than even he is wont to go, chaff bags & died of shame notwithstanding.
    Just try to manage a day without any ABC, TV or radio, and understand why vast numbers in the western burbs thougth carbon/mining tax was eating their children and refugees were clogging the freeways.
    Today in the Senate, the tories basked in the virtue of NDIS and tomorrow those same people will think TT has bestowed it upon them, if chrissy payne can’t just be gagged for 24hrs.

  16. Warren Joffe

    Do I detect the signs of people who can’t help listening to Jones (Alan Jones I presume whose program I have ever only listened to for five minutes) to get the adrenalin running for the day?

    @ graybul

    As to foreign takeover of Australian media whatever that might mean in practice, it sounds like a bad thing. I like the remark attributed to Mark Scott or him quoting someone that the ABC is one’s enemies talking to one’s friends and it is a necessary problem for us all to put up with. How do people get their ideas relevant to their voting in ways we do or don’t like? How, for instance, to all those English speaking people who don’t believe in evolution get to be like that? (And that is pretty important politically both directly and indirectly). Presumably we tend to exaggerate the influence of media whose output we come across, even it the exposure is only secondhand through outraged comment in Crikey or satirical jibes in Cut and Paste.

    As to foreign takeovers however, I am with Hockey because I don’t trust a multinational like Archer Daniels Midland which just has to be in the business of corrupting members of Congress and to be very good at it.

    As to the ABC amplifying the Guardians scoop (OK it wasn’t much of a scoop to be handed, indeed the preferred recipient of, Snowden’s traitorous theft. I emphasise the treason over the theft because the theft would have been perfectly justified if he was a justifiable whistleblower though it might well be theft which made him extraditable to the US from this and many other countries that wouldn’t send him back to be tried for espionage – at least not as a matter of course)…… Its hard to know what to expect in a world where an experienced politician can show himself to be the d***head that Pyne obviously is in not being able to present whatever he was going to do about Gonski without threatening to undermine a government fatally despite its being in a supposed honeymoon period. But surely the ABC could have behaved in a way which was consistent both with its need to be trusted (contrast say the BBC over many decades compared with say the Voice of America)and its need to loyally Australian in not damaging Australian interests. So….

    Why didn’t it co-ordinate carefully what it broadcast on the subject from the word go with DFAT and PMC? It picks up (earliest of any Australian medium) on the Guardian report and immediately helps our country go into mitigation and Indonesian face-saving mode with whatever it takes in the way of allowing without the ABC endorsing obfuscation by intelligence experts who suggest whatever might be needed to help us with the Indonesians. So, every Australian who is grown up and not wet behind the ears can know that we probably have been pretty good at tapping into information about our neighbours that at least some people in intelligence thinks could be important, that our own people are a bit too trusting of our allies in the way they present things and that our allies are as hopeless as Bradley Manning had already proved at keeping secrets.

  17. Steve777

    Alexander Downer says the matters are ‘old’ and ‘he won’t comment on intelligence matters’. So we can draw our own conclusions.

  18. Steve777

    Sorry – wrong thread.

  19. Andrew Kos


    The Board appoints the Managing Director of the ABC, not the Prime Minister.

  20. mikeb

    @andrew cos – you think? Maybe in theory but….
    @steve777 – too late re Maurice Newman. He’s been (Chairman no less) and gone. Another JWH “appointment” Andrew Cos.

  21. klewso

    The ABC is like our sewerage system – if it wasn’t for them and a couple of other pipelines, society would be awash with “Murdoch shit” and the pathogens they carry.

    Now we’ve go Abbott “telling” us that (re the ABC being publicly funded) “this government has no plans to change that”? “Merde on a Knobcone!” – so stand by for a some funding emasculation, at least?

  22. JMNO

    The Indonesian spying issue need never have got as big as it has if only Abbott had been prepared to say immediately to SBY ‘We are if we have offended you. If the mobiles of you and your wife were being intercepted in the past, I can assure that they won’t be from now on.’ But he hasn’t been prepared to say sorry, which is a common courtesy whenever a person has caused offence, intentional or otherwise.

  23. klewso

    There was that phone tapping – but then there was what Team Howard was doing, for almost 12 years, pre-Rudd? And Abbott and a few others in this government were big cogs in that one.
    Apologise “for what went on under Rudd” – then be stamping Howard fires, in how many countries, as they came to air, from now til the next election?

  24. Steven Cutts

    I have just raised my bid for all the Murdoch mastheads. The new bid is $0.10c. That’s not $0.10c a share, that’s $0.10c for the lot.

  25. John Smith

    The problem for the Liberal Party is their voters are major ABC consumers, Labor voters are commercial consumers.

    Its the dirty little media secret that pisses off News LTD even more.

    I wonder if the LNP are in the mood to cut of their own noses?

  26. Itsarort

    I wonder if Kroger, Albrechtsen and Windshuttle want another shot at changing ‘the culture’ at the ABC?

  27. MsPlodster

    This is the body of a letter I have sent to PM Abbott & my local member Anna Burke:-
    Mr Abbott,
    I write to you as a concerned citizen, regarding your unwarranted attacks on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
    I get a lot of my news from ABC Online and ABC TV including Channel 24 because I am sick of news being paid for comment, sick of stories about celebrities, and sick of advertisements which I have no interest in. I’m sick of editorials telling me how to think. I want to see, read and hear the news as it is, no sugar coating, no opinion, just the facts, then, I will make up my own mind how I think about a story.
    It is fairly clear most newspapers have no interest in telling it how it is, only how they want me to see it. Their stories, particularly political, are clearly biased and all seem to be pushing the same agenda. If you can’t see this bias, then you are clearly deluded. If you see this bias, and not only allow it to flourish but nurture it by muzzling opponents of the bias, then you are being a quasi-dictator, not a leader of a free nation. A true leader should not allow censorship of editorial opinion, but embrace healthy debate and use the truth to push reform, not hide behind the skirts of the editor of The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald, the Herald Sun, Alan Jones and whatever other talkback guru used to peddle so called ‘popular opinion.’
    I’ve got news for you, popular is not always right. Slavery used to be popular, but it wasn’t right. Genocide of Jews was popular in Germany in the Second World War, but it wasn’t right. Racism, sexism and bullying might be popular, but they are not right. Publicly attacking the ABC in an attempt to censor it might be popular, but IT IS NOT RIGHT.
    Elections in Australia are free and allow us our choice of Government. I do not enjoy looking at the front page of a newspaper on the first day of the election campaign and seeing the headline “Lets vote this mob out” That is not a news story, that is the editor telling me how to vote. Tell me what a Government has done wrong and right, tell me what the opposition is proposing, and then I will decide. Newspapers and television news in this country (apart from the ABC) seem to have no interest whatsoever in uncovering and broadcasting the truth if it does not fit a particular agenda. I put it to you, that the agenda of the television stations, radio broadcasters and newspapers is not the truth, but a manifestation of a version of the truth according their agenda. News Corp decides who it wants as a Government, and then uses it’s editorial opinion to influence the vote. Surely you know this, surely you see this and recognise how dangerous this is for free speech. I’m sure you do, because already your Government are doing Rupert Murdoch’s bidding in talking up trying to shrink ABC Online to allow Sky News a larger market.
    Smaller online news sites are becoming more popular because people in Australia are tired of being told what to do, what to think and how to vote. People want a free and unbiased news service that does not pander to ‘popular’ opinion and doesn’t use sex to sell itself. The ABC survives on a modest budget so it is able to provide this service. If you continue to attack the ABC in an attempt to reduce and censor it, you do so at your own peril, because the Australian people love their ABC and will not stand by and allow you to destroy it at the behest of Rupert Murdoch in his attempt to fully control the Australian and world media

  28. Liamj

    Its great to see News Corp(se) haters & Abbott ministers parroting the same agenda, even the most boob-obsessed old farts are noticing the jackboots marching in step. I do hope the LNP really try it on with the ABC, their rural safe seats will vanish quicker than professionalism at the Hun.


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