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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.

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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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