The government’s proposed deal with One Nation to secure its media ownership reforms will be — easily — the greatest assault on the ABC’s independence in decades, far outstripping anything the Howard government proposed.

The deal, announced by Pauline Hanson and Communications Minister Mitch Fifield yesterday, involves a rewrite of the ABC charter, other amendments to the ABC’s legislation and an inquiry that could dramatically curb the ABC’s activities.

The proposal to insert — literally — the former Fox News motto into the ABC Act is the least of the proposals. It is currently a duty of the ABC board under section 8 of the act “to ensure that the gathering and presentation by the Corporation of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognized standards of objective journalism”. Courtesy of his deal with One Nation, Fifield is proposing to amend that “to ensure that the gathering and presentation by the Corporation of news and information is fair, balanced, accurate and impartial according to the recognized standards of objective journalism”. [Fifield’s emphasis]

What’s the problem? This creates a requirement for immediate balance — the ABC will be required under all circumstances to counter every viewpoint with an opposite viewpoint, no matter what the context. Compare the SBS Act, which does address the issue of “balance”, but does so differently and more realistically. It’s a duty of the board there “to ensure, by means of the SBS’s programming policies, that the gathering and presentation by the SBS of news and information is accurate and is balanced over time and across the schedule of programs broadcast“. [my italics]

No such flexibility for the ABC. If the public broadcaster has a vaccination expert on, it would need to have an anti-vaxxer on (and that is literally what One Nation wants). Sorry, guys, but it’s a duty of the board to ensure it. Good luck on science shows.

[Hanson’s attack on the ABC takes a leaf out of Malcolm Fraser’s book]

ABC and SBS staff would also be targeted with an extraordinary requirement that all staff salaries and allowances totalling over $200,000 be revealed publicly. If the broadcasters refuse to comply  — and they might not legally be able to comply, given privacy laws — this, too, will be imposed by legislation, which will presumably be needed to be drafted to override any restrictions of the Privacy Act. Hanson goes further and says her agreement will require the revelation of “wages and conditions”. That means all contracts, including non-financial details, will be exposed.

It is standard for senior public servants, like politicians, that their salaries are known. After all, they are determined publicly by the Remuneration Tribunal. There can be no expectation of privacy when an independent umpire sets your salary. But for other employees, the One Nation-Coalition attack on their privacy is extraordinary and plainly designed to make the ABC and SBS less attractive places to work.

The ABC Act will also be amended five times to add clauses requiring the ABC to undertake more regional activities — without a single dollar in extra funding being provided. In 2001, when the Howard government wanted the ABC to increase its regional activities, it gave $19 million to the broadcaster to established entirely new local radio stations in the bush, expand existing ones and fund new content from regional communities — and it did it without changing the ABC Act.

Since then, the ABC is the only broadcaster that has stood by the bush, continuing its extensive Local Radio network, acting as a vital emergency service broadcaster, serving local communities online — while commercial broadcasters in radio and TV have cut programming, slashed jobs and reduced local news and current affairs. When it comes to regional services, it seems, no good deed by the ABC goes unpunished.

Finally, and worst, is “an inquiry into whether or not the practices of the national broadcasters are breaching the general principle of competitive neutrality and that they are operating on a level playing field with their commercial counterparts. The Government’s inquiry process will examine these issues and make recommendations.”

This will be justified by commercial media as being targeted at the ABC purchasing space on Google for its news. But the problem is that the inquiry isn’t limited to that, or even the ABC’s online operations generally. It’s focused on all the practices of the national broadcasters. And the problem is, the entire rationale for the national broadcasters violates competitive neutrality. Competitive neutrality principles require that government bodies are not subsidised to compete with commercial entities. But that’s the entire raison d’etre of the ABC and SBS. If they were required to only engage in activities where there was market failure, what would they provide? Regional services, multicultural services (there’s precious little of that on SBS TV now, for that matter), and kids’ programming that wasn’t designed to sell junk food and toys to them.

[Local content rules not needed for ABC: Michelle Guthrie]

Properly applied, competitive neutrality principles would require the ABC to to take advertising to fund the services that compete with commercial broadcasters, rather than taxpayer funding — including for news and current affairs.

Of course, the problem is that the ABC’s wealthy demographics are exactly the kind of viewers advertisers would love to access — and the ABC would suck tens of millions from free-to-air and pay-TV broadcasters.

The commercial media — which overnight were lining up to cheer Pauline Hanson — should be careful what they wish for.

Peter Fray

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