The ABC will launch its new lifestyle website on Monday, as it faces increasing criticism and a federal government inquiry into whether it is moving outside its charter and competing with commercial rivals.
The website, to be called ABC Life, will “showcase content on issues important to all Australians — work and careers, health and wellbeing, finance, relationships and family — free from commercial agendas”. It was developed under the ABC’s “Investing in Audiences” strategy, which was announced last year. Guardian Australia reports that 18 journalists were hired to work on the project — almost matching the 20 senior journalists in newsrooms around the country made redundant earlier this year to invest in the ABC’s “digital strategy”.
The launch comes as attacks on the broadcaster increase. It is currently facing a competitive neutrality inquiry by the ACCC, which is taking submissions that included one from Fairfax — about to be taken over by Nine — that criticised the ABC for using government money to produce “clickbait”. Commercial media outlets say the ABC should focus on high-quality and specialised content, not content and stories that chase ratings or clicks, and that are already produced by other outlets in the market.
The ABC is conscious of this. In the press release announcing the new website, there are two references to the new website being free from commercial or advertiser interests.
Managing director Michelle Guthrie has argued, repeating the ABC’s submission to the inquiry, that the ABC needs to meet the changing needs and habits of Australians, and that providing digital content beyond public interest journalism was within its remit.
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“ABC radio and television broadcasts focus on genres that are far removed from commercial output. We have no interest in reality TV formats, chequebook interviews and the music genres of commercial FM — programming that draws the biggest and therefore most lucrative audiences for commercial media,” Guthrie wrote for Fairfax in June. “We also reject the argument that by delivering news and other content free on online platforms we are undermining efforts by some commercial media operators to extract revenue from their digital content.”
The launch of the site only adds more fuel to the calls for the ABC to be reined in. The Australian has been referring to the site as a “BuzzFeed page for the ABC” and Free TV CEO Bridget Fair has said lifestyle is already “one of the most comprehensively covered market segments in Australian media”.
The ABC has responded to the criticism with one of its now-regular “correcting the record” statements, including quotes attributed to ABC staffers.
Recent media reports on the upcoming new ABC digital site ABC Life have promulgated incorrect information based on nothing but anonymous quotes attributed to alleged ‘staffers’. No authorised, discoverable ABC spokesperson has made the statements that the purpose of ABC Life is ‘to replicate content that does well on commercial sites’ or that it will be a ‘BuzzFeed page for the ABC’. While the ABC does not disclose internal financial details, the figures put on the ABC Life budget have been grossly inflated.
Meanwhile, the competitive neutrality inquiry continues, and the website is something it should consider, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield has said.