Mitch Fifield ABC review
Communications Minister Mitch Fifield (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

News Corp, Nine, One Nation and the Liberal Party owe taxpayers half a million dollars.

That was the amount of money wasted on the Inquiry into the Competitive Neutrality of the National Broadcasters, designed to provide a pretext for a radical attack on the functions of the ABC and SBS, and smooth the passage of the government’s cross-media laws by getting Pauline Hanson, and her implacable hatred of the ABC, on board.

In theory the inquiry was a stroke of genius: not merely did it help get the cross-media ownership changes through, it delighted commercial media outlets like News Corp and then-Fairfax, who had long alleged that the ABC’s free services were undermining their offerings — something that didn’t trouble them in the old days of media mega-profits but which, in these more terminal times, is a source of purported rage. Better yet, it was another means for the government to attack the ABC, in which the Liberals engaged in systematic political interference and repeated funding cuts.

Alas, the review panel — Robert Kerr, Sandra Levy, Julie Flynn — wouldn’t play their part:

The National Broadcasters operate under a best endeavours approach to competitive neutrality. With respect to their business activities (with user-charging), the National Broadcasters are abiding by a best endeavours approach to competitive neutrality. It is unlikely to be front of mind but mostly conforms to good internal business organisation. There is no evidence that costs are not appropriately allocated. And prices are generally set to market rates… this Inquiry considers the National Broadcasters are not causing significant competitive distortions beyond the public interest.

No wonder Communications Minister Mitch Fifield hung on to the report for two and a half months before slipping it out in mid-December. 

News Corp, Nine and the commercial TV cartel industry body Free TV predictably were furious, scouring the report for anything vaguely critical of the broadcasters, arguing that regardless of actual evidence, everyone knew they were cheating, and lamenting that the review panel did not give “sufficient weight to the evidence provided by the commercial sector.”

The criticism from Free TV was particularly amusing given Flynn’s role on the panel. People outside the media won’t recognise the name but Julie Flynn was the CEO of Free TV, and the living embodiment of the will of the TV cartel — when they could agree — for many years. If Free TV have a problem with the failure of the panel to consider Free TV’s evidence, they might want to have a word with the former head of Free TV.

Still, not all is lost — for the Liberals, Nine and News Corp, there’s always yet another “efficiency review” into the ABC and SBS led by a former News Corp exec that could provide a pretext for another funding cut next year, especially if the new managing director fails to sack offer “external development opportunities” to the likes of Andrew Probyn and Emma Alberici for crimes against the Liberal Party.

Peter Fray

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