Pauline Hanson’s One Nation has won major measures to increase scrutiny of the ABC and potentially clip its wings, in exchange for backing the government’s media deregulation measures.
The government has undertaken to hold an inquiry into whether the national broadcasters, the ABC and SBS, are operating on a “level playing field” with their commercial competitors, and to introduce legislation this year to insert the words “fair” and “balanced” in the requirements for the ABC’s news and information.
It will also ask - and if necessary bring in legislation to compel - the ABC and SBS to disclose the salaries and allowances of senior staff and on-air talent when these are above $200,000. This follows the recent BBC example.
The government’s package of media changes would scrap the “two out of three” rule that stops a company owning TV, radio and print outlets in the one market, and also abolish the 75% reach rule for commercial television networks.
The government is very anxious to deliver the changes for the industry as soon as possible. Communications Minister Mitch Fifield said they had the industry’s “unanimous support”.
Labor is opposed to the legislation, so the government has been seeking to win sufficient support from the crossbench. The deal with One Nation is seen as the decisive breakthrough. Hanson was originally opposed to the media package.
Commercial media companies have been fighting to curb the ABC’s competitive expansion into their territory. The ABC has also been under constant attack from New Corp outlets and some Coalition politicians over what they claim is “bias”. Hanson has been angered by some critical reporting of One Nation.
The proposed inquiry will examine whether the practices of the national broadcasters are breaching the principle of “competitive neutrality”.
It could be done by the Productivity Commission, or individuals nominated by the government.
Issues set to be examined include the ABC’s paying Google to elevate its website; whether it is appropriate for the public broadcasters to compete against the commercials for rights to sporting events, and their bidding for content such as The Handmaid’s Tale, which was bought by SBS.
Hanson said the ABC and SBS were “moving into areas where it does impact on commercial TV stations and the line up of, say, sports events.
"That is not in the best interests of the public for them to be in those areas or what I believe the ABC and SBS were set up for in the first place”, she said.
The amendment on coverage, to be legislated this year, would have the duty of the ABC board stated as “to ensure that the gathering and presentation by the Corporation of news and information is fair, balanced, accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism”.
Hanson said: “I think we have seen the ABC swing too far to the left over the years and it does not have a balanced view…. this is not a private organisation, this is funded by all Australians.”
Other measures won by One Nation are a public register of foreign-owned media assets; enhancement of the ABC’s focus on rural and regional areas; and measures to support community radio.
Fifield said the government’s media changes sought “to give Australian media organisations a fighting chance by freeing them from outdated lasw and regulations.
"The reforms will give media organisations more options as to how to configure themselves to better support their viability,” he said.
Hanson said the negotiations had not covered cuts in ABC funding, which she has called for. “I will leave that for next year and I will have those discussions with the Treasurer Scott Morrrison,” she said.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra