'Competitive neutrality' inquiry pushes ABC into turbulent times

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Nick 'Pauline' Xenophon (Image via @FriendsoftheABC)

The Government's media package threatens to break the ABC — and it may never be able to be put together again, says former Age editor Ranald Macdonald.

PRIME MINISTER MALCOLM TURNBULL will be expecting strong editorial support from all major and minor commercial media around Australia at the next election.

Under the guise of delivering reform on outdated and restrictive media laws, and allowing home grown major media players to compete against the likes of Amazon and Facebook, our PM has delivered what Australian media executives have been lobbying so hard for.

In one of the more laughable comments, News Corp's executive chairman Michael Miller welcomes the “important” passage of the far ranging media package as being a win for regional Australia.

I am not sure how this statement would have been received if one of the Murdoch family had put his name to it.

He could not be claiming Senator Nick Xenophon's $60 million negotiated boost to fund small journalistic enterprises as satisfying the needs of rural and regional Australia, surely?

Anti-siphoning changes will boost Pay TV and profits will rise with no television licensing fees and no limit to agglomeration. The major players will get bigger and, as always, go where the money is, leaving the ABC to service by radio and television the needs of country Australia.

And, with it all, comes a further assault on that spoiler of profits and ratings for the commercial media — our national broadcasters.

Christmas has come early for American media behemoth, Rupert Murdoch, who just needs the British Government to allow him to finally engulf BSkyB for him to achieve enhanced international superpower status.

Let us return, though, to the ABC — a mere pawn in the game of gaining votes in the Senate, particularly from the vindictive Pauline Hanson and (it always pains me to use the nomenclature) her One Nation party.

So the ABC has to be "fair and balanced" as well as "accurate and impartial". I can go with "fair", but "balanced" for a news organisation reporting minute-by-minute is simply not attainable.

But the real sleeper is the Government commitment to the ABC being subject to a “competitive neutrality inquiry”.

Again, I think fair-minded observers may feel some limit on promotion through Google and other vehicles for its news and other programs is reasonable.

But the door is open for restrictions on delivery options — despite the ABC Charter specifically allowing it to compete digitally.

Testing times are ahead if the ABC is not to be damaged beyond repair, with a severe dent in our communal rights to be informed and entertained by a diversity of sources

One of our most trusted institutions is under real threat and, like Humpty Dumpty, once broken may never be able to be put together again.

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This article was originally published on 'Pearls and Irritations' and is republished with permission. Ranald Macdonald is a former managing director and editor-in-chief of The Age newspaper. He is an ABC 3LO morning presenter and Friend of the ABC

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