The ABC’s indecent advantage

There has been a lot of whinging lately by the free-to-air TV broadcasters about lopsided competition rules. Free TV Australia, the commercial television lobby group, has urged the government to impose tax penalties on the major international online companies to create “a level playing field”. The FTAs should know all about this, as they have enjoyed years of unfair advantage over any competition in their patch.

But the Australian Broadcasting Corporation with the help of its owner, our Federal Government, is well positioned to take advantage of a very uneven playing field in the future digital delivery of news and opinion online.

The reason is quite simple. While traditional commercial media companies, particularly print operators, are finding it increasingly necessary to build pay walls around their digital content, the ABC can, and presumably will, continue to provide its content for free, courtesy of the Australian taxpayer.

On a “share of voices” meter, which measures across-the-board media impact, the ABC leaves the rest of the industry for dead — and it always has via the sheer number of its taxpayer-funded outlets.

The spectre that this raises is of ABC dominance on the news and current affairs digital platforms already battling for market share and advertising revenue as traditional media outlets attempt to cope with a seismic shift in community reading and viewing habits. The fact that the ABC does not need to worry about establishing pay walls to underwrite the value of its content puts it in a very powerful and potentially monopolistic position. While the Labor Government may see this as a comfortable alternative to a hostile press it raises serious questions about the free flow of information, a basic component of any democracy.

The government has already taken a giant step towards controlling this information with the establishment of the National Broadband Network. It would have us believe the multi-billion dollar NBN is necessary to shore up Australia’s competitiveness in global markets, having argued that this task cannot be successfully carried out by private enterprise. Time will tell if this policy assumption is correct, but the government’s aim in the meantime is to nationalise the information superhighway and be its content gatekeeper.

All of this is pertinent to Labor’s desire to put more shackles on an already heavily regulated press in order to placate left-wing political pressures in its own minority-government camp. The opportunity for government action on this comes from the inquiry it ordered into media regulation (it would prefer it to be known as “reform”) conducted by former judge Ray Finkelstein.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, who has carriage of this issue ( and ministerial control of the ABC and SBS), may well see the traditional press as a soft target. We will see about that. But he has learned that trying to interfere with the flow of internet information can be a dangerous game indeed.

In 2008 Conroy unveiled a scheme to legislate mandatory filtering by internet service providers of Refused Classification-rated material hosted on overseas servers. This brought an immediate and hostile response from internet users, particularly when it was found that the Government’s intended hit list went well beyond child-abuse websites and the like.

Despite deferring a final decision until after the 2010 federal election Conroy maintained his support for the scheme, but yielded to unrelenting opposition earlier this month when he announced the proposed legislation had been abandoned.

So it will be interesting to see how far Cabinet is prepared to go in the face of Finkelstein’s recommendation for all media outlets to be covered by a new “super-media regulatory body” which would be called the News Media Council.

Whether this can be justified in terms other than those of naked politics is another matter. But whatever the merits of that case, the fact remains the ABC has strenuously argued that what may be good for commercial media’s goose is not good for its own, taxpayer-funded gander, meaning that it needs to be left to operate under its own internal complaints system.

Veteran journalist Malcolm Colless believes in freedom of speech — and a level playing field

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