ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie has hit back at criticism by media groups, defending the public broadcaster’s commercial digital expansion by saying it is not after advertising revenue.
Speaking at the ABC Friends conference dinner on Friday, Ms Guthrie denounced commercial television and publishing CEOs for their criticism of the ABC’s advertising dealings and the government’s planned changes to the broadcaster’s charter in amendments to its media reform package.
A key element of Ms Guthrie’s speech was that commercial media outlets were using the ABC’s charter as a scapegoat for their own failings.
She named several of the ABC’s media critics, asking: “Should your children and grandchildren be denied the right to watch Play School and Peppa Pig on an iPad because Hugh Marks (Nine Entertainment CEO), Michael Miller (News Corp Australiasia executive chairman) and Paul Anderson (Network Ten CEO) are finding life tough?”
“There is no evidence that the charter is impacting on the commercial models of existing local companies,” Ms Guthrie said.
“Assertions that the ABC is abusing the charter or exploiting its confines are just plain wrong. They are hurled at the ABC by executives and media commentators who are simply looking for scapegoats for their own woes in a disrupted landscape.
“These media companies are reaching more people than ever before, using new digital platforms to add to their existing distribution channels. Their challenge is monetising those audiences. The ABC is not after their advertising revenue.”
The ABC managing director made this claim despite several incursions into the commercial sphere in the past year alone.
Fairfax Media chief executive Greg Hywood was one of the first commercial media leaders to criticise the government-funded broadcaster when in May he denounced the increasing sum spent on Google search optimisation. The ABC spent taxpayer dollars to boost its content on search terms such as “Breaking News”, “Political News”, International News”, and “National News”, he said.
The ABC is also continuing its push past the digital realm, striking a deal with outdoor advertising company oOh! Media to syndicate its newsfeeds.
At the INFORM News Media Summit in September, Macquarie Limited chief operating officer Adam Lang also questioned the ABC’s advertising spend, rejecting the public broadcaster’s notion that it does not acknowledge ratings.
The ABC’s iView video streaming service grew massively from 2015 to 2016, continuing on its upward trend. In the month of June 2016, the site and apps achieved 2.9 million unique visitors, 16.9 million visits, and 48 million program plays. In comparison, the Fairfax and Nine Entertainment-owned streaming alternative Stan had 600 000 active paid subscribers in October last year, despite having an extensive catalogue of imported and original content.
Earlier this year, the ABC commissioned the remake of the 1980s classic children’s television program “Monkey”, bypassing the Australian streaming site and striking a deal with American rival Netflix, sending taxpayer funds off shore.
Despite this, Ms Guthrie continued on Friday evening, saying the commercial free-to-airs and Foxtel “seem to spend more time whingeing about the ABC than addressing their own audience challenges”.
“My advice to them is that attacking the national broadcaster does not – and will never – constitute a viable business model. Restricting the ABC’s right to use digital platforms, which appears to be the clear intent behind pressuring the government for a competitive neutrality inquiry, will not protect them from digital disruption. All it does is hurt the community.”
The government’s media reform compromises were also under Ms Guthrie’s critical eye, suggesting One Nation’s demands for changed wording to the charter and an inquiry were part of a “political vendetta”.
“The ABC Act and charter should not be tampered with simply to suit political or commercial agendas. I go further in relation to the proposed changes to the ABC Act likely to be introduced into parliament in the next few weeks. Legislation designed to further a political vendetta by one party uncomfortable with being scrutinised by our investigative programs is not good policy-making,” she said.
Federal Communications Minister Mitch Fifield hit back at these claims on Monday, questioning the validity of knee-jerk criticism of proposed wording to the ABC’s charter.
“There is the proposal to add the words ‘fair’ and ‘balanced’ to the ABC Act alongside the existing requirement for news to be ‘accurate’ and ‘impartial’. It is difficult to imagine anyone complaining about this, yet they have,” Senator Fifield said.
“Reasonable people understand the ordinary meaning of “fair” and “balanced”. In fact, chapter four of the ABC’s own editorial policies requires “a balance that follows the weight of evidence” and mandates “fair treatment”. The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s journalistic code of ethics also mentions fairness no fewer than six times.”
Senator Fifield also assured the inquiry was not a commercial witch hunt but rather a necessary re-evaluation of the way the public broadcaster is using taxpayer funds.
“This will examine whether the ABC and SBS are adhering to their charters and whether they use their status as taxpayer-funded government entities to unfairly compete with commercial media. The national broadcasters are important institutions that hold privileged positions. Together they receive more than $1.3 billion in taxpayer funds each year.
“Fancy a government wanting to ensure taxpayer dollars are well spent. It is right to periodically examine whether expenditure aligns with charter responsibilities.” he said.