The Turnbull Government has launched a “competitive neutrality” review to look at whether the ABC and SBS operate on a level playing field with commercial media companies.
The inquiry was part of a deal it did with One Nation to pass media ownership reforms through parliament.
Minister Mitch Fifield told a Senate committee today that several commercial media organisations thought the review was timely and appropriate.
Asked whether the ABC competed with News Corp, the minister said: “The ABC is not a competitor to News Corp in that the ABC doesn’t take advertising.”
He thought competition for advertising dollars was a key measure of whether media organisations were rivals.
Labor senator Kristina Keneally commented the two organisations were presumably competing for viewers or readers.
“I guess obviously they both present themselves as offerings to the consumer so they provide consumer choice,” the minister responded.
He also rejected Labor senators’ suggestions funding cuts and criticisms from himself and other government MPs amounted to a sustained attack on the ABC.
Fifield said he and other members of parliament felt comfortable “offering feedback about ABC activities from time to time, some of it positive, some of it also taking issue” because the broadcaster enjoyed legislated independence from government.
“It would be passing strange if there was a view that every member of the community and every member of parliament was entitled to offer a view on particular activities of the ABC apart from the minister concerned,” he said.
Also before the Senate committee today, the ABC defended its reporting and actions around the leak of top-secret cabinet documents, saying it chose not to do a “WikiLeaks”.
The public broadcaster broke a series of stories from documents found in a cabinet file at second-hand shop before it returned the files to the government earlier this year.
ASIO took possession of the thousands of sensitive government files in February after the ABC and the department agreed on their return.
“We knew the government would not surprisingly come calling for their documents once they were aware that we had them,” said the ABC’s head of editorial policy Alan Sunderland.
He insisted the broadcaster assessed the documents to prove they were real and then found the stories in them that were in the national interest.
Once it was satisfied it had done “all (its) journalism” it was a “sensible and obvious thing to do” to return them.
Sunderland acknowledged the papers were significant, but described them as routine documents that noted discussions and decisions made by cabinet.
Some documented discussions that resulted in policies that were subsequently made public and therefore were not of interest.
“This was not a Pentagon Papers-type leak from a whistleblower designed to uncover a scandalous activity,” he said.
The nine stories written met the test of a public interest story, as decided by the ABC.
“You can do two things with these documents – you can take the WikiLeaks approach that it all just belongs on the public record regardless of whether there is any merit to it,” Sunderland said.
The other approach was thinking they weren’t theirs and they should give them back.
“Or you can take the journalistic path a responsible media organisation would take to assess those documents and report every single story that met our criteria,” he said.
“That is what we did.”
The ABC looked over the documents for about four months from last September before publishing.
Sunderland joked the broadcaster would be happy to receive another cabinet file of documents.
“We would be very pleased to go through them,” he told senators.
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