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Why not sell the ABC to Murdoch?

By Bruce Haigh - posted Friday, 11 November 2011

Acting on advice from the Australian Government Solicitor, the Minister for Communications, Stephen Conroy has terminated the Australia Network process. The reason given is that due to leaks of confidential information to the media the tender process was compromised. The Australian Federal Police have been asked to investigate the leaks, which presumably will lead to the closure of Conroy’s office.

The Government has granted a six-month extension of the contract to the ABC, until August 2012, “...while the Government resolves the long term contractual arrangements”. Let us hope not in favour of the winner of the corrupted tender process, Sky News.

Australia provides an excellent information service and window on Australia through the ABC’s Radio Australia network. The content doesn’t always toe the government’s line but that is part of its appeal. It provides a diversity of Australian views and it is listened to by policy makers throughout the region. When once I was making a courtesy call on an Indonesian Minister, the conversation was held over while he listened to the Radio Australia news.


Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd put Australia’s international television service, Australia Network, currently provided by the ABC, out to tender. When it looked like the tender might be awarded to the Murdoch controlled Sky TV, the government shifted consideration to Cabinet, or so it was thought. In fact it was shifted to the Government Solicitor, who it seems, for the moment, has got the government off the hook.

Some have unkindly suggested that faced with a hostile Murdoch press, Rudd, deployed one of his political tools, appeasement. The thinking was if Murdoch got this prize he might go easy on the Labor Government. This line of thinking still has currency with some sections of the parliamentary Labor Party. It is flawed thinking and spineless politics. Murdoch can’t be appeased. Murdoch will continue to be Murdoch until his powers depart him.

Australia Network is a good service. It was well run and it is logical that it should run in harness with Radio Australia. It is a vehicle that conveys important information about Australia and the means by which the government can get carefully crafted messages through to political, business and military leaders in the region. Australia’s public broadcaster can be and has been the conveyor of subtleties, not possible with SKY TV.

SKY TV showed its colours by signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the Government of China. No doubt the Chinese couldn’t believe their luck. This MOU represents a very silly act of self-censorship. It gives the Chinese the power of veto over content they do not agree with.

China is a very significant trading partner for Australia. It is a major player in the region and beyond. It has an expanding defence capability and network. It has growing influence. It is also a single party state with a poor human rights record, which has impacted on Australian citizens.

Why would Australia throw away the opportunity to have another line of communication to the Chinese? There may come the day when diplomatic discourse is closed off for a period of time. Or a point of view that Australia might wish the Chinese people to hear might be blocked by Chinese state media; an ABC controlled network would enable a position or point of view to be conveyed, perhaps leading to a resumption of more normal dialogue.


At best the SKY TV news service is sloppy and often Murdoch biased. It is not independent. It does not rate against ABC news services, programming and staff professionalism. Why project the national discourse through a second rate provider? How will this enhance our national image or bolster our prestige within the region?

Murdoch does not need a leg up at the expense of the ABC and the Australian tax payer.

If the Government seriously considers the performance and integrity of Sky TV to be a match with Australia Network, then it may as well sell the ABC to Sky or some other Murdoch controlled entity.

Considerations around the country’s international broadcasting service to date bear few hallmarks of commonsense or decision making in the national interest. The Australian Government Solicitor has opened the door, but to whom and to what? Hopefully not just the AFP. 

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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