The politics behind the competitive neutrality inquiry into ABC and SBS

The government’s competitive neutrality inquiry will examine the online news services of public broadcasters ABC and SBS.

Last September, One Nation leader Pauline Hanson made a deal with Malcolm Turnbull’s government: You give me an inquiry into the ABC and I’ll support the changes you want to make to media ownership laws.

The government agreed to do this in the form of an inquiry into the ABC’s competitive neutrality – and broadened it to include SBS.

It was clear at the time this had the potential to do real damage to the national broadcaster.

Competitive neutrality principles say an organisation should not enjoy an undue competitive advantage by virtue of it being government-funded. It is suitably arcane camouflage for an inquiry whose real purpose is to put pressure on the ABC over its news service, which Hanson had alleged was biased against her.

It was Hanson’s way of getting revenge on the ABC for its pursuit of her over the issue of funding for her senate re-election campaign in 2016.

And now we know the shape of this competitive neutrality inquiry. We know who is conducting it, and last week we got to see the issues paper that the inquiry put out, which tells us what it is going to cover.

Scope of the inquiry

The chair is Robert Kerr, who has a Productivity Commission background and impeccable credentials as a free-market economist. Joining him in the inquiry are Julie Flynn, a one-time ABC reporter who used to be CEO of the commercial TV lobby group Free TV Australia, and Sandra Levy, the former head of television at ABC.

This all seems perfectly reasonable, until you remember this is mainly about online media. In that case, why have two people with television backgrounds on the panel?

Online is where the real action is now. Data from the Australian Communications and Media Authority included in the issues paper show just how dramatic the shift has been from traditional television viewing to digital online platforms for media consumption. In 2017, Australians aged 18-34 spent an…

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