So whose ABC is it anyway?

Editorial policy cannot prevent the ABC from curbing online news content to accommodate Telstra's commercial interests, argues John Millard, an ABC producer called to testify in parliament.

Millard, who is currently the producer for the documentary series Australian Story, spoke at the first parliamentary hearing into the pending online distribution deal between the ABC and Telstra. He told IDG that the ABC's current editorial policy prevented commercial interests from actively influencing the broadcaster's editorial content.

However, he pointed out that the policy could not stop ABC producers and reporters from protecting business and personal interests by appeasing the needs of the broadcaster's business partners.

The ABC confirmed in February that the proposed contract between the ABC and Telstra could see the broadcaster providing news content for nonexclusive use by Telstra for $13.5 million per year over five years.

"The ABC will contend they have full editorial control," Millard said. "But if I was an outside commercial producer who had . . . an information technology program for the ABC, I could easily get IBM, Apple and NEC money and incorporate their interests in the program without any evidence showing."

Millard believes cut-backs to ABC funding of up to $60 million in the last three years have left many of the public broadcaster's producers dependent on invisible sponsorship of this nature to fulfil unchanged output quotas.

Millard cited the most recent ABC "back-door sponsorship" inquiry of 1996, when it was proven that "stories that suited the (ABC's) commercial clients were chosen in preference to stories that didn't". He said ABC editorial policy did have influence over broadcast and published ABC content, but not over ABC producers' prioritisation of material.

"The greatest editorial compromise is a compromise of omission," he said.

The ABC currently has 16 other news content deals, including arrangements with America Online (AOL), Yahoo!, Excite and Ninemsn. All 16 partners are able to freely provide links to ABC online news content, Millard said.

The senate inquiry into the proposed ABC-Telstra deal is expected to resume later this week.

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