Mitch Fifield: legislating fairness and balance into ABC won’t change broadcaster
The communications minister, Mitch Fifield, has defended his decision to legislate that the ABC must be “fair and balanced”, saying it will not change anything about the public broadcaster’s existing editorial policies.
He has also rejected the criticism that the Turnbull government let its ideology get in the way when it deliberately designed a media support package that could not be used by Guardian Australia, saying it didn’t apply any “ideological tests” to the media companies that would benefit from its package.
The government’s proposed change to the ABC Act – yet to be brought to parliament – is part of a deal with One Nation in exchange for
passing its overhaul of media laws.
Fifield conceded on Sunday there had been “a bit of uproar” about the proposed changes to the ABC, but said the broadcaster’s existing policies talked about the importance of fair treatment and following the weight of evidence on each issue, so the changes shouldn’t be controversial.
“These are not new or strange journalistic concepts,” he said.
Appearing on the ABC’s Insiders program, Fifield was asked what he thought “balance” meant, given the push to include the word in the ABC Act had come from One Nation, and One Nation has said balance would include giving equal air time to climate change scientists and sceptics.
Fifield again pointed to the ABC’s editorial policies and suggested it would be a superficial change only.
“What I’m talking about is effectively enshrining in legislation that which is already in the ABC’s own editorial policy,” he said. “It will operate exactly as it does now and that is the ABC will make the judgments on these matters. The government doesn’t have a role in editorial arrangements at the ABC.”
Fifield also denied his media reform package had been structured to exclude Guardian Australia.
That is despite the fact government ministers admitted privately during negotiations that the “foreign parent company” veto in the reform package was aimed at Guardian Australia.
“We haven’t applied any ideological tests here,” Fifield said. “But what we wanted to happen was to see this support focused on Australian media organisations and those that had been disrupted, and that’s the way that we’ve structured this $60m package.”
When asked why the government didn’t have a problem handing $30m to Fox Sports, which is half-owned by News Corp Australia (whose foreign parent is Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp), Fifield initially blamed Nick Xenophon.
“We have the package with Nick Xenophon which is focused on rural and regional communications,” he said.
But he then said commercial broadcasters had recently won reductions in their licence fees, and this had made them more competitive with pay TV which didn’t pay licence fees.
As a consequence, he said Fox Sports was worthy of $30m because it had a good track record covering women’s sport and the government did not want to see that coverage diminish.
Other elements of the deal with One Nation include forcing the ABC and SBS to publish the salaries of employees earning more than $200,000, and have the national broadcasters face an inquiry into “competitive neutrality”.
However other parties in the Senate, including the Nick Xenophon Team, have indicated they won’t back the changes to the ABC, meaning they may be doomed.
Australian Associated Press contributed to this report
Pauline Hanson with communications minister Mitch Fifield. The Coalition’s proposed changes to the ABC Act are part of a deal it made with One Nation in exchange for passing its overhaul of media laws. Photograph: Mike Bowers for the Guardian