Budget and election storms ahead for a battered ABC

As literary legend Oscar Wilde might have said, having one ABC presenter sidelined in a week is unfortunate, two looks like carelessness.

As literary legend Oscar Wilde might have said, having one ABC presenter sidelined in a week is unfortunate, two looks like carelessness. The suspension of veteran rugby league caller David Morrow for an off-colour joke about the indigenous residents of Darwin made for the bigger news story.

But more intriguing was the failure of New South Wales ABC TV news presenter Juanita Phillips to front the evening bulletin eight nights ago - on the day her newish beau, federal Labor minister Greg Combet, appeared before the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption to explain his unwitting endorsement of a training mine that later enriched former union boss John Maitland.

Phillips, unlike Morrow, is back on air accused of no personal wrongdoing . Her temporary absence from the screen was a prudent decision reached by "mutual consent" because of unique circumstances on the night, a senior ABC source said. But the incident points to edginess inside Aunty's upper echelons about avoiding any needless ruffling of Coalition feathers in the run-up to the September election, when Tony Abbott is almost certain to romp home.

Many inside the national broadcaster have their hopes pinned on Malcolm Turnbull, the shadow communications minister. A self-described "passionate supporter" of public broadcasting, he has endorsed the competence and integrity of both current ABC managing director Mark Scott - a former Liberal ministerial adviser - and recently appointed chairman of the ABC board, former NSW chief justice (and one-time Whitlam staffer) Jim Spigelman. Turnbull even volunteered that he had attended Spigelman's wedding in 1979.

He's also publicly argued that the ABC is more important than ever in an era when the country's once-mighty print empires are under siege. But Turnbull's benign attitude to the national broadcaster does not run far in federal opposition ranks.

A rival assessment comes from well-connected former Howard staffer and party strategist, now rising Liberal lobbyist, Grahame Morris, who highlights enduring suspicions inside the Coalition. Many opposition MPs, he claims, share his view that the ABC runs on a "spectrum of pink to red", displaying a so-called leftish "group-think that runs from recruitment through to on-air talent and the topics covered".

Scott, he concedes, has been a "good advocate for the ABC" and "handles himself quite well around Canberra".

"But the embedded culture of the ABC is too big for one person to fix. You could have three glove puppets, a Wiggle and Mr Squiggle on the board and they would be no less effective [than the current board] at changing that culture," he claims. "I think the ABC is very lucky that Malcolm Turnbull is the shadow minister ... There is an acceptance that the organisation is not going to change its spots so you just put up with the leopard, or you work around it."

Even so, Morris does not believe the opposition is waiting with baseball bats in quite the way it was in 1996, when the newly elected Howard government ripped $55 million from the broadcaster.

There are more pressing items on the Coalition's communications agenda this time around, notably getting up its version of the national broadband network. Turnbull is seen as critical for this - "MrBroadband" as Abbott recently pronounced him.

Many ABC insiders took comfort from Turnbull and Abbott hip-to-hip at the recent launch of the Coalition's NBN policy, taking it as a sign he's cemented in the portfolio. Yet even Turnbull has warned that if an Abbott government decides there is a need for sweeping budget cuts, he couldn't quarantine the ABC.

Scott is taking nothing for granted. ABC executives are giving both sides of politics, particularly MPs from rural and regional electorates, the hard sell about what the organisation is doing with new outreach services, including 60 local websites around the country and the innovative ABC Open, aimed at helping country communities build local content.

The broadcaster is also highlighting fresh investment in news fact-checking and specialist reporters, courtesy of a $10 million injection for news operations from the government in February.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy seems intent on sandbagging the ABC's recent gains as best he can. One of the few successes in his ill-fated media reform package was an amendment to the national broadcaster's charter to include on-line and digital services. Several days ago he unveiled a $90 million loan to underwrite a new ABC Melbourne headquarters, while signalling that the Gillard government would maintain the ABC's "base funding" in real dollar terms in next week's federal budget. (The broadcaster got $1 billion for 2011-12.)

An industry observer from a rival network sees an element of insurance in Conroy's moves. "If you were Labor and you were about to go into opposition for 10 years, and Gina Rinehart took over Fairfax, who is going to speak to you [aside from the ABC]?" the source says.

While shoring up its news and current affairs front, the ABC has taken a hit on a different flank, from an unexpected quarter.

Former ally the BBC last month revealed a deal cooked up in secret with Foxtel, which will see the Beeb's new premium dramas leave the ABC and get their first run on a new Foxtel channel from next year. The move flabbergasted traditionalists. ABC 1 controller Brendan Dahill wondered publicly if he had fallen asleep at the wheel. There was angst, too, at the Friends of the ABC, with spokeswoman Glenys Stradijot saying "these are the unfortunate outcomes when all these organisations are being pushed in a more commercial direction".

Both Foxtel and BBC Worldwide, the British broadcaster's profit-hungry commercial arm, which closed the deal, say the ABC was never going to match it. What Foxtel could offer (in addition to a reputed $20million to $25million) was a dedicated BBC-branded drama channel, joining four other BBC products the pay-TV operator already hosts.

BBC Worldwide's Laura Dumbrell says it's all part of "growing" the BBC's brands and reputation globally. "In the current entertainment landscape, content suppliers need to be able to reach their audiences in a variety of different ways and via different platforms. That is what we are doing," she says. No room for sentiment there.

Then again, with the growing inroads of internet TV, it could be only a matter of time before the BBC no longer needs pay-TV operators either. In the meantime, ABC viewers will get their new BBC drama dished up considerably colder, a year or more after it first airs on Foxtel.

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