'Political vendetta': ABC boss attacks commercial rivals, media law reforms

ABC boss Michelle Guthrie has launched a stinging attack on her commercial television rivals, accusing their chief executives of wanting to deny "your children and grandchildren" the right to watch Play School and Peppa Pig.

Ms Guthrie also questioned the commercial strategies of rival media players and said the Turnbull government's media law reforms were designed to further a "political vendetta".

"There is no pressing need to change the ABC Act and its Charter, no matter how much commercial chief executives and their compliant media outlets argue otherwise," she said in a draft of her speech to the ABC Friends Public Conference dinner in Sydney on Friday.

Ms Guthrie heaped scorn on the chief executives of media companies who lobbied the government for changes in ownership laws, including the removal of restrictions on media companies owning radio, television and print in a single city.

She said existing media players were seeking to expand through mergers and acquisitions to compete with Google, Facebook and Netflix.

"But as a former Google executive, I question whether consolidating the number of local players to build size is the panacea the chief executives are proclaiming it to be," she said.

A former News Corp executive, Ms Guthrie was a senior executive at Google, based in the company's Singapore office, before assuming her role as the ABC's managing director in 2016.

Ms Guthrie said the combined worth of the major commercial free-to-air networks was just $2.1 billion, while Fairfax Media, which publishes The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, had a market valuation of $2.2 billion.

In "stark contrast", she said Facebook was worth $US500 billion ($644 billion), Alphabet, the parent company of Google, was valued at $US660 billion ($850 billion) and Netflix was worth more than $US70 billion ($90 billion)

Commercial media companies, including News Corp Australia and Fairfax Media, argue the ABC is trespassing on their turf by expanding its digital operations and using taxpayer money to drive traffic to its websites.

But Ms Guthrie said the ABC was not after these companies' advertising revenue. Referring to comments made by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2014, she said: "[W]hile Fairfax and News Corp may have many problems in this new landscape, the ABC is not the cause of them".

Ms Guthrie also criticised the bosses of the commercial television networks and Foxtel, who "seem to spend more time whingeing about the ABC than addressing their own audience challenges".

"My advice to them is that attacking the national broadcaster does not - and will never - constitute a viable business model," she said.

Ms Guthrie said restricting the ABC's right to use digital platforms would not offer protection from digital disruption: "All it does is hurt the community."

She also delivered a strong rebuke to Nine Network boss Hugh Marks, News Corp's Michael Miller and the Ten Network's Paul Anderson.

"Should your children and grandchildren be denied the right to watch Play School and Peppa Pig on an iPad because Hugh Marks, Michael Miller and Paul Anderson are finding life tough?" she asked.

Peppa Pig: My First Cinema Experience

Peppa Pig: My First Cinema Experience

"Should the ABC be forced, as they have asserted, into a pure market failure role; simply doing the things the commercials don't want to do, or can't? Absolutely not."

Ms Guthrie also attacked the Turnbull government's media law reforms, which include an undertaking to hold an inquiry into the ABC and disclosing staff salaries, under a deal struck with One Nation in August.

"Legislation designed to further a political vendetta by one party uncomfortable with being scrutinised by our investigative programs is not good policy-making," she said.

"Neither is using the ABC Act as a bargaining chip in industry machinations that have nothing to do with the national broadcaster."

One Nation leader Pauline Hanson expressed anger with the ABC after reporting that exposed internal divisions in the party and potential breaches of electoral law.

The government will also seek changes to the ABC charter to explicitly require it to focus on regional Australia. Two ABC board members will have to have a substantial connection to the regions.

Ms Guthrie said the ABC had invested $15 million in creating new journalist jobs while other media players were cutting staff.

"The ABC doesn't need more bureaucracy to serve its rural and regional audiences," she said.

Ms Guthrie said her overarching ambition since she joined the ABC was to make it as "relevant (or more so) to my children and grandchildren".

She defended the axing of Lateline after 28 years and said stakeholders and some ABC journalists "get trapped in the mystique of programs, seeing their longevity as trench lines in a 'war' against management".

Ms Guthrie also said she was excited about a new prime-time discussion show to be hosted by Stan Grant, whose show The Link was also axed.

This story 'Political vendetta': ABC boss attacks commercial rivals, media law reforms first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.