Maaaate, can you believe they’re saying we’re suss?
Is Stephen Conroy a patsy? Or is he merely an innocent but accomplished networker who believes in spending time with all the key stakeholders, to borrow a flaccid phrase from modern management, across the communications portfolio?
I’ll leave those elements of the debate to others. I have no valuable insight into communications policy and am mindful that any opinion ventured would be viewed by cynics as the product of the Murdoch microchip we News Limited drones apparently have implanted in our brains. But I will try to examine the perception that has been created as a result of the $250 million rebate for free to air television, and the role of Conroy and the networks in creating it.
By way of ludicrous understatement, it’s worth noting that it is certainly a spirited debate, and one which underscores Kim Beazley’s conviction that his own tenure in the communications portfolio was time spent in hell.
Conroy faces several circles of hell at the moment. He’s got carriage of the fiscally deranged national broadband scheme, which has so far delivered benefits to Mike Kaiser, and will be fully funded sometime in the 2078-79 budget cycle when the prime minister of the day announces that he’s sold one of his kidneys.
He’s copping it from the twitterazzi – a badge of honour, really – over the censorious implications of the proposed web filter.
And now he’s blundered into a row over his $250m rebate for free-to-air television, which Tony Abbott has explosively likened to a pre-election bribe. Abbott’s remarks have earned him a rebuke from Nine boss David Gyngell, an on-air chip from political editor Laurie Oakes, and that most common of commodities, a gobful from Seven’s mad chief David Leckie, who became so characteristically animated in a separate interview with The Sunday Telegraph last week that he even started denouncing Channel Seven programs.
But if anyone should take responsibility for the perception that the minister is too close to the commercial players in his portfolio, and that the networks are in his pocket, it’s the minister and the CEOs themselves.
The nature and extent of the contact between Conroy and his “key stakeholders” is a powerful demonstration of the utter debasement of relationships in public life, where you are invited somewhere, or invite someone somewhere, not because you particularly like them but because you want them to do something for you.
Steve Conroy appears to live in a corporate box. It’s not that he has to. He chooses to. As other ministers commendably do, Conroy could eliminate any perception of duchessing by only ever scheduling meetings in a traditional office environment. Instead, he’s flitting about at the Grand Prix, sashaying down the slopes with fellow ski bunny Kerry Stokes, going to the AFL and the races with Channels Seven, Nine, and Ten, not to mention Ericsson, Optus, Vodafone, Service Stream, Australia Post and the Football Federation of Australia.
He even accepted a signed Chelsea jersey from Foxtel, which you would hope was a joke to embarrass the guy, shocking team of toffs that they are.
Like a tele-evangelist busted in a whorehouse, Conroy appears to have never paid for it in his life. And it’s a world which he has chosen to plunge into, headfirst, so much so that he almost topped the list of gift disclosures by federal MPs, finishing second behind Greens Senator Bob Brown who was forced to embark on a one-off fundraising drive to avoid bankruptcy through the costs of defamation.
Conroy’s own conduct has left him vulnerable to the type of claims made by Abbott.
As a journalist my sympathies lie with the likes of a great figure such as Laurie Oakes, who is rightly appalled at any suggestion that his reporting would be compromised by an arms-length ministerial decision.
But the issue is that the decision doesn’t look particularly arms-length, in large part because of Conroy’s schmoozing.
The TV chiefs appear kind of relieved that Abbott has entered the fray as it’s given them a chance to wax indignant about the fearlessness of their journalism – which is vastly preferable to their laughable “cultural heritage” argument for the $250 million rebate.
Seriously – can you imagine the devastation which would be visited upon our national identity if programs such as Packed to the Rafters moved offshore?
It’s a particularly silly red herring. And it also sits oddly with the commitment of media companies, through their journalism, to expose government waste and financial mismanagement. If a quarter of a billion bucks fell out of the sky and landed in the lap of any other industry sector, you would expect the media to be all over the story. Instead, the TV bosses are trousering the cash.
Those who accuse News Limited of sour grapes, and say that Foxtel simply wanted to get its grubby hands on this kind of money, should spend a little more time acquainting themselves with the culture and behaviour of the company.
When the French Government unveiled a General Motors-style bailout for the newspaper industry, as circulations were belted by the rise of online and the tightening of advertising revenue, some newspaper companies in other countries said it wasn’t such a bad idea.
The immediate, instinctive response from News Corporation was that it was a dog of an idea, that any media company which accepted government money would be indebted to that government. And that rightly or wrongly, the readers would regard its journalism as potentially tainted, even if it remained fearless in practice.
Both Conroy and the free to air bosses will continue to argue that this is an absurd and hysterical conspiracy theory. They can make the argument publicly. They can also make it to each other, face to face, over Crownies and sashimi in the glass-fronted booths at ANZ Stadium and Etihad and Albert Park and Flemington and Suncorp, as befits their arms-length relationship.
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