Illustration: Andrew Dyson.
Last year, prominent journalist Peter Fray tried something new. He set up PolitiFact Australia, a fact-checking website to test the accuracy of politicians' claims. He tipped in some of his own money, sought commercial partners, and hired six journalists and a couple of researchers. He took a risk.
Then two other fact-checking websites started, both funded by taxpayers. One was at the academic website The Conversation (which I edited until the September election). The other was at the ABC, thanks to a $10 million grant in February last year from the Labor government - $1.5 million a year of that was dedicated to fact-checking.
As enjoyable as the competition was, I felt some sympathy for Fray who was trying to start a business against rivals who didn't need to make money. Now, only the ABC's Fact Check remains. The Conversation, which still does fact checks occasionally, can't afford a dedicated unit. Fray ran out of money late last year when commercial partners Fairfax Media and the Seven Network pulled out after the election.
You can love the ABC. You can abhor the distorted, sometimes hysterical attacks on the national broadcaster from News Corp newspapers, and predict that the looming cuts to its budget will be fuelled by revenge for stories the government has not liked.
You can admire the ABC's innovations and its community spirit - its radio coverage of Victoria's bushfires has been excellent. Yet it should be possible to question whether at a time of enormous struggle and transition in the media, there is a risk that the national broadcaster will become too dominant.
It's not that the commercial media, big and small, don't need to innovate and stand on their own two feet, but the task shouldn't be made harder by the distorting impact of public funding.
Why should you care about this? For a start, you should be sceptical about everything you read about the media because no party is disinterested (Fairfax has a commercial stake in this debate - I can only assure you that nobody tells me what to write). The pace of change is so rapid that only a fool would predict what the media will look like in five years. And only the most radical cultural warriors question the need for a strong, reliable ABC to inform and scrutinise in the public interest.
But it would be far from ideal if the serious end of journalism became the sole preserve of the ABC, always at risk of punishment and budget cuts depending on the political mood in Canberra. Philanthropy has its place, too, but it's not enough. We need a strong commercial sector, now more than ever, when the need for change and risk-taking is so strong.
Historically, newspapers have driven investigative and accountability journalism in Australia. That remains true to some extent, but it's much harder now in a digital world that destroyed the old business models. In the past few years, pay walls have been erected at major news mastheads to help pay for the journalism that people still want. Few media organisations have sought government support, but it's not outrageous for them to expect a reasonable level playing field so their challenges are not made harder still.
Fray doesn't blame the ABC or The Conversation's fact-checking site for his business's collapse. Rather, he questions the value of spending millions on the site: ''If that is $1.5 million well spent, I haven't seen any evidence of it,'' he says.
The ABC rightly insists that it isn't a residual player, filling gaps where there are no commercial competitors. And it points out that grumbles from the commercial media are nothing new. It also acknowledges that some of its digital innovations do hurt commercial competitors. ''Whether use of public funds constitutes competition that could be regarded as 'unfair' is a matter on which reasonable minds can differ,'' ABC chairman Jim Spigelman said in a speech two years ago.
Indeed it is. Nobody would blame the ABC's opinion site, The Drum, for the challenges facing commercial media, but it's a symbol of an attitude that should be rethought. I looked at the site this week and many of its writers - Greg Jericho, Chris Berg, Mungo MacCallum, Greg Barns and others - appear elsewhere routinely.
There are opinion sites such as The Hoopla or Crikey trying to break even or even make a profit. They have challenges beyond ABC competition, of course, but why spend public money on something that is barely distinguishable from commercial and non-profit sites and when there are such obvious gaps in its core business, in particular local television current affairs?
(As for The Conversation, it's done well with its model of universities providing most of the funds for a site that publishes academic articles for the general public. But it was questionable that it received $2 million over four years in direct federal funding last year, as well as charity status meaning donations are tax deductible. Other non-profits would kill for such privileges.)
The argument goes that the ABC isn't competing for advertising, which is true. But especially for new ventures, it does compete for audiences vital to attract advertisers. And for several years it has been selling its news and video content to commercial sites such as Yahoo!7 and more recently the website The New Daily, which can sell advertising around its publicly funded content. That bypasses the ABC's no advertising rule, and those sites can give away the content for free, undercutting the pay walls of others.
The government's inquiry into ABC and SBS efficiency is unlikely to scrutinise any of this. But it might be useful for the ABC to stop casually dismissing its impact on other media, big and small. Nobody claims the ABC is the cause of the media's immense disruption, but it might be worthwhile to have a process where these issues are considered before a venture is launched. And the government? News Corp may well expect some reward for its brazen bias during the election campaign. But the rest of the media, new and old, want no favours. Just a fair go.
Gay Alcorn is an Age columnist and former editor of The Sunday Age.