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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee
Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Australian Broadcasting Corporation


I welcome the Honourable Senator Stephen Conroy, Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy and portfolio officers. I now call officers from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Mr Scott, would you like to make an opening statement?

Mr Scott : No, thank you, Chair.

Senator LUDLAM: Mr Scott, you would be aware that the Greens recently supported the parliament in passing an amendment to the ABC's charter, partly to defend your online activities. I think this is something that you have advocated for in public in various fora. Can you tell us what material difference, if any, that will make to the services that ABC provides online?

Mr Scott : Senator, as you would be aware, the ABC charter was, as I understand it, written in 1982 and passed in 1983 in a pre-digital world. We always felt that the activities we took on in the online space were valid under the previous charter but, every now and again, it would be put to us that it was not. We now are in a place with the digital media services recognised the way they are in the charter that clearly all the activity that we have done in recent years is absolutely core and essential to what it means to be a public broadcaster. So that means our host of online services, the apps that we have rolled out, the service like iview—which has proven to be immensely popular—are all clearly central to what it now means to be a public broadcaster in the digital era. This charter resolution makes that absolutely clear and of course greenlights our ability to prioritise and develop this online service in this way. So I think it is a good endorsement for the work that we have done and, again, it helps us to set our strategic direction around continued investment in online and mobile services. All the data that we see demonstrates enormous growth in the desire of the audience to consume content at a time they want, on a device they want and in the format they want. Particularly when it comes to the consumption of our content on mobile phones and tablets, we are seeing extraordinary growth.

Senator LUDLAM: Thanks for that. I might come back to that towards the end if there is time. I want to ask you about another thing that has been raised recently of which you may be aware and about which you have made your views known in the past—a campaign that may or may not eventually emerge from the Victorian Right of the Liberal Party to privatise the ABC and the SBS. Could you give us your headline views on that idea?

Mr Scott : It was an issue that had a very brief burst of publicity and was immediately ruled out by the Leader of the Opposition, the shadow communications minister and a number of others on the frontbench. I must say that, in my time as managing director of the ABC, I have identified absolutely no public sentiment for privatising the ABC. As you know, under our charter we operate in areas of broad appeal and specialist interest. We have strong accountability to the public and to the parliament through the Auditor-General and various other ideas. I must say though that the kinds of things we do as a public broadcaster are clearly things that the private sector would not be in a position to provide. It would be highly unlikely that a privatised ABC would be able to make the same kind of investment in high quality news and current affairs, high-end drama, children's content and providing services to regional and rural areas. A privatised ABC would greatly affect the diversity of content and the investment in content that is available on Australian screens.

We know, because we survey it, that nearly 90 per cent of the Australian public believe that the ABC provides a valuable or very valuable service. Around 70 per cent of Australia's tune in, listen, watch or log onto our services every week. It is viewed globally as an outstandingly successful model of public broadcasting and there is no reason to change any of the fundamentals that have underpinned this now for 80 years.

Senator LUDLAM: I might just correct you there. I believe the opposition communications spokesperson said he thought it was a dumb idea, to paraphrase him. But the Leader of the Opposition said he thought it was a debate worth entertaining.

Mr Scott : I do not have his quote here and, of course, he can speak for himself. Bu my understanding was that he immediately dismissed it as an idea.

Senator LUDLAM: Obviously the ABC does not run at a profit. What would be the consequences of privatisation? Are there any similar broadcasters anywhere in the world where the private sector has been given the opportunity—

Mr Scott : Not that I can recall. There are other broadcasters around the world that take advertising—and, of course, there is the SBS model here.

Senator LUDLAM: We can wind that back.

Mr Scott : But if you look at the broadcasters that are like the ABC, the big national public broadcasters that take advertising, my study of them has suggested that they fundamentally change the nature of the broadcaster. You are no longer providing content for citizens and for audiences, you are providing content to attract advertisers. It fundamentally change the nature of the content that you create, or purchase, and deliver, and fundamentally it dilutes the impact and quality of the broadcaster. Certainly in my time in the role there has never been any sentiment or desire to put advertising on the ABC as well.

Senator LUDLAM: Good, I am glad to hear you reaffirm that. I have one last question on this and then I will leave the topic. If the ABC were to be privatised in whole or in part, would you have to shift your content emphasis towards broader mass-market appeal and—

Mr Scott : Yes. I think what you can see if you look across the media landscape now is that, when you are driving a media organisation for profit, you make decisions that are in the interests of the shareholder return. When a program that might be of good quality, that might be distinctive, is not driving the profits, the consequence is that the programs disappear. There are umpteen recent examples of this. You can look at the demise of the Bulletin. You can look at the demise of the Sunday program on Channel 9. You can look at the cutting of investment in journalism at newspapers around the country. These are all examples of the case that, when the profit motive is driving the decision making of commercial media entities—as it should; it is their responsibility to deliver back to shareholders—they will make their decisions in terms of the shareholders. What we do at the ABC is make decisions in terms of citizens, our taxpayers, who are the audience that funds us. So you get a totally different range of decision making when you have got a commercial entity or a privatised media entity than you do when you have got a public broadcaster that is delivering this content to be of value to the public and to citizens.

Senator LUDLAM: Thank you. To be continued. As I understand it, there are a number of coalition MPs who have signed up to a Facebook group proposing to privatise the ABC. So I am not quite as sanguine as you appear to be that the idea is necessarily dead and buried. But we will see.

I want to ask you about the production facility in Perth. Could you provide us, on notice if you wish, a breakdown on how the ABC Perth production facilities are being used, with particular regard to co-production ventures, the time that it is rented to external entities, the time it is standing empty—I think there are two big stages there—and the time it is being used purely for in-house ABC.

Mr Scott : Yes, we will get that on notice for you.

Senator LUDLAM: This is probably before your time, but did the ABC know when it was constructing those facilities that it really had no intention of continuing their use?

Mr Scott : It was opened in 2003 and that was before my time. I understand that a deal was struck, if we go into the history of it—and I think this is documented. There was a lot of debate at the time as to whether a studio should be built, and the decision went back and forth a bit it. Part of the thing that pushed in favour of the decision was a deal with ScreenWest to make a number of productions in Western Australia. So it was a funding deal that was done together with the state government of Western Australia. That funding has not continued at the same level, I think it is fair to say, but those were the factors that gave rise to the decision to build a studio. I will give you another example. When we built the new building in Brisbane we did not build an equivalent television studio there, but we are building a television studio as we do our new building in Melbourne.

Senator LUDLAM: We have discussed RN in the past and the loss of the drama unit and the value of some of Radio National's specialist radio programming, which is also of a very high standard. Could you provide us with an update as to what has happened with the creative audio unit?

Mr Scott : I saw a reference to it the other day. Let me take that on notice and come back to you on that.

Senator LUDLAM: So you are not sure what has happened to that?

Mr Scott : I believe it is developing as planned and as announced—I think that was the reference I saw to it—but I will have to come back to you with more detail.

Senator LUDLAM: How much has RN spent on outsourcing programs in the last financial year? I understand it is in the order of a quarter of a million dollars.

Mr Scott : 'Outsourcing programs'—what do you mean by that exactly?

Senator LUDLAM: As opposed to in-house production, how much does Radio National spend on contracting or subcontracting?

Mr Scott : Again, I would have to check that. If you look at public broadcasting around the world, on radio it is often a mixed model. The vast majority of our content is developed in house, but that is not to say that there are not talented Australian producers who do not actually want to be staff members for us that can develop a season of radio content, and we are happy with that in the mix.

Senator LUDLAM: I get that.

Mr Scott : I can come back to you with the detail on it.

Senator LUDLAM: I understand. I am not necessarily speaking about co-production. I mean buying in things like This American Life.

Mr Scott : Our model on Radio National and NewsRadio does allow us to buy in some content. I would be a great defender of the policy that allows This American Life to go to air. It is regarded around the world as one of the finest examples in the genre of factual storytelling. It is very popular online as well; we have a good audience response to it. I think it is a pretty reasonable thing to have as part of the mix. There has always been a level of repeats on Radio National; that has been part of the programming. I am happy for us to put some programs like This American Life into the mix. We will bring details of that to you.

Senator LUDLAM: I am not offering a critique of that particular program, by the way; I was just using it as an example. Could you provide us with the proportion that RN spent on that kind of content?

Mr Scott : Yes.

Senator ABETZ: Does the ABC stand by the Four Corners story 'Hacked', which was broadcast on Monday night, and are there now any qualifications or additions to be made to the program?

Mr Scott : I am aware of the debate around it and I asked questions late this afternoon. My understanding is that the ABC stand by the thrust of that story. If there are specific issues that people want to raise about that story for us to subsequently investigate, we will of course do that under our complaints process. But I am aware of none of those specific matters at this point.

Senator ABETZ: Are you aware of a recent university study in regard to journalists' political leanings, by Folker Hanusch, to be printed in the next issue of the Australian Journalism Review?

Mr Scott : I am aware of the research, I am aware of the report in The Australian and I am aware of the academic's comments on that report.

Senator ABETZ: Despite the admittedly limited sample size do you have any sense—

Senator Conroy: That is quite a vicious bite!

Senator ABETZ: Do you mind, Minister! Mr Scott, do you have any sense that the recent survey which found that 41 per cent of ABC journalists said they would vote for the Greens, 32 per cent for Labor and 15 per cent for the coalition generally reflects ABC journalists' political leanings?

Senator Conroy: He could not possibly know.

Mr Scott : No. There are about 1,000 journalists who work across the ABC in news, radio, rural divisions and others. The ABC pool—

Senator ABETZ: You have given me an answer and I accept that it was a very limited sample size.

Senator Conroy: Frankly, I was shocked by that survey!

Mr Scott : Senator Abetz, you asked me about the survey and I think I need to put it in context. You have studied it. I think it is there to say that, if we have 1,000 journalists and 34 were contacted—which means that 14 identified themselves as Green—

Senator ABETZ: I think more were actually contacted but 34 responded.

Mr Scott : So 14 out of 1,000 identified themselves as Green. Like the academic, I would not be drawing meaningful conclusions from such a small sample.

Senator Conroy: I was shocked!

Senator ABETZ: Do you have any concern about bias at the ABC?

Mr Scott : I would draw your attention to a much bigger survey commissioned by The Australian in February this year.

Senator ABETZ: I am asking about you. Do you have any concerns?

Senator Conroy: Malcolm Turnbull gets on far too often, doesn't he, Senator Abetz? You would agree with that!

Mr Scott : There was a poll that said the vast majority of people do not believe there is an issue of bias at the ABC. I appreciate that there might be some people who believe there are issues—

Senator ABETZ: Including your former chairman, Mr Newman, who might be in a position to know.

Mr Scott : I also understand that, from time to time, people will have issues with certain programs, coverage of certain issues or certain interviews. But the Australian public, who fund us and watch us, indicate in survey after survey that they overwhelmingly believe that we do a good job around fairness, balance and partiality. There is also research that demonstrates that, overwhelmingly, the ABC is regarded as the most trusted media institution, and that is regardless of the political affiliation of those who have been polled. The reality is that some of the criticism that has been pushed at us is by people who are pushing certain political, commercial or other agendas. But I have never said in all my appearances here that we are flawless in our performance and that from time to time we do not live up to the standards that we set for ourselves. But do I believe it is an overwhelming problem? No, I do not.

Senator ABETZ: You are aware of the answer to question No. 12 from the February estimates about ABC employees and contractors breaching your own social media policy on social media platforms. Yes, there were comments against Labor politicians and coalition politicians but surprise surprise there were none against Greens politicians. Once again, I suppose, that is just another sample to be discounted!

Mr Scott : The only thing I would say is that the ABC is the absolute leader in the use of social media in the Australian media landscape. We have hundreds of social media sites.

Senator ABETZ: Then why does it never offend against the Greens?

Mr Scott : Senator, I am really happy to engage with you, as I always am, but if you ask me a question I would like the opportunity to answer it.

Senator ABETZ: That is a fair comment.

Mr Scott : We have literally hundreds of Twitter accounts and Facebook accounts that are providing a constant feed of updates through the day every day. Probably hundreds of thousands of messages are going out on those accounts. To go to the answer to your question about breaches that have been identified, we found a total of six. We are not flawless and I have never said that we are. But if you are going to draw sweeping conclusions from such a tiny sample, I think that is overstating it. I would not be drawing those conclusions from this data.

Senator ABETZ: Do you believe that any serving member of parliament would want a 'race war' with Australia's Indigenous community?

Mr Scott : I do not understand the context of that question.

Senator ABETZ: But can we be agreed that that is quite a ridiculous proposition?

Mr Scott : I would like to know the context of the statement; it is clearly an issue that you are referring to.

Senator ABETZ: Why do we need to contextualise it. Do you believe, in your knowledge of public affairs, that there might be any parliamentarian currently serving who would want a race war with Australia's Indigenous community?

Mr Scott : I would not have thought so.

CHAIR: Senator Abetz, these are estimates for the ABC. I think you are drawing a long bow in not contextualising it. I think Mr Scott is entitled to understand the context as to the ABC in what you are asking.

Senator ABETZ: All rights, let's contextualise it. Why then on 5 May this year would your recently appointed fact-checker, Mr Russell Skelton, have retweeted 'Abetz and Christian fundamentalists want race war. Begins in September'?

Mr Scott : Who originally tweeted it?

Senator ABETZ: Marcia Langton. Russell Skelton retweeted it.

Mr Scott : Firstly, Mr Skelton was not an employee of ours at the time. Also, if you go to my account, you will see that I place on my account—and many of our staff place on their accounts also—no suggestion at all that a retweet is an endorsement of a view. Often a debate is raging and is circulating. A retweet is not necessarily an endorsement at all. Sometimes it is can be almost the opposite—'can you believe what is being said here?'—and it is kicking it into the debate. I am certainly not going to sit here and judge that behaviour as suggesting that any retweet done by any ABC staff or any journalist is necessarily or tacitly an endorsement. Among people who are familiar with and understand how social media operates and look at the guidelines that is pretty commonly understood.

Senator ABETZ: Why would you retweet something if you fundamentally found it offensive or disagree with it?

Senator LUDLAM: For precisely that reason.

Senator ABETZ: It is amazing how the Greens assist the ABC in answering!

Mr Scott : I would like to explain it but not in this context. Let me explain to you how social media works.

Senator ABETZ: I know how it works. I am only asking why your employee would retweet.

Mr Scott : Let me tell you why I would put that up on my account. Sometimes you see extraordinary things online, you see bewildering statements made by people, and you think it is something that those who follow you should be aware of and should be engaged in and you should let the debate rage. I would think that those people who today retweeted Eddie McGuire's comments were not endorsing Eddie McGuire's comments, they were putting those comments into wider circulation for debate. That is how it works.

Senator ABETZ: Yes, but Eddie McGuire actually said something and I did not. I only happened to find out about this yesterday. I find it highly offensive and, of course, it is completely and utterly without foundation. And yet your Mr Fact-Checker has gone about retweeting it.

Mr Scott : If you have issues with what people are saying about you on social media, you are not alone. That is the social media experience that we have all had.

Senator ABETZ: 'Race war' might just be in a little bit of a different category, with great respect.

Mr Scott : I am not going to those facts—

Senator ABETZ: Very conveniently not!

Mr Scott : Nor am I going to talk about individual retweets by people. This person was not even employed by the ABC at the time, so I cannot comment on that. I can talk about how social media operates. Often retweet are not endorsements and they are not viewed as endorsements.

Senator ABETZ: Can we believe that Mr Skelton will be impartial when checking the public statements of politicians when just last July he tweeted 'Abbott's extremism on display'? Are we to assume this is a display of impartiality by Mr Skelton?

Senator Conroy: It could have been factually accurate!

Mr Scott : I am happy to talk about the fact-checking unit if you would like to talk about that.

Senator ABETZ: No, I am asking you about a specific tweet.

Senator Conroy: It could have been very factually accurate, Senator Abetz!

Mr Scott : I am not going to sit here and go through the tweet history of all our staff, let alone people who do not work for us. But I can tell you what the fact-checking unit will do.

Senator ABETZ: I did not ask that, Chair.

Mr Scott : But that you did ask how—

Senator ABETZ: This is a deliberate winding down of the clock by an experienced participant at these committees.

Mr Scott : Chair, I was asked about—

CHAIR: I will tell you my view on this. Senator Abetz, you have raised the linkage between the fact-checking unit and individuals and tweets.

Senator ABETZ: Not the unit, the fact-checker personally.

CHAIR: Mr Scott, in my view, is entitled to go to that issue.

Mr Scott : Let me tell you why I am confident he will do a good job. The fact-checking unit is to test statements, to look at the evidence that is on the record, to come to a conclusion about whether the statement is true or false and to provide information that is clear and accessible to audiences. It is to look at the evidence and the data that is on the record and then to communicate that in a way that will be clear and accessible. It is not expressing opinions. It is not criticising opinions. It is checking significant claims using credible sources and providing transparent and accountable information that will be available on our website and through news programs—and there will be accountability for that performance. Mr Skelton is a very—

Senator ABETZ: Chair, come on!

CHAIR: Mr Scott, I think you have explained it pretty well. Senator Abetz obviously wants to keep on questioning.

Senator ABETZ: You talk about individual tweets, Mr Scott—and that smile acknowledged it, Mr Scott; I appreciate that—

Senator Conroy: In my view that tweet is likely to be completely factual and true!

CHAIR: Order! Senator Abetz.

Senator ABETZ: Thank you. Can I ask about this tweet from your fact-checker, which is also about Mr Abbott: 'No statesman, with no style'. Is this also indicative of an objective mindset?

Senator Conroy: No, an accurate one. A factually accurate one. That would check against the facts!

Senator ABETZ: The way the minister says it I think tells the whole story for us. What about last August, when Mr Skelton tweeted 'Mr Abbott was revealed to be the shameless opportunist that he is and he was red faced. Windsor nailed him to the floor'? Is that another clear exhibition of the absence of bias by Mr Skelton?

Senator Conroy: I am confident that that was a factually accurate statement!

Mr Scott : His job will be to test statements against objective facts. I am confident that he has the capacity to do that.

Senator ABETZ: You know that his job includes—and the advertisement said so—'the editor will, amongst other things, deliver engaging content that builds a reputation for accuracy, impartiality and clarity'. Impartiality is one of the very conditions that the ABC set down for this job, and here we have tweet after tweet after tweet indicating the complete opposite—namely, impartiality.

Senator Conroy: In your biased view.

Mr Scott : The difficulty of this analysis is that journalists come from different backgrounds and have different views on a range of issues. It is how they do the job.

Senator ABETZ: We will get to that later.

Mr Scott : The question is: is this the kind of person who will be able to test statements, draw a conclusion on whether a statement is true or false, be able to find the evidence and bring it, and to be accountable for that.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: And to be impartial, Mr Scott.

Senator Conroy: It is completely factually accurate!

Mr Scott : He will be judged on the work that is done and the evidence that has accrued. There is a team of people doing this. It is not simply a one- or two-line judgement is passed down, it will be what evidence is brought to bear. He is testing the evidence.

CHAIR: Mr Scott, you have made that point on a number of occasions. Senator Abetz.

Senator ABETZ: What about Mr Skelton's wishful tweet about a Nielsen poll 'Abbott now a liability, a proverbial albatross'?

Senator Conroy: That would be factually accurate as well!

Senator ABETZ: Mr Scott, how can you credibly maintain that Mr Skelton will bring impartiality to this sensitive and newly created role?

Mr Scott : He will be judged on his work.

Senator ABETZ: What about your impartial fact-finder making it his personal business to cross swords with Mr Abbott when he responded directly to a tweet from Mr Abbott about repealing the carbon tax by tweeting 'Don't you have to get elected first?' You might be surprised to learn that Mr Skelton's prolific attacks are not only confined to Mr Abbott and me. Can you tell me why Mr Skelton would have recently retweeted the accusation that Senator Joyce is 'a dense, opportunistic carpetbagger' as well as another tweet suggesting that 'the electors of New England were fools if they elected Senator Joyce'?

Senator Conroy: Both would be factually accurate! What is the problem?

Senator ABETZ: These are just part of the series of offensive Skelton tweets about Senator Joyce.

Senator Conroy: It is you biased political view that they are offensive.

Senator ABETZ: Mr Scott, we could be here all night. I have here more than a dozen examples of Mr Skelton's tweets denigrating Liberals such as Senator Brandis, Scott Morrison, Joe Hockey and other current and former Liberal leaders.

Senator Conroy: He knows his facts, doesn't he!

Senator ABETZ: So how can you credibly maintain that Mr Skelton is impartial and a suitable choice to be the ABC's fact-checker? I will give you a few examples: 'Gordon nails Brandis'; 'Morrison, the LP's one-trick pony'—

Senator Conroy: Absolutely factually accurate at all points! What is your problem?

Senator ABETZ: 'The Liberal bird-brained backbencher slams Gestapo data retention'—

Senator Conroy: There are many different definitions!

Senator ABETZ: that was about Mr Ciobo. 'Joe's not the sharpest pencil in the box when it comes to numbers'; 'Rudd wept and Julia triumphant'; 'The honeymoon will be too long for the monk'—all these from Mr Skelton. Are you still saying you will not comment on individual tweets? There are dozens and dozens of them showing a partiality against the coalition.

Senator Conroy: In your biased view.

Senator ABETZ: Mr Scott, do you understand that we in the coalition do not accept that this man will go about his task with impartiality given his past track record of complete and utter partiality, including some quite offensive tweets? What I would invite you to do is take all of these tweets on notice and come back to the committee and explain how this builds confidence in the community's mind that Mr Skelton will go about his task with impartiality. I will table those for the committee.

Mr Scott : I will take that on notice. Let me simply say in response to the broad thrust of that that Mr Skelton is a very experienced and award-winning journalist. We thought, on the criteria that were spelt out, on his ability to provide and lead a team that is testing statements, coming to conclusions and providing the evidence behind that, that Mr Skelton is an appropriate person to lead that division. Finally though, the performance of that division will be the responsibility of the ABC. It will be the responsibility of the news division that delivers it. There will be a number of people who work in it. Finally, as editor in chief, I am responsible for that outcome. So I expect that the real test of Mr Skelton's professionalism in undertaking this role will be the performance of the unit over time. That is a matter I suspect will come to the attention of this committee and we will discuss in the future. But fundamentally the test of any of our journalists is: how do they act in the role? Mr Skelton has only been working with us for a matter of days; the test will be how he performs in the role. I understand your qualms about the appointment and I understand your concerns at some of those tweets. But fundamentally the judgement will be on the performance of the role: is he seen to be fair, balanced and impartial; does he act without fear or favour; and is the evidence accrued to back up the judgements that are made by that unit?

Senator ABETZ: Is this the same award-winning journalist that has been twice criticised—once for a one-sided story about the Aboriginal intervention and a second time in relation to his Age story 'A town without hope', about Aboriginal degradation in Balgo'? Skelton did not go to Balgo, and that story was accompanied by pictures of a camp 300 kilometres away. My source? The ABC's MediaWatch. In addition, is this the same award-winning journalist who has been accused of grossly inaccurate journalism and even making up interviews?

Mr Scott : I am not aware of that detail. In the 20 years of Media Watch a great number of journalists have come to its attention. Mr Skelton is an experienced and award-winning journalist but, finally, he will be held to account for delivering to the ABC's editorial policies, which are the highest standards that operate for the practice of journalism anywhere in the country. There is a full accountability mechanism around that. Part of that accountability mechanism comes from the work of this committee. If there are concerns about the performance of that unit, I am sure they will generate attention here.

Senator ABETZ: Yes, but it will all be too late after the election.

Mr Scott : Sorry, in what respect, Senator?

Senator ABETZ: Now let me compare all those opinions about coalition members by your independent, impartial fact-finder with his views on the Prime Minister. What would you say about this tweet: 'Extraordinary times. JG at last behaving like a PM. ALP vote up, not down. Beware the pundits'? Isn't this shameless barracking pure and simple?

Senator Conroy: You just have a biased view on it, Senator Abetz.

Mr Scott : Senator Abetz, I really think there is little point in going through a whole series of tweets—

Senator ABETZ: What about this tweet: 'Another take on Julia Gillard PM: grace under pressure'?

Senator Conroy: A factually accurate statement!

Senator ABETZ: That is one Kevin Rudd would not even agree with. This is just cheer squad stuff from the person you have now appointed as an allegedly impartial fact-finder. Do you still believe, given all this evidence, that Mr Skelton is a suitable appointment to this task?

Mr Scott : We will judge him on the work that he does.

Senator ABETZ: Would it surprise you to learn that Mr Skelton has sought to walk away from his endorsement of the highly contested assertion that 97 per cent of scientists believe in human induced climate change? I am only talking about the percentage figure not the issue of climate change. He only walked away from it after being challenged by the reputable foundation chair of environmental engineering at the University of Tasmania, among others. We have the tweets. Mr Skelton said 'Yes, there really is 97 per cent scientific consensus on global warming' and then when challenged he lamely said 'Not my facts. They belong to somebody else'. So what sort of fact-checking does he do when he is willing to tweet stuff without knowing its veracity and then, when he is picked up on it, simply says 'Not my facts'? Do you know what, that last tweet occurred on 22 May. I think he might have already been your fact-checker at that stage. Does this indicate a prejudice on a controversial issue, and a lack of intellectual integrity, or not?

Mr Scott : We will judge the performance on the performance. We have guidelines in place; we have editorial oversight on the operation of that division. And, finally, I think it will be a matter for review over time.

Senator ABETZ: And all these Tweets, some of which I accept were undertaken prior to his appointment—

Mr Scott : He has only been with us for a couple of days, so you have recounted nearly all of them.

Senator ABETZ: You told me not to interrupt, and I graciously accepted your admonition. Let's make that a two-way street.

Mr Scott : Certainly Senator.

Senator ABETZ: All these Tweets I have read out now appear under the Twitter account 'Russell Skelton, Editor, ABC Fact Checking Unit, Sydney, Australia.' Can you point me to where Mr Skelton says, on his Twitter account, that just because he Tweets something it does not necessarily mean that he endorses it?

Mr Scott : I expect it will be there imminently.

Senator ABETZ: Yes, it will be there very, very, very shortly. But can you not see why the coalition, as a major player at this election, at a minimum, is concerned about the credentials and clear bias of Mr Skelton?

Mr Scott : As you know, I speak regularly to MPs and senators from both sides of parliament. I think there have been questions about a fact-checking unit: should we create a fact-checking unit, and what role will it play? There has been apprehension, irrespective of personalities, as to why we are doing this. We think it is a contribution that can be played there. But, finally, it will be judged on its performance. The staff there will be judged on their performance. And I just think you need to keep in mind that it is not a one-word verdict that is handed down; the evidence that is used to back that verdict is also handed down. So I cannot think of anything that will be more open and transparent. People will be able to come to their own judgements.

Senator ABETZ: Oh, this is very transparent, I agree!

Mr Scott : But let's hear about the performance of the unit, Senator. The performance of the unit will be transparent. The evidence that is behind its judgements will be there for all to see, and people will come to a judgement as to whether they feel that that has been fair, accurate and balanced or not.

Senator ABETZ: Do you really believe that this prolific expression of bias qualifies Mr Skelton to hold this position where impartiality is such a vital quality and ingredient and make-up of the individual that gets to undertake that role?

Mr Scott : Let's just dig into what—

Senator Conroy: You might want to be seeking to intimidate, Senator Abetz, but that is your character assessment—nothing more. It does not hold as a fact at all; it is just your own biased attempt to intimidate.

Mr Scott : Senator, I just say broadly that I have experience in two major Australian media organisations now but I know a lot of journalists who work in a range of media outlets. Journalists have views; journalists have perspectives; journalists vote. The test is not what their views are, what their perspectives are or how they vote; the test is how they do their work.

Senator ABETZ: And how they Tweet.

Mr Scott : The test will be whether Mr Skelton can execute this job with fairness, balance and impartiality. You will be able to come to a judgement on that. But just because he may have held some views or made some comments does not say that he cannot now—or has not in the past—executed his journalism with fairness, balance and impartiality.

Senator ABETZ: Your own media watchers pinged him.

Mr Scott : What that suggests is that he is not perfect; I am yet to find the journalist who is.

Senator ABETZ: Writing stories about places you have not visited!

Mr Scott : I am not across the detail of that. But, I must say, a mention in dispatches on Media Watch is something that many a journalist in the country has had to deal with over the past 20 years. I am not saying he has a flawless track record; I am not aware of those issues you raise. What I do know is that he is a respected and highly accredited journalist, and the test will be: can he execute his job with impartiality?

Senator ABETZ: Let's go to execution of his job. How on earth, given Mr Skelton's public denigration of Mr Hockey—that he is 'not the sharpest pencil in the box when it comes to numbers'—

Senator Conroy: That is so seriously factual it is indisputable!

Senator ABETZ: How can Mr Skelton possibly claim to be unbiased and fairly assess the coalition's economic statements—

Senator Conroy: John Howard demoted him—

CHAIR: Order, Senator Conroy.

Senator Conroy: He was actually demoted by John Howard.

Mr Scott : Working upstairs, along the corridor in the press gallery, are many journalists, many of whom write opinion pieces and commentary and analysis, sometimes quite withering, of different politicians' performance over time. What I would simply say is that they may have a view about a certain performance at a certain time. Does that mean that they are all disqualified from exercising judgement that is fair, balanced and impartial?

Senator ABETZ: But this is a general judgement. It is not about whether Joe Hockey stuffed up here or there.

Mr Scott : You do not know that, Senator.

Senator ABETZ: This is a general comment that he is not the sharpest pencil in the box. That is just personal denigration.

Senator Conroy: It is just a colourful and accurate description.

Mr Scott : I am not here to defend the previous tweet. I am not sure you are aware of the context of that particular tweet.

Senator ABETZ: I am absolutely aware of all of them, and you will get them at the end of this estimates to go through and then hopefully reconsider this appointment. Isn't it a fundamental requirement that the position of fact checker be filled by a person without any perceived biases? Here there is the task of not only actual bias but also perception of bias.

Mr Scott : Yes.

Senator ABETZ: That is why a lot of people in various positions say: 'I will disqualify myself from a particular position or decision making because of the perception of bias. Albeit I believe I would not be biased, the perception of bias is such that I should remove myself.' Now, with this track record, how on earth could anyone assert that there is not at least a perception of apprehended bias? How on earth could you not come to that conclusion?

Mr Scott : I think people will come to a conclusion on the performance of the unit when they look at the product that is produced by it, which includes all the evidence that is around that. The operation of this fact-checking unit is not just on political matters; it will be on a range of matters that are brought out.

Senator ABETZ: Can we go to another matter?

Mr Scott : The judgement will be on the performance of the unit and the evidence that is brought forward.

Senator Conroy: It will be tough job. To analyse a coalition policy you need a fact.

Senator ABETZ: Is it a medical fact, Mr Scott, that marijuana smoking does not impact on lung health?

Mr Scott : It is not an area I have given close study to.

Senator ABETZ: I thought you might say that. So, can I ask: would it surprise you if someone tried to propagate the view that smoking dope does not compromise lung health? And, in that context, can you explain why Mr Skelton tweeted, 'Pot smokers don't puff away lung health: study'. Really, Mr Scott—

Mr Scott : Was there a link to the study?

Senator ABETZ: Wouldn't Red Skelton have been a better choice than Russell Skelton for this position?

Mr Scott : Was there a link on that Tweet to that study?

Senator ABETZ: Yes, there was. But the British Lung Foundation completely debunks that assertion. And, what's more, the ABC's own health and wellbeing page contradicts that which Mr Skelton is seeking to propagate. So, what is the fact? Is it what ABC has on its health and wellbeing page, or is it that which Mr Skelton seeks to tweet?

Mr Scott : Well, I am not in a position to comment.

Senator ABETZ: It is quite obvious that you are not, and it is very difficult for you, I understand. So can I ask: how did we end up with Mr Skelton? Firstly, was Mr Skelton known to you prior to his engagement in the role of fact checker?

Mr Scott : I have known Mr Skelton. He was a senior journalist at Fairfax, and I knew him—

Senator ABETZ: So he was known to you?

Mr Scott : Yes. I would simply say—

Senator ABETZ: Thank you. So, did he ever raise—

CHAIR: Senator Abetz, please let Mr Scott finish.

Mr Scott : Mr Skelton is known. He is one of the best-known journalists in the country. He is known by thousands of people. But I can tell you that I did not interview him for the job, that the position was advertised, that I understand that Mr Skelton applied, that we convened a selection panel, and that Mr Skelton was viewed as the outstanding candidate for the job.

Senator Conroy: He's just not a cultural warrior for you guys, is he?

Senator ABETZ: Did Mr Skelton ever raise the idea of a fact-checking unit with the ABC prior to his appointment?

Mr Scott : Not with me.

Senator ABETZ: With anybody else? Take that on notice, please.

Mr Scott : I can tell you that the idea did not come from Mr Skelton; the idea came from me, working with our director of news, as we were putting together our tri-funding submission.

Senator ABETZ: The job advertisement for the editor of the fact-checking unit said. 'The editor will lead and manage the unit to deliver engaging content that builds a reputation for accuracy, impartiality and clarity'.

Mr Scott : That is exactly right.

Senator ABETZ: Clearly, Mr Skelton is not impartial, is he?

Senator Conroy: In your biased opinion.

Mr Scott : But, as I said, the judgement of the unit will be whether in fact the content it produces is fair, balanced and impartial. And it is the same with any journalist, irrespective of their personal views, irrespective of what they said. The question is, can they produce content that is fair, balanced and impartial? And we will know that when we see the material that is produced.

Senator ABETZ: All these tweets, and many, many more, show that Mr Skelton is incurably biased.

Senator Conroy: In your biased view. Stop trying to use Senate estimates to intimidate.

Senator ABETZ: This appointment will cause you and the ABC a degree of grief. Did you actually fact check Mr Skelton prior to his appointment and come across all these tweets?

Mr Scott : I am not aware of that. What I can say, though, is that there was certainly an interview with him and discussion and understanding of his record. But fundamentally, if I accept your premise, the same principle applies for every journalist. If in fact you are saying that if there is a journalist who supports the coalition, a journalist who supports the Labor Party, a journalist who supports the Greens, then therefore they are disqualified—

Senator ABETZ: Why do you need a journalist to be a fact checker?

CHAIR: You would have to close News Limited down!

Senator Conroy: I can name at least a dozen former Liberal staffers and former Liberal MPs on radio! The proposition is absurd.

Senator ABETZ: Can you stop the mutual admiration society?

Mr Scott : You put a proposition, Senator. I am saying, though, that the test of Mr Skelton's impartiality comes with the product the unit produces. You are expressing scepticism about his ability to do that. I am saying he has a very strong record of professionalism. I am saying that we will judge his performance on the outcome of this unit and I expect that that will be a matter that you will pay close attention to, as will I.

Senator ABETZ: But if people want to have confidence in the decision making, you have to get rid of apprehended bias.

Senator Conroy: In your apprehended-biased view.

Senator ABETZ: It is not good enough for a Supreme Court judge to say, 'I am not going to disqualify myself; wait for the decision and see if I am biased'. It is too late.

Mr Scott : But Senator, I have—

Senator ABETZ: That is why, when people set themselves up—

CHAIR: Senator Abetz, I am just going to indicate to you that we have been going for—

Senator Conroy: Tedious repetition is a breach of standing orders.

CHAIR: We have been going for 35 minutes on this one issue. I do not think you are making much progress, other than starting to lecture.

Senator ABETZ: I will let the public make an assessment of that.

CHAIR: Well, let the public make that determination.

Senator Conroy: We all heard you threaten the ABC. Don't worry; we all heard you!

CHAIR: Order! I am trying to get an idea of timing—

Senator ABETZ: I have another topic, and I will try to get through it as quickly as possible. Short answers would be very helpful. So, let me move on to this Vote Compass. You are aware of the dubious history of, which was set up by GetUp! Are you aware of that, Mr Scott?

Mr Scott : Not particularly.

Senator ABETZ: I would have thought when you set up something like Vote Compass you might have informed yourself of—

Mr Scott : We informed ourselves by talking to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, who did it, and then the Wall Street Journal, which used Vote Compass in the last presidential election. We have spoken to a lot of people who have used this process in the past.

Senator ABETZ: All right. Let us move straight to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. You are modelling yourself on that?

Mr Scott : No, but we paid attention to it. They were one of the first organisations to use it. It has had a number of iterations since, one example being in the Wall Street Journal. It has also been used in Europe. Our version of it will be different to theirs. We have learned a bit from the Canadian experience, so we have not just picked it up and dropped it in this environment.

Senator Conroy: Did Karl Rove run the one on the Wall Street Journal? Has he called Ohio yet?

Senator ABETZ: I will quote from Antony Green's blog about the Vote Compass:

For that reason we know some Vote Compass participants will be surprised by where their attitudes line up in relation to the political parties. As we stress, Vote Compass is not a how-to-vote tool.

But in a sense it will lead people, potentially, to change their vote, won't it, if they put in certain information and it tells them that their views are more aligned one way or the other? Hold that thought, because when Canadian Vote Compass model that you say informed you was used by Queen's University political science professor Kathy Brock she found that even though she completed the survey three times using three distinct strategies she was aligned each time with the Liberal Party. In Canada the Liberal Party is in fact the left wing party. Each time, no matter what she put in—and she is a professor of political science—it just happened to spit out exactly the same thing that the GetUp compass did when Andrew Robb tried it. It just seems that these compasses always tend to point to the west or to the left, no matter what information you put in.

Mr Scott : Why do you think that the Wall Street Journal picked it up and used it?

Senator ABETZ: Pardon?

Mr Scott : Why do you think that the Wall Street Journal picked it up and used it if they did not think that it was a credible tool?

Senator ABETZ: If you want to start asking questions, we can change positions. Let us move on.

Senator Conroy: I thought that it was a very pertinent point.

Senator ABETZ: There was a premonition by Mr Green that people will be surprised because, no matter what they put into this Vote Compass, it always goes to the west; always goes to the left.

Mr Scott : What is your question, Senator? Do you have a question on Vote Compass?

Senator ABETZ: Yes. How are you going to make sure, seeing that you say that you know nothing about GetUp's—

Mr Scott : I have not studied it.

Senator ABETZ: But you do know about the Canadian one, which always skews the needle of the compass to the left or to the west. How can we be assured that yours will not have the same design fault?

Mr Scott : We are not designing it. It is a partnership that has developed. We use a group of independent academics—

Senator ABETZ: Oh, great!

Mr Scott : who provide—

Senator ABETZ: Can you mention those names?

Mr Scott : I can get those names for you.

Senator ABETZ: Quickly? I am sure that they are online.

Mr Scott : I am not sure that they are online. But I can provide you with background on it. The situation is that this has proven to be—and the CBC version of it was quite an early version of it—a useful tool. We get the policies from the parties. The policies are provided by the parties rather than by us.

Senator ABETZ: And if we do not provide the policies?

Mr Scott : A lot of those policies would be on the public record, of course, Senator.

Senator ABETZ: What about the Greens, who have already indicated that they will not be announcing policies but just making general statement? How are we going to deal with that?

Mr Scott : I am not sure, Senator. There will be—

Senator ABETZ: This is going to be telling people how their vote should be or is aligned.

Mr Scott : It is not.

Senator ABETZ: Is aligned.

Mr Scott : Yes. It will actually provide a more in-depth exploration around the policies of the various parties. I must say that—

Senator ABETZ: You claim that it is in depth. Professor Brock said that it is a gimmick that impoverishes the level of discussion in our democracy. That is her considered view.

Senator Conroy: No, that is called the Australian.

Mr Scott : That may have been an academic's view. Our reading of it in the context of how it was used in Canada and then subsequently in the other places that it was rolled out—and it was most recently used by the Wall Street Journal—is that has proven to be a popular and engaging way of encouraging people to think about policies in the context of the election campaign.

Senator ABETZ: Will the Vote Compass tell voters if they can actually trust a party to implement its policies? Surely, you would agree that that is a fundamental consideration? When people say, 'There will no carbon tax' and that then aligns you to the Labor Party or they say, 'We will turn back the boats,' on the day of the election on the front page of that terrible News Ltd paper only then to immediately dismantle the policy after the election—

Senator Conroy: How about saying after the election, ''I considered resigning for misleading the Australian public but I decided on balance not to?' That is a quote from Tony Abbott.

Senator ABETZ: Doesn't that make my point, Minister?

Senator Conroy: Tony Abbott lied to the Australian public.

Senator ABETZ: You are unwittingly making my point. Thank you very much, Minister. Can Mr Scott now answer?

Mr Scott : Any tool has its limitations. I expect that this will more look at issues like education policy, health policy, tax policy, environmental policy. The different policies that are on the record will be there and it will allow—

Senator Conroy: We will have to get the ABC policy.

Mr Scott : voters to be able to interact with it. We look forward to ABC policies if they are released as well.

Senator ABETZ: If a party does not release its policies, what happens? And who is going to determine what the actual policy of a party is? Will it have to be signed off by party headquarters that this is the actual policy that you can put on the compass or is it going to be—

Mr Scott : I am not sure if we are getting into core or non-core issues here. I am not sure. I will have to come back to you on that.

Senator ABETZ: You do not have to worry about core and non-core issues. Mr Howard had to, because there was a $10 billion black hole.

Senator Conroy: Oh!

Senator ABETZ: You have been given $10 million extra by a Labor government that has been the most partisan government—

Senator Conroy: Write that down!

Senator ABETZ: in recent history to fund this Vote Compass and to fund—f

CHAIR: Senator Abetz, I am going to move to someone else if you are going to continue to preach your point of view.

Senator Conroy: All you are here to do is hector and intimidate—

Senator ABETZ: Why didn't you get Senator Cameron as a fact checker?

CHAIR: I would be a very good fact checker.

Mr Scott : I will come back to you on the precise detail of it works. There are questions that we need to deal with. We will come back to you. Part of the guidelines that we are looking to create are to do with what is official policy and what are other statements that are being made. There will be a standard around that. We think that it will be a valuable tool. We expect that we will be judged on it. I take comfort from the fact that an organisation like the Wall Street Journal, after looking at the experiences elsewhere—

Senator ABETZ: If you get it wrong, how do we appeal it?

Mr Scott : We will be held to account for our—

Senator ABETZ: Yes, after the election when it is too late. That is the problem with this.

Mr Scott : It is part of the coverage. We are going to put policies up online. We believe that there will be benefit to come from this. We think that there is desire from a section of our audience—

Senator ABETZ: You—

Mr Scott : to get involved in a more in-depth discussion. This is part of the feedback that we had after 2010. People wanted more focus on policies. This provides a mechanism for doing that.

Senator ABETZ: Will Mr Scott take these, please.

CHAIR: He already indicated that he would.

Mr Scott : Yes, I did.

Senator ABETZ: You have? Thank you very much. Thank you, Chair.

CHAIR: I want to take you through a couple of issues, Mr Scott. The ABC are an independent organisation?

Mr Scott : Yes.

CHAIR: You make the decisions in terms of employment and people allocated to work?

Mr Scott : Absolutely. We are totally independent.

CHAIR: Are you aware of any other broadcasting organisation in the country who does a tweet check before employment?

Mr Scott : No. I have never heard it raised before.

CHAIR: Do you think that this is something for the future?

Mr Scott : As a broad question, this has been raised. It has been more in association with younger people, with the kinds of social media histories that people are spelling out through tweets and Facebook posts and the like. But I have not been cognisant of us doing it.

CHAIR: Mr Skelton has now been the subject of quite a forensic investigation by Senator Abetz. Mr Skelton has just taken the job up, has he?

Mr Scott : Yes, in recent days.

CHAIR: You say that he will be judged on his capacity to undertake the job as described and deliver.

Mr Scott : Like any journalist, he will be judged on the content that he produces and the tests that apply to that—fairness, balance and impartiality—that exist under our editorial policies will apply to him as we everyone else. As we know and have discussed at this committee quite often, we have senior journalists who have worked for the Labor Party. We have senior journalists who have worked for the coalition. We have people who have gone to work as staffers on either side. Their track record and history is not relevant. What is relevant is whether they can do the job and deliver content that is fair, balanced and impartial. That is how Mr Skelton will be judged as well.

CHAIR: In my view, the issues of fairness, balance and impartiality is not something that permeates the media—and not just the ABC; the print media as well.

Mr Scott : There is no doubt that the ABC has more comprehensive and rigorous editorial policies than other media organisations and a self-regulatory framework that exists nowhere else in the Australian media. We take this very seriously. It is part of the responsibility of the board under section 8 of the ABC Act to ensure that our performance is to these editorial standards. That is a key thing that makes the ABC different. Our board is not trying to drive a share price to deliver a profit and a return to shareholders; they are trying to uphold the standards and the accountability that are spelt out in the ABC Act. They are part of the safeguards and part of the reassurance that the public can have around our commitment to those journalistic standards.

CHAIR: My concern with this, as a former union official—if you did not know—is whether Mr Skelton getting a fair go here? I would ask—

Senator Conroy: It was just an attempt to intimidate. It was blatant intimidation.

CHAIR: Given the performance from Senator Abetz, will the politic attacks on Mr Skelton, provided he does his job in the manner that you expect, be a problem for his continued employment?

Mr Scott : We will judge Mr Skelton on his performance. He is a very professional and very experienced journalist. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. I suspect that people will look at the work of that unit and make their judgments accordingly. But he is a very experienced journalist. I am sure that he has been criticised in the past. He will just put his head down and do the best job that he can in these circumstances.

CHAIR: And he will be treated in the same manner as other ABC employees?

Mr Scott : Absolutely.

CHAIR: Good. I hope he joins the union if he is not already a member.

Senator BILYK: I have a couple of questions. I want to go back to the issue of the production unit in Tassie being closed. Do you have a final number on how much the redundancies cost?

Mr Scott : I will get that on notice for you, Senator.

Senator BILYK: Out of all of that, there was going to be one position left. Has that been filled?

Mr Scott : I think so. Again, I will come back to you on that point.

Senator BILYK: Could you take that on notice and let me know. I was wondering whether it had been filled and whether in fact Mr Skelton might be based in Tasmania.

Mr Scott : No, he will not be Tasmanian based.

Senator BILYK: He is not? So that is not that position.

Mr Scott : No. The unit will be—

Senator BILYK: Tassie will gets its own—

Mr Scott : We were creating—

CHAIR: Now we have dragged Senator Abetz into sanity, I think!

Senator BILYK: I was just thinking of the two issues.

Mr Scott : There is a Landline position that we are creating there. I will get you an update on that.

Senator BILYK: Okay. Thank you. In the public hearing of the ABC diversity inquiry in Hobart there was a quite a lot of discussion regarding the large number of hours of BBC programming that appears on the ABC. Given that you have lost the contract with the BBC from July 2014—

Senator Conroy: There will be holes in the schedule.

Senator BILYK: how do you expect to fill the programming void? Do you see it as an opportunity to program more Australian content?

Mr Scott : Yes and no, I think. If you look at the BBC contract, one of the things it has delivered us over the years is a volume of content. We pay quite a lot for that, but it does produce hundreds of hours of content on our schedule over a year. The general rule is—and this is part of the tension, I think, that has underpinned the issues of internal-external production, coproduction and the like—that it is actually a lot cheaper to buy content than it is to make it. We would probably purchase a top-quality British drama for about 25 per cent of what it would cost for us to contribute to making it in Australia. If in fact we were to take that BBC money and put it into domestic content, we are going to have a lot of blank airtime.

That is not to say, though, that we are not looking pretty carefully at the mix of content that we will be making and purchasing and trying to get that right. There might be some increase, but it is not simply a case of taking that BBC money and putting it into domestic production, because we would be way short.

I would say a few things about the BBC contract. I think it is important for people to understand that not all the British content we have shown has been BBC content, so programs that are very popular like Grand Designs, Midsomer Murders and Doc Martin are not covered under this.

Senator Conroy: Doctor Who.

Mr Scott : Doctor Who is, of course, important to the minister. I have assured him that we have the rights for Doctor Who across all time and space—

Senator BILYK: I know the minister would be very upset if that were not the case.

Mr Scott : We have all time and space continuums covered in this market for Doctor Who, so that continues.

Senator Conroy: ABC funding is safe.

Mr Scott : There are a range of independent producers that we can acquire content from, not just in the UK but in other markets in Europe and the US as well. We were disappointed in the BBC's decision and we were disappointed that, after 50 years of being an outstanding distributor of their content for them, making this their strongest market anywhere in the world, we were not even given an opportunity to talk with them about this contract. But they make their decisions—

CHAIR: It wasn't because you knocked back the job, was it?

Mr Scott : No, Senator—

Senator Conroy: I think there was a bit of tit for tat there!

Mr Scott : That is not true, Senator. So we were disappointed. Finally they will come to their judgment as to the kind of audience that will see that content now on pay TV, which has a penetration of about 30 per cent compared to the ABC, which has a penetration of 100 per cent. It will be seen by a smaller audience. We may yet still engage with the BBC around purchasing some of that content for a second run, but we are unsure about that at the moment.

But we are confident there is a lot of content out there. Television, of all the entertainment sectors, is very vibrant. There is great content coming out of the US and Europe, and the content that is working best for us, that we get the strongest response from, is our Australian content. The new drama telemovie that we are rolling out, Cliffy, had great audiences when we showed it on Sunday night. So our priority is the Australian content and we want to do as much as we can afford to do whilst filling our schedule.

Senator BILYK: So you are not going to have just half-hour episodes of blank air?

Mr Scott : No. There will be television on, I can assure you of that.

Senator BILYK: Can you tell me a bit more about ABC's digital platforms and what they have to offer people.

Mr Scott : Absolutely. This was an important part of the triennial funding that was delivered by the government in this budget. Part of that funding was to provide money for the online delivery of our digital content.

Senator BILYK: How much did you get for that?

Mr Scott : We got $30 million over three years. I think this was an anachronism, really, in our funding model. We had been always funded for radio distribution and television distribution. They are the big towers that you see that allow us to beam it out so everyone can hear the radio and see the television, but we had never been funded for digital delivery—and the growth in digital delivery is very large, very significant, for us. That is delivery of content on our websites, our apps and our online services like iView. iView is a good example: iView plays are up 86 per cent in the last 12 months—and it is not just Senator Conroy, either; others are watching it as well.

Senator BILYK: Senator Bilyk as well.

Senator Conroy: I am not all of that. There are only so many episodes of Doctor Who you can watch.

Mr Scott : Yes indeed. But what has really been very significant about that is that it is only a little over a year ago that we put iView out on tablets and mobile phones, and now the traffic we are getting on mobile represents well over 50 per cent of the iView traffic. So, as we see the growth of smart phones ever increasing—60 per cent going through 70 per cent, and 90 per cent in two years time—we just know that more and more of our audience are going to be wanting to consume our content on mobile phones and on tablets. There is a significant cost that goes behind that, and this funding helps us to meet that demand.

There are other things we want to be able to do. We have an Android app for iView in development. We have further services we want to be able to deliver. The public want us to be able to increase the bit rate. One of the interesting challenges of this is that you can improve the services you are delivering, but what we are also trying to manage is just how fast that demand take-up is as well. So we will try to balance that budget well. We are very grateful for the funding that has been provided. We think it is a very important moment for our audiences. We have been real leaders in Australian broadcasting in this digital space, and this will allow us to maintain that leadership.

Senator BILYK: I just want to go back again to the position in Tassie—that one position.

Mr Scott : Yes.

Senator BILYK: If the position has not yet been filled, or the person has not yet started, can you give me a time line in your response as to what that might be.

Mr Scott : We will come back to you on notice.

Senator SINGH: Last time we were together I asked you whether the ABC was centralising film archive footage in Tasmania.

Mr Scott : Yes.

Senator SINGH: You said that you had to take that on notice. I have now received the answer to question No. 7, which actually shows that the ABC started centralising its film archive at least five years ago.

Mr Scott : Yes, that is right.

Senator SINGH: I am amazed that you had to take that on notice last time, that you were not aware of the centralising of ABC's film archive footage, which started in 2008. That is quite amazing.

Mr Scott : Senator—

Senator SINGH: I have not got to the question yet. Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne—there is none in Canberra or Darwin—have been and are being centralised to Sydney. Now that we know Tasmania is, why have you decided to centralise film archives in Sydney? Surely the rent in Sydney would be higher than any one of the regions where the ABC has a presence, such as Tasmania, WA or South Australia. Why is everything outside of Sydney and Melbourne being dismantled and taken back to the ABC in Sydney?

Mr Scott : Mr Pendleton manages this area. I think he is the appropriate person to answer your question.

Mr Pendleton : The film archive has been brought back to Sydney because of the very nature of the content itself. The film in particular requires—

Senator SINGH: I know that. But why does it have to be in Sydney? That same climatically controlled environment and all the necessities for storing film footage, and I can understand is a very particular operation to do so, could happen anywhere. It does not have to happen in Sydney.

Mr Pendleton : But the ABC's facilities for our film archive were built in Sydney, back in 2002. The vaults on our level 3 archive services, specifically designed to manage our film, were designed into that building. The equipment to convert that film to digital format resides in Sydney and nowhere else within the country.

Senator SINGH: Because you have chosen to make it in Sydney. That is what my question is. Why?

Mr Pendleton : It was always in Sydney.

Senator SINGH: But in 2002 nothing had been centralised.

Mr Scott : But in 2002 most of the material was in Sydney. There was more in Sydney than anywhere else. A building was commissioned—

Senator SINGH: I don't know about that. If you add up all the regions.

Mr Scott : There was some in many states but none in Canberra and Darwin. But a very significant asset was held in Sydney. A new building and facility was being built in Sydney and a decision was made to make the capital investment there. The decision then having been made, and Sydney being able to hold the entire facility, it would be duplicative to replicate that around all the states. If the facility was there in Sydney, not to use it in that way would I think be a questionable use of the assets. That is why the call has been made. There have been broadcasters around the world, including the ABC, that have not treated their film archive well. There has been deterioration and content has been lost. We have had difficulties with this in the past. That is why this strategy has been in place. It is only the film. I was in Tasmania only last week and there is other significant archival content that remains in Tasmania, including a lot of the news footage. Some of that stuff will be digitised over time to make it accessible by our staff anywhere. But where are we going to keep the perishable film content and digitise it? That is Sydney.

Mr Pendleton : The centralisation of this film makes the content available to program makers down in Tasmania, whereas—

Senator SINGH: I am not denying any of that. I am asking why it has to be centralised in Sydney. Are you aware of this view of the ABC being an organisation that is based out of Sydney. In fact, it is known as—

Mr Scott : There is a tension that we have to try to manage. I understand that. I have visited—

Senator SINGH: Are you aware of that, Mr Scott.

Mr Scott : I have visited every state and territory capital of the ABC in the last six weeks. I talk with staff. Am I aware of that perception, from time to time? Yes. I am also aware of the tension that we have a responsibility to be efficient and effective. So if in fact there is this facility in Sydney that was planned and built over a decade ago, then to be efficient and effective and say you have to put it in one place—it would probably be negligent of us not to use the facility that is there.

In our discussion, do we look for opportunities to deploy staff or groups of staff outside Sydney and Melbourne? Yes, we do. In fact, important services are delivered out of Adelaide: our payroll and financial services staff operate from there. Part of our international broadcast team operates out of Adelaide. So we do look for that kind of opportunity. But there are efficiencies that come with centralisation, as well. So holding that tension is I think a unique challenge for us as a public broadcaster.

We clearly do not centralise everywhere. We have 60 local radio bases out there. But we do try to find a balance between efficient use of resources and also recognising that we are a national broadcaster.

Senator SINGH: With the recent closure of the whole Tas production unit, how much of the file footage that would have been located there has been archived to Sydney, and how much has not been?

Mr Scott : Does the content of the final paragraph answer your question: 3,700 cans are moving to Sydney and Hobart archives still house and manage the 9,109 videotapes in the collection, the digital archive of one-inch tapes and the news service, as well? So some has gone to Sydney but a significant amount still remains in Hobart. Just the film has gone, not the videotape.

Senator SINGH: I am talking about film.

Mr Scott : The film has gone. All the film is coming into one place.

Senator SINGH: Was any film thrown out during the closure of the production unit?

Mr Pendleton : No, I am not aware of any film being thrown out.

Senator SINGH: Could you take that on notice?

Mr Pendleton : Yes.

Senator SINGH: How was the closure of the production unit handled.

Mr Scott : I think we have discussed this. There was—

Senator SINGH: How was it dismantled? What happened?

Mr Scott : Are you talking physically or about the staff?

Senator SINGH: Physically.

Mr Pendleton : The movement of the tape?

Senator SINGH: What happened to everything?

Mr Scott : I was there last week. There are some empty edit suites at the moment. We are looking at how that facility is best used. Some of that facility was at end of life. Other parts of it will be redeployed and used for spares. The operations unit is currently working through that now.

Senator SINGH: What happened to the editing suite?

Mr Scott : The editing suite is still there at the moment. As I was briefed on it last week, we are looking through to see. I got the impression that some of that edit suite will be moved elsewhere in the country, but it is largely at its end of life and it might be used for spares, I think—

Mr Pendleton : Spares.

Senator SINGH: I presume the ABC has some kind of strategy when it closes down parts of its operation, whether it happened in WA or in Tasmania, and you would seek to ensure that things are done in a systematic way so that certain file footage, for example, that is of value I am sure to the ABC, and certainly to the broader community, is looked after, filed and archived in the appropriate way.

Mr Pendleton : If you are talking about the technical equipment of the facilities itself—the edit suites that are down there—by and large most of that equipment is at end of life. It will be—

Senator SINGH: What do you do when it is at end of life? Do you throw it out?

Mr Scott : If there were still production there it would be part of the capital replenishment process as we went through and refreshed the facilities. Those facilities will not be refreshed. Because of extending the life of our kit the way we do, we will take a lot of that stuff and use it for spares in other facilities around the country.

Senator SINGH: Can you provide the committee with details of what happened with the closure of that unit, and whether things were taken as spares.

Mr Pendleton : I do not think we have taken anything out of there yet, but it is certainly being considered.

Senator SINGH: Mr Scott was there last week. I think he would know what it looks like.

Mr Scott : People were working on that last week when I was there. I was told that, as Mr Pendleton said, a lot of that equipment was at end of life and that—

Senator SINGH: But even if something is at end of life you do not necessarily throw it out.

Mr Scott : No.

Mr Pendleton : No.

Senator SINGH: It could be used for community broadcasting, radio and what have you. It is not necessarily at the complete end of life.

Mr Pendleton : We re-purpose it.

Mr Scott : And we often try to re-purpose it. We can give you the detail around that. The work around that planning was going on when I was there last week.

Senator SINGH: I would like the details. That would be great.

Mr Scott : Yes.

Senator SINGH: Getting back to something Senator Bilyk was talking about, which is the very disappointing loss of the BBC contract to Foxtel. Obviously there are BBC programs that you will lose now, like In the Thick of It and Silent Witness and the like. You obviously have this new triennial funding.

Mr Scott : Yes.

Senator SINGH: You now have a hole with some of these BBC programs that will not be aired on ABC, which is disappointing for some viewers I am sure. There is an opportunity here is there not for there to be more Australian content to be aired now that you have to fill this with something? Or are you just aiming to fill it with more British or European content from elsewhere, because I think I heard you say to Senator Bilyk in your answer that there was no thought about your actually looking at Australian content to fill this.

Mr Scott : That is not what I said. I said that we are looking at the mix. I said that there is a difficulty, though, given that on ABC1 we have I think 250 hours to fill. Given the money we paid for the BBC contract and given that Australian production is much more expensive than purchasing content that is made elsewhere, we have a problem to solve. We have a problem in that we have to fill the schedule and we do not have more money available to fill the schedule, so there will be this sweet spot there. This is an issue that our new director of television, who starts on Monday, will be addressing, but I have discussed it with the television executive and the acting head of television now.

We are open to the prospect that there might be some more programs that we could commission but the fundamental challenge we face is not our levels of Australian production. We have had a very significant increase, say, in the levels of Australian drama in recent years, thanks to the funding provided by the government. It is now 80 hours of new Australian drama, up from 20 hours just a couple of years ago. The challenge is that if in fact you just try to do more of that, if you try to replace Call the Midwife with an Australian drama like that then the money you have spent on the BBC contract is not going to go very far and you are going to have scheduling problems.

Senator Bilyk wanted an assurance that there was not going to be blank time on the television. We have to fill it, so I would hope that we would be able to do some Australian production, but the vast majority of that money will go on—

Senator Conroy: VFL, Tassie Football League.

Senator SINGH: That is a very good example, Minister.

Senator Conroy: You could show more of the doggies. The doggies are still in the AFL, aren't they?

Mr Scott : The vast majority of it will go on acquisitions, because that is how we can make our schedule work.

Senator SINGH: You may have to take my next question on notice. How much does the ABC currently spend on BBC programs?

Mr Scott : This contract was worth around $15 million per annum.

Senator SINGH: The ABC was spending $15 million per annum on BBC programs?

Mr Scott : Yes.

Senator SINGH: And you are saying that it is going to be too costly to fill the gaps—

Mr Scott : I am saying that that was delivering hundreds and hundreds of hours of content.

Senator SINGH: Sometimes there are re-runs as well.

Mr Scott : But that is how the schedule comes together. An hour of quality Australian drama, just with us paying a licence fee, costs about $450,000 an hour. A program like Cliffy, which we showed last Sunday night, costs much more than that. So that eats into your $15 million very quickly, and we have hundreds of hours of content we need to fill.

We have spent about $240 million on television, of which about $35 or $40 million is on acquisitions. The rest is on our making and creating things. That $35 to $40 million we spend on acquisitions provides hundreds and hundreds of hours of content. If in fact you were just trying to replace that with Australian content you would need three, four, five or six times as much money as we are currently paying on the BBC contract to fill that gap. So it is a problem we want to solve.

Our instinct, I want to assure you, is that given the chance and the opportunity—with the exception of Dr Who for the minister!—our aim is to do as much Australian content as we can possibly do, given the budgets we operate under.

Senator SINGH: I think it is your charter. It should not just be your aim—it is called the ABC, not the BBC.

Mr Scott : The charter talks about programming of wide appeal and specialist interest. ABC television has been on-air now for more than 55 years. In every one of those 55 years international content has been a part of the service we have delivered and it has been very popular with the Australian public. I am pleased to say, though—and this is one of the things I would say about the BBC contract—it would have been a decade ago that some of our very top rating programs came out of the BBC contract. That is now no longer the case, I think. Some of our most popular international programs do not come from that contract, but some of our most popular, highest-rating programs are ones that we make at the ABC or commission at the ABC. There is a great thirst for quality Australian content, which we are helping to meet. We need to find many hours of programming with the absence of the BBC contract, but it is not as though we have lost programs that we view as the crown jewels. Our crown jewels are our Australian content in this era.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Firstly, I want to deal with the principles. Senator Abetz dealt with some of the points of detail around things like fact-checker and Vote Compass. Fact Checker purports basically to decide on what is or is not factually correct, and in doing so will deal with often contentious matters. Vote Compass will purport essentially to tell people which party they best align with once they have answered a few questions—

Senator Conroy: Christian Kerr has already left. You have missed the story—it has gone to print—

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Don't these types of activities risk the credibility and the reputation of the ABC. Aren't these the type of activities that are better left to commercial enterprises that can blatantly—

Senator Conroy: Let's let The Australian do a fact check—

Senator BIRMINGHAM: take a side if they want to, because that is their commercial right. It is not the ABC's commercial right—

Senator Conroy: That is true. The Australian has a right to be the Liberal Party's cheer squad—

Senator BIRMINGHAM: and the ABC should be protecting its reputation at all times. Isn't this an unnecessary risk for the ABC?

Mr Scott : That is an interesting question. I think it is one we have considered. We have looked at this at an executive level and, also, both of these factors have been considered by the board. I would say on fact-checking that we view this as complement to a lot of the other work we are doing. As I said earlier, the ABC has been the absolute leader in social media. I think by creating News24 we have helped add to the frenzy that can be the 24-hour news cycle. Assertions can be made very quickly and distributed very widely in this time in a very short period of time. With the amount of spin, online commentary and claim and counter-claim that there is out there, often around what is truthful, what are the facts, we thought that there was a benefit for our audience that would come to bear by having a specialist team that we could put to one side and, when the audience really does not know which way is up around some of these things, because of all the contesting claims around what the facts actually show, to have an independent group that actually goes and looks at the facts and reads the reports to provide some analysis. Some people have said to me on this, 'Isn't this what journalists are meant to be doing anyway?' And of course they do. Our long-form current affairs teams are doing this kind of work. But we felt it was an important addition in the news service we are providing to have a specialist team to do this. I say to you that we will do it in an ABC way that will be quite different to some of the other fact-checking operations that are going to go on out there that—

Senator Conroy: I could be accurate—as opposed to the one going at the moment!

Mr Scott : the commercial broadcasters might develop. We will be far more accountable for the work of that than any other organisation because of the accountability mechanisms that are built into the ABC. But, if you are asking whether in fact—

Senator BIRMINGHAM: And when somebody takes issue—

Senator Conroy: I can understand why you are terrified of a fact-checking operation.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: with the determination of the facts by the ABC fact checker, the ABC will be dragged into a debate over the issues and the position the ABC has taken on the issue rather than the ABC simply reporting what other people have said.

Senator Conroy: The job is not just to report what Malcolm Turnbull said. I know it happens a lot, but that is not its job.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: This will be the ABC taking a position on the facts.

Mr Scott : I would say to you to look at Four Corners over 50 years. Four Corners through its investigative reporting has attempted to dig into deep and complex issues and to find the kernel of truth in those issues. As Four Corners has done that there are some people who have taken exception to that, but that is the nature of journalism. The nature of journalism is not simply to say he said this and she said this; it is an attempt to dig and to discover where the truth lies. I think part of the risk of the 24-hour news cycle is that we simply retreat to he said, she said, one the one hand, on the other hand element. There is some of that reporting that goes on in the 24-hour news cycle, and we do that too.

Senator Conroy: Extensively.

Mr Scott : But is there a role for digging? I simply say, to provide you wish some reassurance, is that it is not just that a judgement is reached but that the thinking, rationale and facts behind that are then accrued. I expect that there will from time to time be debate around that, and let that debate happen, but I can tell you there is debate around our programming all the time. We do not always with a Four Corners, a Lateline, a 7:30 or a background briefing seek the path of no controversy; we seek the path of good, robust journalism. That is why there might be some risk in execution. There is risk in execution with a lot of what we do. We are confident that, with a good team, good leadership and good policies, we should be able to execute it well.

Similarly, around Vote Compass: we thought very seriously about this. We talked with academics around the world. We looked at how it had rolled out everywhere. I felt that, after the 2010 campaign, where there was very serious criticism of the way the 24-hour news cycle dominated all levels of media coverage and the thirst there seemed to be from some in our audience to dive deeper and engage with policy, we needed to look for some mechanisms that enabled that. There was some controversy around the CBC element, but that was an early rollout. The model has been fine-tuned since then. I really think that, if it were endemically biased against the right as Senator Abetz had suggested, there is no way an organisation like The Wall Street Journal would have embraced it, endorsed it and used it in the US campaign.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: That sort of makes my point there. That is a matter for the judgement of a private-sector organisation to decide how they want to play a card.

Mr Scott : I am saying that, when we do the risk management of it, we have looked at the experience elsewhere. Is there benefit for providing opportunities for some members of the audience who want to engage more substantively around policy issues? We think there is.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: You do not need to give them a compass or a guide at the end of the day to engage more substantively on policy issues. There are many ways you could provide deeper coverage of policy without saying, 'And, by the way, that's where you stack up in how you should vote.'

Senator Conroy: If any ordinary Australian says, 'I want to work out which party will deliver a real NBN,' the obvious vote pendulum is very simple. That vote compass will point to the Labor Party. It is just that simple. If an ordinary bloke goes, 'I support the NBN,' it will just point straight at the Labor Party.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Nobody could undermine your case than the guy sitting to your right, Mr Scott.

Mr Scott : I can assure you that Vote Compass is not going to—

Senator Conroy: Straight at the Labor Party.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Is that how Vote Compass is going to work?

CHAIR: Order!

Mr Scott : Vote Compass in the incarnation that we are rolling out does not tell people how to vote.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: To a different issue quickly: how many times has Radio Australia's signal into Asia been jammed over the last 12 months?

Mr Scott : I would have to check on that. My experience on this here and also in other media outlets is that signals or website can go down or disappear from time to time and then come back. We are given no notice when they go down and we are given no notice when they come back. It is a mystery to us in some respects.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Is there a level of frequency?

Mr Scott : No. I would say it is at best from time to time.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: What does 'from time to time' mean?

Mr Scott : Two or three times I can recall over recent years. Often it emerges as a transmission issue. This is short wave.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Was there an issue earlier this year?

Mr Scott : There was an issue this year. For a period of time it went down and then came back.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: How long a period of time?

Mr Scott : Ten days or two weeks—something like that. I can check that and put it on notice.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Ten days or two weeks is a rather long period of time to have your signal down.

Mr Scott : Yes, but, as I recall, there were numbers of international broadcasters whose radio signals could not be heard in China for a period of time. We were simply aware that ours came back.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: The BBC said at the time that these actions were indicative of a well-resourced country such as China. Is that something the ABC shares?

Mr Scott : We do not know a great deal about it. I think that, clearly, the ability to block websites or to block short-wave transmission shows a level of technological capability. We can make our assumptions on what has caused that even though I do not think it is always straightforward to know what a particular trigger was for that level of intervention.

CHAIR: It could have been Menzies House!

Senator BIRMINGHAM: We wouldn't be blocking the signal into China though!

Senator Conroy: No, you'd just be installing someone's equipment!

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Mr Scott, you and Mr Spiegelman were in China a couple of months after the nearly two weeks of signal blocking. Did you raise the issue with any authorities in China?

Mr Scott : It did not specifically feature in our discussions. We had been looking—and did—to sign a number of memoranda of understanding with Chinese broadcasters, which creates opportunities for our radio and television content to go to far broader audiences in China. There were formal and informal discussions around and ease of distribution of content. The strategy that we have pursued over a number of years has been around getting landing rights for Australia Network. One of the things we are now working more extensively on is delivering blocks of our content to be delivered on Chinese broadcasters. Mr Spiegelman and I went to a location north of Beijing where ABC Children's Television is doing a joint production with Central China Television. I expect that, when that program lands, it will instantly find an audience far greater than any Australian television program made in the 50-plus years of television in the country. So that was the focus of the planning of that meeting.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Surely there are pretty limited prospects of getting landing rights for the Australia Network in China if in recent times they have been blocking the Radio Australia signal for up to two weeks.

Mr Scott : You put a deep science and strategy to it. I would simply say that the BBC's radio service was not available in China for that time but BBC Television does have landing rights. So one does not necessarily follow the other at all.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Okay. Last issue: is Mr Ross still covering technology issues for the ABC?

Senator Conroy: Oh, here we go!

Mr Scott : He is the editor of the technology and games section, yes.

Senator Conroy: Malcolm's intimidation continues to work at full. I am glad to see you are just his pawn.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: In response to some of Mr Ross's writings Media Watch looked at this matter on 11 March. Mr Bruce Belsham, head of ABC Current Affairs—

Senator Conroy: Keep running the intimidation routine.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: was quoted as 'having discussed with Mr Ross the importance of providing a diversity of perspectives and the importance of analysis being underpinned by accurate information. He is aware of the need to ensure this.'

Senator Conroy: He has been, and the truth hurts.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Has he been counselled by ABC management?

Mr Scott : I understand there were discussions with him on his editing of the site.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: Has he been counselled on more than one occasion?

Mr Scott : I am not sure of the specifics of it. I would say that he reports into a line of the news division, so I imagine there is ongoing discussion on the performance of the site and an ongoing discussion around his editing of the site. That is the kind of editorial oversight that exists around every program for every editor.

Senator Conroy: Stop trying to intimidating him out of fact checking the proof of what fraudband Malcolm Turnbull is offering to the Australian public. Just keep going, Senator Birmingham. You used to actually believe in a few things, but clearly intimidation of ABC staff is high on your list.

Senator BIRMINGHAM: I believe you are an idiot. Honestly, this is the most unprofessional conduct I have seen by a minister in any of these estimates over the three days.

Senator Conroy: You just sit there and keep intimidating ABC journalists on Malcolm's behalf, and you want to talk about professional conduct?

Senator BIRMINGHAM: What is intimidating about what I have asked? I quoted Media Watch, and Mr Scott confirmed the guy is being counselled. Honestly!

CHAIR: Okay—

Senator Conroy: Malcolm with the glass jaw. The truth really hurts.

CHAIR: Order, Senator Conroy!

Senator BIRMINGHAM: You are the precious one here, mate.

CHAIR: Senator Birmingham, you should note bite. You know what happens. Senator Williams.

Senator WILLIAMS: Thank you, chair. Mr Scott, I asked some time ago if ABC television would ever consider reintroducing a northern New South Wales bulletin each evening. Did that ever make any progress? I think you said at the time it was something worth considering.

Mr Scott : What I think I indicated to you at the time was that fast broadband and digital media gives more opportunity for us to distribute local video news conference and find audiences with it.

Senator Conroy: Except under their plan, to correct you. If you are going to use the copper, it is really going to struggle.

Mr Scott : I think the prospect is of us being able to use digital television spectrum to do that and to break it in for part of the state. Over time, there will be more localised video content. One of the things we were funded for in the budget was for more state based current affairs coverage. We are keen that we get the local news element right and deliver it to the biggest audience that we can.

Senator WILLIAMS: Good. Disregard Senator Conroy; of late, when the Sydney Swans have been thrashing Collingwood, he gets very much on edge and quite intolerant!

Senator Conroy: It is all right; he's got me there! I'll have to shut up for at least five minutes now!

Senator WILLIAMS: Is the ABC going to broadcast from a tally room at the federal election?

Mr Scott : We are still working on that. It is a very interesting question.

Senator WILLIAMS: I notice some of the commercial channels will not be.

Mr Scott : We want to deliver the best service we can for audiences. We traditionally get a very big audience on election night. Some of the state elections have moved away from the tally room. I think the last leader to appear in the tally room goes back 20-plus years, so we will look at that and review that over time. We will let people know when we have come to a final decision.

Senator WILLIAMS: On the election issue: ABC regional radio services is compelled to keep an accurate log of political stories they run after the writs are issued—in other words, to see the balance on the record.

Mr Scott : Yes. We debate about it and still record share of voice, but the other thing we do is keep a log or diary of where offers for interviews were made, because sometimes share of voice can get out of kilter because one party or another does not want to be interviewed or want to appear on air. So we keep a pretty comprehensive log of those matters.

Senator WILLIAMS: If someone lodged a complaint if they thought someone was being biased, how do they complain and how speedily is that complaint dealt with bearing in mind the election would be just around the corner?

Mr Scott : We do significant monitoring of our election campaign. You will see on our website that we have good processes for people to lodge complaints. There is a 60-day window, but I appreciate that, if there were a contentious issue during an election campaign, we would try to fast-track some of that.

Senator WILLIAMS: On another issue, earlier this month the ABC suspended rugby league caller David Morrow for alleged racist comments before a game although that suspension has now been lifted. Was there no-one on the studio panel in the broadcast who could have cut the remarks before they went to air? Have you inquired into that?

Mr Scott : There was clearly a difficulty in the communication about that. He was live on air. The way that radio operates, we go in to delay when we are dealing with the public. There is a seven-second delay and there is somebody there ready to press the dump button on that. But often our broadcasts are not in delay.

CHAIR: I wish we could do that in Senate estimates.

Mr Scott : In fact, when our broadcasters are on air they are not in delay. We go into delay for that part so that is why we could not have done anything.

Senator WILLIAMS: I think they are looking at a 14-second delay when they interview Senator Conroy. How many complaints did you receive and what was the nature of those complaints about Mr Morrow?

Mr Scott : I would have to take the tally on notice. There were a number of concerns raised and I can get the precise number.

Senator WILLIAMS: Could you also get the comments in support of Mr Morrow.

Mr Scott : I think I should add that the investigation is now complete. Mr Morrow has accepted these actions were in breach of the editorial policies, the code of conduct and the ABC values. He has apologised for that. There have been some consequences that have been noted for that. They will work their way out.

Senator WILLIAMS: I am of the opinion he is very popular. He has apologised. He is the best radio rugby league caller you have. And now he is banned from calling NRL finals and State of Origin matches. I suppose we all say things in life we wish we had not at some stage. Would it be considered at some time in the future that David Morrow would be back calling NRL finals and State of Origin matches?

Mr Scott : As I understand it, that is for this year.

Senator WILLIAMS: So he may be back next year?

Mr Scott : Yes, that is right.

CHAIR: Senator Williams, could you have a talk to Senator Abetz about that set of values?

Senator WILLIAMS: Yes I could. I would like to hear him even call some AFL when the Swans are thrashing Collingwood again.

Senator McKENZIE: Mr Scott, I have questions about how well resourced you feel the ABC is to deliver that high-quality service. Would you say you are pretty well resourced?

Mr Scott : We get given a lot of money but we do a lot with it. We can compare the volume of our output across domestically four television networks, five radio networks, a host of digital radio services and other online services such as iview. I think we represent great value for money.

Senator McKENZIE: I think regional Australia would agree. Are there any areas you would consider understaffed in the organisation?

Mr Scott : I am sure if you spoke to our staff they could identify many areas they feel are understaffed. We try to manage this well. Broadly, a significant point is I saw some figures a little while ago that said the ABC has 25 per cent fewer staff than it had 25 years ago. If you compare the ABC now to 25 years ago, with less money in real terms, with far fewer staff we create far more content.

Senator McKENZIE: You do. I am just conscious of time. I only have you for eight minutes and I have already put a lot on notice. I appreciate that workplace has changed in 25 years.

Mr Scott : What we try and do is manage the workload of our staff so that with we are managing the output to the staff that we have. If we had more staff and more dollars we would be able to create more output and invest it in programming.

Senator McKENZIE: I want to be clear, from a management perspective, there are no significant issues of understaffing either in geographies or in areas within the organisation?

Mr Scott : I can come back to you on notice on it. I think all our divisional heads would like more staff. I think all our production teams would like more staff, but we manage best we can. The issue that remains a challenge for us—the minister is across this and aware of this—is around capital. We are conscience that to be the kind of broadcaster we are now in a digital era puts very significant demands on our capital budget. We are concerned that we need more capital funding to fund the footprint of local radio stations and the eight state territory capitals that we put out. We have had independent reports that have validated that. That is a matter we raised with the previous government, we have raised with this government and we will continue to raise in our budgetary negotiations.

Senator McKENZIE: I am taking it out of the PBS that you have got an average staff of 4,542. Could you let me know on notice—unless you can get it quickly—how many staff are employed in the 51 regional radio stations.

Mr Scott : We will take that on notice, yes.

Senator McKENZIE: I would also like a breakdown of full-time, part-time and casual. For those casuals, I would like the average number of hours worked per week.

Mr Scott : We will get a team to work on that.

Senator McKENZIE: I am sure the statistics will be somewhere quite easy to find. In the regional radio context, when you are delivering this diverse, high-quality service what happens when you cannot staff your local radio stations—in times of staff going on holidays, for instance, or sickness or accidents?

Mr Scott : What we will sometimes do is just broaden the footprint of where the broadcast goes, so sometimes an adjoining local radio station's program will go across. One area I would say we are watching and we are concerned about is the increased demand that emergency broadcasting has brought to the ABC over the last decade. I think it is true to say that there was not a weekend from the beginning of November to the end of March that we were not emergency broadcasting somewhere in the country. Of course this hits us at the peak of summer, which is a time when a lot of our staff are normally away. There seem to be more emergencies, and those emergencies are declared earlier, and this has put us under significant pressure, particularly in radio and in regional radio—remote areas as well.

Senator McKENZIE: Can you talk us through what broadening your footprint looks like on the ground?

Mr Scott : I will give you an example from New South Wales of how it works every night. The local radio program out of 702 Sydney also goes to 1233 Newcastle, 666 Canberra and all through New South Wales. What may happen if someone is away, and we cannot get a replacement in or the budget is particularly tight, is that a local radio station on, say, the mid-north coast of Queensland would go into Far North Queensland and the broadcaster would know that they are travelling all that way and their program would be tailored accordingly. We flex that way quite often. We have national programs on local radio, we have state-wide programs and we have programs that go into more than one local radio area.

Senator McKENZIE: Yes, I understand that in the evenings that tends to happen.

Mr Scott : And it will sometimes happen at breakfast or morning.

Senator McKENZIE: You said budgets are tight. Could you flesh that out?

Mr Scott : For example, emergency broadcasting is expensive. We can bring in extra staff, we can bring staff in from leave, we have to fly them around—that comes out of the radio budget. If there is no more money in the radio budget for that, sometimes Mr Pendleton provides supplementation but sometimes we have to make these budgets work.

Senator McKENZIE: I am assuming that is program 1.1 on page 64. What proportion of the radio budget is dedicated to or has been spent, maybe in the last 12 months, on emergency broadcasting? You are saying it comes out of that?

Mr Pendleton : Yes.

Mr Scott : It comes out of that. Sometimes there is additional money that we have had to provide quarterly to top it up.

Senator McKENZIE: I would like to see over time, since you have had that increased responsibility, what impact that has had on your budget bottom line.

Mr Scott : Yes, we are happy to provide that.

Senator McKENZIE: In terms of how often you have had to increase your footprint—and I am thinking particularly of morning radio in regional areas specifically, not Tony Delroy into Bendigo—

Mr Scott : There is no bigger footprint than Tony Delroy.

Senator McKENZIE: You are not telling me anything I do not already know! How often does that occur?

Mr Scott : I am sure we can give you a sense of that.

Senator McKENZIE: Mackay residents waking up to Mount Isa and Bendigo waking up to Ballarat might seem quite close together when you have got the big map, but they are very distinct communities with very diverse needs. In the ABC's desire to grow their digital footprint and the different technologies they are using to communicate their news to us, it is very important to remember that you do not just operate in your five city metropolitan markets. Your greatest percentage of listeners are in regional Australia and they deserve to get a quality service.

CHAIR: We have run out of time, Senator.

Senator McKENZIE: I look forward to getting your answers. If there are 30 seconds, I have direct representation from a member in my party room who is most concerned about spending public money—

CHAIR: But Senator Abetz is already here!

Senator McKENZIE: No, actually, this is a true Bourke-ian representation moment. I would like to know the amount of public money that has been spent on the program Minuscule.

Mr Scott : It is an acquisition.

Senator McKENZIE: It is and it is a French program.

Mr Scott : No program divides our audience more with passionate supporters and those who detest it. Which category does your question come from?

Senator McKENZIE: I cannot tell you that, but please note: there are seven credit slides in what is less than a five-minute program.

Mr Scott : Animation does that. I thank you for—

Senator McKENZIE: Details of the cost of this French program in public dollars would be appreciated.

Mr Scott : Yes, Senator.

Senator McKENZIE: And also an explanation of why your major presenters—your big names; your Tony Joneses of the world—are on salary packages.

CHAIR: Mr Scott, you should take that on notice. I am glad the National Party are interested in Minuscule—I am not surprised.

Committee Suspended from 21:02 to 21:22