The expense came out of the broadcasters’ fixed budgets, with the combined funding for the ABC and SBS in the 2017 financial year, including general operations and transmission expenses, totalling $1.43 billion.
An ABC spokeswoman said the broadcaster did “everything possible to limit the impact on our audiences and content” though was unable to say whether the expense affected programming.
The government’s cost totalled about $495,000 which, in addition to employing Ernst & Young to review the cost allocation and pricing practices of SBS and ABC, paid for a PricewaterhouseCoopers report into the broadcast media landscape. This did not take into account staffing costs within government.
The public broadcasters are still awaiting the outcome of an efficiency review, which was announced in the 2018 federal budget alongside a freeze on the indexation of the ABC’s budget until 2022 amounting to cuts of $84 million.
The scrutiny on competitive tensions with the public broadcasters came about as part of government negotiations with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party to secure historic media reforms in 2017 that paved the way for a $3 billion merger between Fairfax Media and Nine Entertainment Co last year.
The ABC and SBS were cleared by the government review in December, which found no evidence to support claims from media companies (including Fairfax Media, former owner of this newspaper) that commercial rivals were damaged by funds being used by the ABC to boost traffic on Google search, or that large proportions of SBS-produced food content wasn’t charter-aligned.
Communications Minister Mitch Fifield has said the government is not intending to take any action in response to the inquiry’s findings.
As part of its spending the ABC commissioned a report from RBB Economics and submitted a 263-page document on 29 June covering the broadcaster’s entertainment, news and investigations content, regulatory neutrality, background and charter, and separately submitted answers to questions posed by the panel.
The SBS made a 174-page submission on 22 June including a Deloitte Access Economics report.
A spokeswoman for the SBS said the broadcaster “expects scrutiny and we participate in reviews as required from time to time”.
“This review was an opportunity to demonstrate our effectiveness and compliance with our obligations,” she said.
ABC chief financial and strategy officer Louise Higgins told Senate Estimates in October that the broadcaster’s response to the inquiry was “very thorough and very exhaustive over a number of months”.
“It did involve staff from our legal, finance, strategy and government relations teams,” Ms Higgins said.
“We did call upon external resource, as published in our competitive neutrality submission. We used an economics firm to help demonstrate the value that the ABC brought to the commercial market—that it in fact enhanced it via its presence.”
Submissions to the inquiry were made by major media companies including Fairfax Media, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp Australia, commercial television lobby group Free TV (whose members include Nine, Seven West Media, Network Ten, Southern Cross Austereo, Prime Media Group, Imparja and Bruce Gordon’s WIN Network) and radio industry body Commercial Radio Australia (representatives from Southern Cross, Macquarie Media, Lachlan Murdoch’s NOVA Entertainment and Australian Radio Network are among the board members).
The outcome of the inquiry has been criticised by Free TV.
Jennifer Duke is a media and telecommunications journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.