Fears federal government will stack ABC and SBS boards

The federal government wants more business hard-heads on the ABC and SBS boards to drive tough savings decisions and rein in the ABC's digital expansion.

The appointment of conservative columnist Janet Albrechtsen and former deputy Liberal leader Neil Brown to the panel overseeing ABC and SBS board appointments this week sparked fears the government was preparing to stack the board with partisan appointments.

On Friday Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull distanced himself from the appointments of Dr Albrechtsen and Mr Brown as he acknowledged concerns about political influence, but said the nomination panel for ABC and SBS boards was appointed by Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet boss Ian Watt. ''You have to assume that Dr Watt chose Neil Brown and Janet Albrechtsen in his own discretion," Mr Turnbull told ABC radio.

''I was not consulted nor was it the intention of the legislation that the minister for communications should be consulted on the membership of the panel.''

Senior government sources pointed out that the Coalition had learnt from the Howard years in which Coalition-aligned figures were controversially appointed to the ABC and SBS boards but had little success driving cultural change.

''They [the ABC] don't fear an Albrechtsen or a [Keith] Windschuttle on the board; what they fear is someone coming in and toe-cutting,'' a senior source said. ''Both sides of politics have over the decades waged ideological fights at the board table - the real battle is not ideology, it's about how they spend the scarce resources they get from government.

''They need to be leaner and more efficient, get back to their charter and look at how much they spend abroad.''

SBS has two vacant board positions, including the chairman's role, while the ABC has one vacancy. Two more ABC positions will become vacant next year.

Fairfax Media has been told the government will put commercial expertise before broadcasting experience in making board appointments.

There is a strong view in the government the ABC lacks commercial acumen and that its Ultimo headquarters is top-heavy and overpopulated with highly paid executives and managers.

The government is particularly concerned about the ABC's massive expansion in recent years into free content online in competition with newspapers, many of which now charge for content and face diminishing print revenues.

Labor amended the ABC charter last year to include provision of digital media services.

But the senior ranks of the Abbott government believe the ABC's news operations, in particular, need to return to the core business of broadcast journalism. ''We actually think the media market is best served by divergent voices,'' the source said.

The story Fears federal government will stack ABC and SBS boards first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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