Sky News' attempt to run Australia Network stymied

The Australian government has stepped in to block a bid by Rupert Murdoch to run Down Under’s overseas TV service that reaches 44 countries in Asia and the Pacific.

The A$223 million ($240 million) tender for the Australia Network has only two bidders, pubcaster the ABC, whose contract to operate the network expires in August, and Sky News Australia, which is part-owned by Murdoch, Channel Seven and the Nine Network.

Sky News Australia pressured the government to put the service out to tender last year and the process closed in February; a winner was to be announced in May.

But local reports claim that while the public sector panel favored the Murdoch bid, the Labor government has torpedoed Sky News Australia’s “win,” a fact the government disputes.

On June 25, it was announced the tender process would be extended and the government has now requested more information from both parties.

Responsibility for the final approval has also moved from the Dept. of Foreign Affairs to the Minister for Communications Stephen Conroy, who also overseas the government-funded ABC.

A spokesman for the minister told Variety that the changes were made to help evaluate “the tenderers’ ability to support Australia’s national interests.”

He added that part of this national interest clause would be factoring in the effects of the Arab Spring as well as “key emerging markets,” normally government-speak for China — which the Australia Network doesn’t yet reach.

Regarding the fact that Conroy controls the tender process and oversees the ABC, the spokesman said it did not represent a conflict of interest.

In the meantime, the government has asked the ABC to continue broadcasting the service until February and promised a decision on the tenders by September.

Sky News and the ABC would not comment, citing rules banning bidders from speaking about the tender.

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