Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is not known for being thin-skinned, and as a veteran politician and former journalist he understands exactly how the media works.

So it's not surprising some suspect a hidden agenda behind his denunciation of the ABC as unpatriotic, wasteful of public money and a law unto itself. That agenda, it seems, includes slashing the national broadcaster's budget to help the Government reduce its yawning deficit. The Australian reported yesterday that the Cabinet is considering ditching the ABC's Australia Network service, which broadcasts into 46 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, a contract worth A$223 million over 10 years.

Ministers believe its portrayal of Australia in the region is "overly negative", according to the paper, which has impeccable Coalition sources but needs no encouragement to bash the ABC. The latter was awarded the Australia Network contract (by former PM Julia Gillard) ahead of Rupert Murdoch's Sky News, and Murdoch's News Corp resents what it sees as unfair competition from the ABC's free digital content.

Abbott swore on the eve of last September's election that there would be "no cuts to the ABC or SBS". But he also pledged "no cuts to education", which didn't prevent his Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, making an abortive attempt to dump Labor's funding reforms.


Stripping the ABC of the lucrative regional contract would please party right-wingers but Abbott knows the move has to be made palatable to the public. That may help explain his specific criticisms of the broadcaster, which he accused of "instinctively taking everyone's side but Australia's", being answerable to no one, and frittering away money on a new fact check unit.

The unit, incidentally, was set up to investigate the veracity of statements by public figures - such as the Prime Minister's claim that the ABC regulates itself. In fact, it falls under the Australian Communications and Media Authority's remit.

As well as triggering a wider debate about the role of a free media, the row - stemming from the ABC's revelations last year that Australia spied on Indonesia, and its reporting of allegations of mistreatment of asylum-seekers by navy personnel - has highlighted divisions between conservatives such as Abbott and moderates such as his Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.

Although Turnbull chided ABC managing director Mark Scott over the spying story, he defended the organisation this week, telling Fairfax newspapers it was accountable to its board and should not be dictated to by politicians, although the latter "will often be unhappy" about what it broadcast. It's hardly a secret that Turnbull, who has also spoken out in favour of same-sex marriage, still harbours leadership ambitions. A Roy Morgan poll this week gave the Coalition its lowest ratings since the election, with it six points behind Labor on a two-party preferred basis.

The other aspect of Abbott's hidden agenda, many believe, is to divert attention from the Government's clandestine border operations and, effectively, to shut down reporting of asylum-seeker issues.

Sceptics rolled their eyes when he declared the media "ought to be prepared to give the Australian Navy and its hard-working personnel the benefit of the doubt". Not so Miranda Devine, a Daily Telegraph columnist, who believes claims asylum-seekers suffered burns when navy personnel forced them to hold on to a radiator are "uncharacteristic of Australian culture and inconsistent with 100 years of Australian military history".

She must have forgotten about the claims of sexual abuse within the military, including the navy, which prompted six separate inquiries by the previous Government and a formal apology to victims by then Defence Minister Stephen Smith.