In defence of the ABC
Australia’s public broadcaster is an important part of the diverse Australian media landscape.
Much talk in recent times has focussed on the quality of news output from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). In particular, a story from a few months ago that aired allegations of torture towards asylum-seekers at the hands of the Royal Australian Navy during Operation Sovereign Borders angered many government MPs and re-ignited debate about the nature and role of the ABC. The news-worthiness of the story (or not) was lost whilst conservative MPs worked themselves into quite a state. Rupert Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph furiously asked ‘Why does the ABC hate our navy?‘ and another story in the Australian complained of ‘Vale journalistic standards at the ABC‘. An ironic headline if ever there was one, but that’s the nature of the contemporary Australian media landscape.
The ABC is Australia’s independent, government-owned public broadcaster. Just like the BBC in the United Kingdom or NHK in Japan, the ABC takes no advertising and is instead funded to operate a network of local and national television stations, local and national radio stations and a website. The ABC’s editorial independence is guaranteed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 (Cth), which states in part:
(1) It is the duty of the Board:Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983, Section 8
(b) to maintain the independence and integrity of the Corporation;
(c) to ensure that the gathering and presentation by the Corporation of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism
Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983, Section 8
Recent attacks on the ABC from the Prime Minister Tony Abbott and several other members of the government demonstrate why it is critical that the ABC continues its mission to independently gather and report news of interest to Australians. In order to fulfil its charter and legislative obligations, it cannot be seen to capitulate to the frustrations of government MPs of any flavour. (Recent events in Japan should serve as a lesson). Sometimes the ABC will publish stories that politically help an incumbent government, such as allegations of corruption within a certain trade union. At other times, the ABC will break stories that will embarrass a government, such as recent allegations that Australian intelligence agencies had spied on the Indonesian president. It swings both ways.
In some respects, the ABC has been lucky in the upcoming budget. The communications minister Malcolm Turnbull, a self-declared ‘friend of the ABC‘, was able to negotiate a mere 1% budget cut when other government agencies have had to cut a lot more. That said, Mr. Turnbull has made it quite clear that the 1% cut is a “downpayment” and that more is to come.
There are many in the Liberal Party (and on the conservative side of politics) who would like to see the ABC nobbled for various reasons.
One of those reasons seems ideological. Some feel that the government should have no direct role in broadcasting. Whilst this position would seem extreme in an Australian context, there are many who want to see the ABC weakened because they believe that it unfairly competes with the private sector. Given that the only means for commercial media to make money is via sponsorship – an activity that the ABC is expressly prohibited from participating in – this is an illogical argument. In Britain (and to a lesser extent in Australia), the commercial media have objected to public broadcasters publishing news stories on their websites. They argue that revenue from their own website advertising is small and that their potential audience is drawn away by free “state-sponsored news“. Media proprietors claim that they can’t increase revenue by erecting pay walls because no-one will part with cash for something that they can get for nothing. Ignoring the rather obvious point that if consumers considered the commercial news to be of value they’d pay for it, this line of logic also ignores the plethora of other free news in Australia, such as Crikey and Guardian Australia.
In reality, I suspect these are the bitter cries of a commercial media industry in crisis. Their losses have nothing to do with the ABC in reality, but rather their poor quality product and a shrinking advertising market.
Some people argue that the ABC should be reduced to a niche broadcaster, only focussing on areas of ‘market failure’ rather than on mass-appeal programming. Proponents for such a move argue that the private sector can easily provide the same product in a more efficient manner. The key word in that sentence is ‘can’ because in reality, they won’t. Most people recognise that the only serious nightly current affairs programme on television these days is the ABC’s 7:30. Long gone is the time when Nine’s A Current Affair would report on the day’s politics. There’s nothing whatsoever stopping the three commercial capital city networks (Seven, Nine, Ten) or their regional affiliates from producing a high-quality current affairs show, yet none of them do. Whether they believe that serious current affairs is unprofitable or unpopular is immaterial. In one sense one can already argue that the ABC is catering to a ‘market failure’ of sorts in television current affairs.
Conservative cries for the ABC to “pay its way” mask a greater desire for the organisation to be weakened, especially in the role of news and current affairs. Australia’s ‘fifth network’, the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) was once commercial-free like the ABC, before it began inserting advertising between programmes. Unfortunately this strategy has not worked with the impoverished SBS. The network is now so poor that it cannot even afford to broadcast local news bulletins or rely on its own staff reporters to fill World News Australia with stories. Instead World News Australia is filled with imported pieces (particularly from CNN, BBC and Agence France Presse) and attracts an audience so small that one wonders why they even bother. As a news reporting organisation, SBS is almost invisible.
The experience of SBS demonstrates that commercialising a government television network undermines its credibility and ability to deliver an Australian perspective on key news events. The ABC’s news and current affairs division is one of the major news-gathering organisations in Australia and is held in very high regard by the Australian community. The ABC can afford to pay people to undertake serious journalism and break big stories without the risk of offending sponsors or pushing a political agenda. In some respects, this makes the ABC an integral part of the Australian democracy. Despite their useful role, commercial television newsrooms seem unwilling or unable to pursue such serious matters, instead focussing on salacious gossip and provincial concerns. Commercialising the ABC would cause untold damage to its news-gathering capability and credibility, but this is probably the outcome that its detractors want.
Perhaps more concerning than mere funding cuts are proposals that might seek to force the ABC to downsize by selling its studios, outsourcing production and centralising operations in Sydney. If enacted, proposals such as these would undermine the ABC’s capacity and make it more reliant on independent production houses and other external interests. In particular, selling studios would be an odd decision. Whilst studios cost money to maintain and operate, these costs are surely a cheaper option than selling them and forever paying rent to hire them back? (The fallacy of the cost-saving argument is demonstrated by the privatisation of the National Transmission Agency, which has meant that the ABC has had to pay someone else for its signals to be broadcast since 1999).
There’s no doubt that the ABC has been in ascendency in the last decade, especially under the watch of managing director Mark Scott. To my mind, the ABC is about where it should be: as a major mainstream broadcaster producing programmes of both broad appeal and special interest in a way that compliments the commercial broadcasters.
The Australian media landscape is changing. The Ten Network made a $285 million loss in 2012-13 and a first-half loss of $8 million for this financial year. As a result, newsrooms have been slashed and programmes cut. In October 2012, the Nine Network was also taken to the brink of collapse, but seems to be in a healthier condition now. Either way, the capacity of the commercial media to innovate, report and reflect communities is diminishing as advertising revenue shrinks. In these changing times, the role of the ABC in television seems ever more important. Cutting funding and reducing capacity of the ABC will harm the Australian population significantly.
A few months ago, the Commonwealth Government announced that the ABC’s ten-year contract to run the Australia Network in Asia would be severed. The Australia Network, which is funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, is a television channel designed to promote a positive view of Australia in the Asia-Pacific. The contract’s cancellation will apparently save the government $196.8m, however the 10-year contract with the ABC was worth $223m. The government has pledged to pay the ABC $10.6m as “compensation”. Whilst not terminal, the loss of this service to Australia is most unfortunate. Aside from harming the ABC, it also potentially harms Australia in a region that probably struggles at times to understand Australian culture and values. The Australia Network promoted peace through mutual understanding between Australia and her neighbours.
In the end, these things run in cycles, but the damage can last far longer than the cycle of funding cuts and increases. The ABC is a much-loved and important part of the Australian media landscape, complimenting the commercial broadcasters and offering a different perspective on news and culture. The ABC not only produces programmes of wide appeal such as dramas, comedies and documentaries but broadcasts specialised programmes in the arts, culture and religion that commercial broadcasters are generally unwilling to make. The neutrality and objectivity of the ABC’s news rooms make it a credible and important source of information for Australian citizens and unlike the commercial media, the ABC has a mandate to provide services to all Australians.
The ABC is a national asset that needs to be protected. Let’s hope that communications minister Malcolm Turnbull really does turn out to be the friend of the ABC that he wants us to believe that he is.