Happy Birthday ABC. Where are you going now?

Jul 4, 2022
ABC logo 1974

The ABC celebrates its 90th birthday June 30th this year. There are few Australians alive today who were here at the birth. So, it is timely to ask what the future of our public broadcaster is, particularly given the BBC, its model and guiding star, is in trouble.

The British Government has frozen the 100-year-old BEEB’s licence fee for two years requiring them to find 285 million pounds extra each year from savings. In response the Director General has announced what is essentially a platform shift for the BBC, from terrestrial broadcast to IP based digital streaming. The Children’s Channel, CBBC (for 6-12-year-olds), which has been struggling to retain an audience, BBC Four and Radio 4 Extra, will shut down and become online-only services. The World Service’s foreign language services will go online only, while the existing UK-focused BBC News channel will merge with BBC World to form a single global rolling TV news service.

But it is only when these elements come together with a content strategy that something interesting could happen. If the aim is now to chase audience numbers and compete against multiple streaming services, then it’s goodbye BBC. For what distinguishing role, purpose and values will be left to represent?

Our ABC is also long overdue for a reset. There is no question our public broadcaster has been persecuted by conservative governments for a decade, cutting funding, stacking the Board with Directors who are hostile to or ignorant of its mission, and conducting ongoing public, but political harassment. There would have been much heaving of sighs of relief when Scott Morrison, and his huddle of misfits, was turfed out of office on May 21.

It is 100 years since the BBC was born, in October 1922, as a latter-day counterpart of the established church to separate the moral power of the church and the political power of the State. Like the Monarchy, the BBC was there to guarantee Britain’s cultural homogeneity and the possibility of a non-political culture. Formed at a time of media scarcity, it was to be far more than a vehicle for ‘adequate and comprehensive programming’. It was to be the fabric that would weave society into a whole.

Australia copied the model 10 years later: our 90-year-old ABC, was born in 1932. It was to be an institution that would reach, inform, and entertain; it was to ‘serve all sections and to satisfy the diversified tastes of the public’. The motives of the founders of public broadcasting in the UK and Australia were idealistic and paternalistic. Our ABC system would never enjoy the status and influence of the pioneering British broadcasting institution, which grew to dominate public broadcasting nationally and globally; it was never expected to. We colonials could only aspire to copy – our voices had to be cultivated to mimic our British superiors and even our major children’s program, Play School, was a copy, controlled by BBC producers. Our ABC was also handicapped by a commanding commercial broadcasting sector. However, both were to be caught up in the same monumental dilemma, a Catch 22, which has now brought both institutions under threat.

Under the proposed public broadcasting model funding was to be set by the Government, and ‘impartial’ Board appointments chosen by Government; but that process inevitably made them vulnerable to political partisanship. However, if the public broadcaster were to become the voice of the State, it would lose the people’s trust. Independence was vital to success. So, Public Broadcasters were set a fine line to walk, to survive.

In Australia, until the mid-seventies the ABC enjoyed an acknowledged and unchallenged role in Australian society, a role reflected in the relatively stable and unquestioned relationships it had with Government and its agencies, with other broadcasters and with its audience. This all changed in the mid-seventies, during the Whitlam years, as the ABC played a central role in political change, informing the public, as it should. But political relationships haven’t settled down since.

It hasn’t helped that the public broadcaster has had its share of crackpot and mediocre Managing Directors, ranging from Sir Henry Bland, appointed in July 1976 ‘to clean up the ABC’ following the Whitlam years. He lasted 5 months in a war with ABC programmers and ‘Friends’, intervening in decisions about program content and standards, the highlight being his attempt to censor the Alvin Purple sex comedy series.

Not to forget Jonathan Shier who lasted 18 months (2000-2001) before being given a $1million payout to leave. He saw his job as cleaning out troublesome staff – critical of Government that is – and aimed to outsource all he could at the ABC as fast as he could. Staff meetings were volatile.

Apart from internal upheavals, the Catch 22 has led to a succession of Governments which have done their best to curtail the ABC’s political commentary, notably its news and current affairs, which were never to their liking. Although news coverage takes up about 10 % of airtime it accounts for 90% of the trouble.

Mathew Ricketson and Patrick Mullins have published a plea entitled, Who Needs the ABC? Why taking it for granted is no longer an option. It’s a paeon to past years concluding, ‘It is possible, in short, to envision a national broadcaster of which we are all proud, and which continues to make an invaluable contribution to the life of this country’. And at that point, when the envisioning should start, the book ends, and it is left to the reader to ‘imagine what the ABC would be if its funding had not been cut’. (The cuts by successive Governments are well documented in an Appendix by Michael Ward.)

There’s nothing in the book about the role the ABC could or should play in the future, other than restating the original case for its importance. It’s all about supply, rather than demand, and it comes with the same patrician view of public service as that of the founders.

The public want and need the ABC – repeated surveys have verified the ABC is a most trusted institution (70%-80% of users). Kerry O’Brien and many other notable former ABC broadcasters, and ABC Friends, have argued passionately that ‘a strong, independent broadcaster, with its governing board appointed at arm’s length from executive government, and funded by and accountable to a healthy functioning parliament is a gift to democracy.’

It is implicit in their arguments that a strong ABC would foster cultural and social diversity while unifying the nation. It would be a bulwark against a society fragmenting into different social groups and descending into disharmony. It would shore up our democracy by calling corrupt and manipulative politicians to account.

In O’Brien’s account of Australia’s ‘rotten’ democracy, which he says is ‘fraying at the edges’, he states, ‘the ABC has never been more important ‘in his lifetime’. But amid the passionate pleas I can’t locate a clear statement of vision and purpose for the future ABC and how to achieve that vision through the presentation of programs today.

Even the ABC managing Director, David Anderson who published his heartfelt view on the ABC early in 2022, ‘Now More Than Ever, Australia’s ABC’, documents the past record on programming to plead his case for the future. I agree with his sentiments, but his manifesto reads more like a propaganda piece rather than a forward plan.

To understand the challenge facing the ABC we need to acknowledge the world we live in now is far away from the world of 90 years ago. Everything changed when the internet opened-up: technology, the media landscape, and social values experienced upheaval. Australia’s population has quadrupled since 1932; we are now one of the most ethnically diverse cultures in the world with a third of our population born overseas and fifty per cent with one parent born overseas. Women have long emerged from the kitchen, children have become knowing and demanding beings by the time they enter school, work has transformed with the development of the gig economy and the upheavals of COVID recent transformations; millennials now equal boomers in number; we live 20 years longer on average than we did when the ABC began. The audience is a completely different beast, in fact multiple beasts.

This is the world within which the ABC now operates. So, it is not enough to argue, ‘hands off and let them be’; to trust they know what they are doing. For there is no evidence that they do. ‘More of the same’, as the defenders seem to be arguing, is not what is needed here. With an institution as vital as the public broadcaster to our national and democratic well-being, you do not tinker, you have a fundamental rethink. Success and advancement do not follow from grafting new things upon old.
The ABC must either redefine their role, refocus, be strengthened and revitalised, or public broadcasting will fail and die. The BBC is facing this same challenge.

The ABC’s original mission for radio programming was so wide-ranging as to encompass almost any option. Television followed the same assumptions. Successive Governments have attempted to focus the broadcaster’s role and functions. Inquiries had little success (Dix 1979) Mansfield (1997), so, heavy-handed budget cuts have been the tool to try to bring the ABC to heel and curb political commentary. The broadcaster is viewed by commercial competitors both as trespasser and dumping ground.

Rupert Murdoch wants the ABC out of all programming that might compete with his media empire. Commercial networks want the ABC to take on all children’s programs and relieve them of quota demands. The public broadcaster can no longer afford the price of major sporting events, or even to pay fully for cultural and entertaining programming. That has been a long-running dilemma for the ABC, for with drama, documentaries, and independently produced children’s programs they can only afford a licensing fee, often modest, and the balance of a budget needs to be raised offshore or from government subsidy through Screen Australia and the State funding bodies. This process inevitably influences the programming that is made and gets shown.

A publicly funded national broadcaster’s role should be to program what is in the public interest. Its primary objective must be to inform and educate citizens about national, international, and local news and our place and purpose within those contexts. It should be a place for an impartial national conversation. This is an important distinction between the ABC and commercial media enterprises which don’t shy away from bias and view their audience as consumers to be entertained and sold to advertisers.

In our diverse country, in a highly competitive media environment, with rapidly changing technology, multiple platforms and streaming services, the ABC cannot be all things to all people. But certain fundamental objectives should not be in dispute; they include national audience reach, comprehensive news coverage and current affairs programming, educational pre-school programming to access all children, and strengthening the ABC’s ‘soft power’ by informing, sharing, and connecting with our Pacific neighbours. Beyond that, budget considerations constrain choices. Comprehensive programming and entertainment may not be achievable, but well-chosen comedy and drama are great ways to explore our narrative.

The challenge, once the objectives are decided, is how to utilise the platforms available to generate maximum impact within the agreed budget. Most commentators speaking out now, can’t define it and fall back on the assertion that the ABC should be left to be the ABC. But the broadcaster is built on moving sand in our changing media landscape.

If the fundamental role of a future independent ABC is to foster national communication, national cultural understanding, national identity, and cohesion, how might you fund or govern such an ABC? What should be its structure? Does it produce or commission? It’s possible to out-source all programming, including news, making it more of a publisher/broadcaster than content creator. Perhaps News is an exception. Developing the model, we so desire, needs a Summit involving the most fertile minds across all areas of knowledge, not just broadcasting and media.

So perhaps the new Labor government, which has expressed values in line with the arguments of the major advocates for the public broadcaster, can plan a way forward, with a whole of government approach to redefine a mission and structure for an institution fit for purpose in this century. Happy birthday ABC.

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