John Menadue. Why the ABC is unique and important.

Dec 4, 2014

The BBC is the most successful public broadcaster in the world. It is a good model, not to copy but to adapt to our own needs and circumstances.

Lord Reith who was Director General of the BBC 1927-38 pithily described the BBC’s purpose in three words…educate, inform and entertain. He was famously determined that the BBC would provide its audiences with something rather better than they thought they wanted. He said,  ‘He who prides himself on giving what he thinks the public wants is often creating a fictitious  demand for lower standards which he himself will then satisfy,’

Sir Ian Jacob who was DG  1952-59 defined public broadcasting as ‘ …a compound of a system of control, an attitude of mind, and an aim, which if successfully achieved results in a service which cannot be given by any other means. The system of control is full independence, or the maximum degree of independence that parliament will accord. The attitude of mind is an intelligent one capable of attracting to the service the highest quality of character and intellect. The aim is to give the best and the most comprehensive service of broadcasting to the public that is possible. The motive that underlies the whole operation is a vital factor; it must not be vitiated by political   or commercial consideration.’ 

So much of our media including the ABC is a long way from the approach of Lord Reith or Sir Ian Jacob. Rupert Murdoch justifies what he offers by saying that if viewers or readers don’t like what he offers then they can switch the dial or read something else. This is what Lord Reith would have described as ‘creating a fictitious demand for lower standards which he himself will then satisfy’. When critics say that Murdoch dumbs down the media like this he describes his critics as elitist or snobs.

One field in which the ABC should be unique and way ahead of the field is in its coverage of our own Asian region. The ABC should be the leader in helping to break us free of our dependence on the news, current affairs and entertainment media houses of New York and London. The ABC is the only media organisation that can help us live with and learn from our own region. When the ABC should be putting Asian coverage as its highest priority it is scaling back dramatically. It is in retreat in this critical area.

Another important feature of the ABC must be is that it is national. It can help bind and unite the country, free us from state and local parochialism and help form and project our national identity. The only two other major national media organisations are the Australian Financial Review and The Australian.  The former is a specialist service. An important strength of The Australian is that it is national although it is increasingly failing as a serious, independent and professional newspaper.

Unfortunately the ABC’s coverage out of Canberra, our national capital, falls well short. It should give us less politics and gladiatorial sport and more in depth analysis of policies. God save us from the increasingly bland and glib generalists who know a little about many things but are expert on nothing. The ABC needs to lift its national coverage.

In its geographic coverage, the ABC cannot be everything to all people. Most of Australian media is focused on state capitals, so I wonder why the ABC needs to be so committed to Sydney and Melbourne where at least there are established and competitive media players. It is different in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth which are one-newspaper cities with the ABC the only substantial alternative

The ABC is obviously a very important player in regional Australia. The lack of strong local media in regional cities and towns makes the ABC so valuable for country people in Australia.

The role of the ABC must be to’educate,inform and entertain’ and to provide a ‘service which cannot be given by any other means’ It does this much better than other media but its own shortcomings and the collapse of other media models requires it  to lift its game.

The ABC will always be under pressure from governments, both Labor and non Labor. Its independence may be better safeguarded by considering again licence fees which were abolished by the Whitlam Government and replaced by direct funding from the budget.



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