QUENTIN DEMPSTER. A short history of the ABC. Part 1.

Oct 23, 2018

The Senate will be enquiring into political interference at the ABC.Quentin Dempster provide useful historical background to that inquiry. 

 Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) 

   The ABC began radio (wireless) broadcasting via then available Postmaster-General’s Department transmitters at 8 pm eastern standard time on 1 July 1932 – five months after the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in depression-ravaged Australia.

   After chimes sounded from the Sydney Post Office tower, announcer Conrad Charlton intoned in a refined English/Australian  accent: “This is the Australian Broadcasting Commission”. The signal thence generated reached the subjects of King George V in the federation of Australia as far away as Perth and Rockhampton. Australia’s population at the time was 6.5million with an estimated 6 percent able to receive the ABC’s broadcasts.

Independence and funding

   The ABC is an entity of the Commonwealth Parliament. The Australian Broadcasting Commission Act became law on 17 May 1932, the commission acquiring the assets of the Australian Broadcasting Company, a collection of  former private radio licences acquired for the purpose.

   The then Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons (United Australia Party) had been prevailed upon by radio manufacturers and retailers, influential figures including one R. G. Menzies, then a Victorian State MP and barrister, farmers, educators and musicians, not to abandon the recently defeated James Scullin (Australian Labour Party) government’s draft broadcasting Bill.   The imperative driving the initiative was the view that commercial operators would not provide what a public broadcaster could to help secure the take-up of radio receivers: high quality programming in education, information, sport  and music.   

   Like the British  Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the ABC was not to take advertising to defray its operating costs, although the then representatives of the ALP had no objection to the paid sponsorship of programs.  Largely because of political pressure exerted by private television and radio licensees over the years neither advertising nor sponsorship has eventuated as a means of funding ABC programming.

   Like the BBC, the ABC was funded through a substantial proportion of  an  annual licence fee collected from the owners of radio receivers, many who paid up in fear of fines if they were caught without one by PMG monitor  vans which prowled  the suburbs of Australia. This funding mechanism prevailed until 1948 when the Chifley (ALP)  government determined that the broadcaster would be funded from annual federal budget appropriations. 

   Unlike the BBC which was soon equipped with a Royal Charter, the ABC’s role and functions were not prescribed by a Charter as such at that time.

   The ABC was not ‘independent’ of government.   From the outset the Postmaster-General had the power to compel or forbid the broadcasting of any matter, a power  which was used from time to time although ABC management  often acted pre-emptively to exclude material or programs considered likely to provoke ministerial intervention.  

   The ‘independence’ of the public broadcaster  from the government of the day has been in contention from the very beginning.

   In the United Kingdom the BBC had a monopoly position in broadcasting until the mid-1950s.  But the debate about its independence  was just as important to its governance arrangements as the ABC’s role in Australia. One of the BBC’s founding managers, Sir John  (later Lord) Reith famously clashed with the U.K. government over editorial independence. The term Reithianism emerged with these clashes and established the tradition of independent public service broadcasting in the U.K.  Reithianism denotes equal consideration to all viewpoints, probity, universality, a commitment to public service, distinguished from the free-market approach to broadcasting where programming aims to attract the largest audiences or advertising revenues regardless of artistic merit, impartiality, educative or entertainment values. This theme was later reinforced by Sir Ian Jacob, a British military leader during WWII and BBC director-general from 1952 to 1959 who became a staunch advocate for editorial independence,  describing 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 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’.

   In Australia the struggle for the ABC’s independence often embroiled the board and management in dispute both with government and staff. 

   In 1946, against the preference  of  the  then general manager,  Charles  Moses,  but at the insistence of  news editor Frank Dixon, the ABC was allowed to establish its own independent news service.  Previously the ABC had broadcast (at program  times agreed to by newspaper proprietors), domestic and international news taken from the papers. From 1946 the ABC became a major influence and leader in Australian news journalism leading to the development of public affairs programming which produced  AM and PM on radio and  Four Corners and This Day Tonight  on television.   

The PMG’s power to direct  ABC broadcasts was constrained by 1946  when the commission was allowed discretion over political and controversial material. This prevailed  until the ABC Act was fundamentally changed in 1983 to establish the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The ABC’s board, appointed by government, and the board- appointed senior management  remained highly sensitive to political controversy leading to staff use of the term ‘the pre-emptive buckle’ to describe management interventions in some programs.  Still dependent on budget appropriations for its funding, the new corporation had for the first time its own borrowing capacity for its capital works and the power to form its own subsidiary companies, symphony orchestras and bands.  Significantly,  the 1983 Act established the ABC’s  statutory independence through Section 78  (6) that,  with the exception of  ministerial direction for broadcasts in the national interest … ‘the corporation is not subject to direction by or on behalf of the Government of  the Commonwealth’.   The 1983 Act maintained the prohibition on advertising on domestic services (Section 31) but exempted its international audio and television channels. 

   The 1983 Act also defined the functions of the ABC  under the title ‘Charter of the Corporation’: to provide ‘innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard’;  broadcasting programs that contribute to a ‘sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of, the Australian community’.

The ABC’s part in mass communication technology.

   The ABC narrative  is primarily about its own creative exploitation of  mass communication technology  in the 20th and now 21st centuries. 

    Radio evolved from  telegraphy (Morse code down a fixed wire) and the discovery that electromagnetic (radio) waves can be transmitted from aerials and received via an antenna great distances away.  Broadcasting to a mass audience came within two decades of  Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi’s proof of radio communication from his first signal in Italy in 1895, across the English Channel in 1899, and across the Atlantic from Cornwall to Newfoundland in 1901. Another inventor, Lee DeForest refined  the audio quality resulting in ‘amplitude-modulated’  or AM radio which, through the allocation of frequencies to operators,  established the radio phenomenon  world wide. Radio was soon considered to be the hope of  a progressive world with the broadcast of music, plays,  education, entertainment  and information. In all  countries the information to be broadcast was a matter of  strict government regulation, tragically degraded   in many  to propaganda and an instrument of  state, dictatorial or totalitarian control. 

   The ABC developed its AM radio stations in capital cities and major centres alongside a profitable commercial radio sector. The industry moved to even higher quality FM (frequency modulated) stations in earnest from 1975, the ABC establishing classical and youth (rock) music FM stations.

   From  John Logie Baird’s invention of television in 1925 the Australian television industry finally started in 1956, with Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies’  live official opening of ABC TV’s Channel 2 broadcast in monochrome (black and white) from TV transmission towers in the capital cities.  As with radio all TV transmissions  were provided by the Federal Government’s Department of Communications with the ABC’s transmission costs covered in the appropriation, even after the transmission system was leased to the private sector  in 2000.   Colour television came in 1975 with rapid consumer uptake of colour sets in almost all Australian households. 

   In positioning itself as a key contributor to  sectoral diversity the ABC’s non-commercial character in radio and television helped to establish it as a trusted national institution particularly during WWII, at national and international sporting events  and at times of natural disasters.  

   In 1965 ABC graphic designer Bill Kennard submitted a design for a logo to be used as station identification for television. Taken from a cathode ray oscilloscope, the waveform Lissajous curve logo (for which Kennard was given a $50 fee), has become one of the most recognisable logos in Australia, now covering both TV, radio and broadband output and the ABC’s  retail activities in its ABC shops and centres around the country.   

   The ‘digital revolution’ was the next technological challenge with free-to-air ‘multi-channelling’ via the frequency precision in digital transmission from 2001 and digital radio from 2009. The ABC’s old analogue transmitted Channel 2 (renamed ABC 1) was joined by multi-channels ABC 2 (time-shifted  repeat programs)…. ABC 3 (a children’s channel) and ABC News 24  (continuous news) in 2010. In Australia the analogue broadcast transmission system was scheduled to be switched off from 2013 as consumers were encouraged and in some cases subsidised to upgrade their old analogue TV sets with digital set top boxes or through inbuilt  ‘digital’ flat screen receivers.  

   With American computer scientist Vinton Cerf ’s invention of the internet in 1973 and British computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the world wide web in 1989 came a new form of mass but,  most significantly via email and text messaging,  interactive communication through the limitless capacity of ‘cyberspace’. Broadcasting was morphing into cybercasting.  The ABC started its Online services in 1995 and its Broadband portal from 2001.  Live video and audio streaming of its radio and television output followed and an active innovation department developed content for mobiles and ‘smart’  phones,  and an ABC iView facility or ‘app’  for playing programs at the viewer’s instantaneous convenience. With the rapid Australian consumer uptake of  ‘smart’ mobile phones and tablet devices came another high audience-penetrating content platform with the ABC capable of delivering audio and video and, through in-built still and movie cameras,  turning such devices into broadcasting tools themselves.

* This is an extended and updated version of Quentin Dempster’s contribution to A Companion to the Australian Media  (published in 2014 by Australian Scholarly Publishing, edited by Bridget Griffen-Foley) and re-published here with kind permission

Part 2 tomorrow

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