How the ABC’s diverse curiosity might conquer partisanship and bring us all together
Three conversations, weeks and hundreds of kilometres apart. The first was in Northcote, the prosperous hipster inner-Melbourne suburb that is generally described as safe Labor, though the Greens are making headway. Northcote rates number three on the Melbourne version of the satirical website ‘stuff white people like’, even though its coffee snob cafés are interspersed with the everyday evidence of urban dysfunction: Cash Converters, pokey palaces and beggars. Once there were abattoirs, piggeries, clay pits and a brickworks here. Those industries have gone, and with them the working life and settlements they made possible.
It was at a dinner party, and we were talking about the ABC. The national broadcaster was, according to the chief interlocutor, too dumbed down and too right wing. As the conversation proceeded it emerged that this man was speaking about Radio National. For him, Radio National was the ABC. Its programs were the chief spur to his political opinions and understanding of the nation and the world. He didn’t listen to local radio—too trivial. He was barely aware of the youth network Triple J, and was only dimly aware it was part of the ABC. He hardly ever watched television.
He thought the ABC—by which he meant Radio National—should be much more intellectual. He despised the talk back, the Richard Fidler conversations and the lifestyle programs. These things, he said, were not consistent with the ABC Charter. Asked to identify the part of the charter he was referring to, it was clear he hadn’t read it. He thought it said the ABC should be intellectual and educational, and only these things.
He is wrong. It’s a common fault. People tend to see, in the ABC, the imprint of their own concerns. Media is both private and public. It is in our homes and in our cars, the background noise to our lives and fodder for our private reflections. It is also the brokerage space between private and public lives.
The great majority of Australians—almost 70 per cent of us each week—use the ABC. No other organisation has equivalent reach. It is without question our most important cultural institution. All of us pay for it. It is an important national asset. Yet the organisation is almost never sensibly discussed. Instead ideologues on all sides of politics foam over non-issues. Few citizens know all of the ABC’s parts, or understand its role and potential. Like the blind men probing the elephant, we mistake the whole.
Another conversation was in Forbes, central New South Wales, part of the Murray–Darling Basin on which our nation’s food security largely depends. Here the roads run like rulers past vast paddocks and the grand old buildings of shrinking towns. These are industrialised growing spaces worked with tractors that contain computers and lasers to ensure the ploughing is smooth and even. Agricultural workers are few these days, but for now at least farm machinery is operated by people, not robots. As the weather sweeps across the sky, they listen to music on thumbnail drives plugged into the dashboard, they surf and send text messages on their mobile devices, and they listen to the ABC.
On the local news they hear about the calls for a sex abuse inquiry in Bathurst and the gaining momentum for a national freight hub in Parkes. At 6.15 am, just as the working day begins, there is the Central West and Western Plains Rural Report. Then there is AM.
My conversation was with a friend who voted National Party all his life until the last federal election, when he cast his vote for a conservative independent. He is 65. He remembers Whitlam unfavourably, chiefly because he abolished the bounty on superphosphate. Malcolm Fraser had some good ideas, but he failed to restore the bounty. This is the main black mark on the record of both men.
The ABC’s rural websites can be useful although their content is usually old news to him by the time he reads it. He downloads podcasts of Ian McNamara on Australia All Over—his granddaughter showed him how—and listens on long drives. Macca talks about an Australia he can recognise. He has stopped watching 7.30 on television. ‘I don’t like being preached to,’ he says, and he finds the multiplying comedies on ABC television incomprehensible: city based and full of in jokes that don’t seem to include him in the imagined audience.
He is interested in Pauline Hanson, but thinks she is a ratbag, unlikely to be able to hold her party together. He draws this view from what he has heard on the national news. He listens to AM, PM and The World Today. They punctuate his day.
The third conversation was with a meeting of Indigenous journalists sharing a drink in the centre of Melbourne after listening to a public lecture by the new managing director of the ABC, Michelle Guthrie. (Declaration: I hosted this lecture.)
Guthrie used the occasion to announce that Wiradjuri man Stan Grant would leave his jobs at NITV and SkyNews to join the ABC to lead its Indigenous affairs coverage. Guthrie’s commitment to increased diversity on the public broadcaster has won universal support. For too long the ABC has given the impression that we remain a nation of fair-skinned Anglo Celts. But the Indigenous journalists were not impressed by the Stan Grant announcement. Some of the people in the group were tweeting, and one remark went viral, in a small way, on the IndigenousX social media outlet. It read: ‘Awesome there are now so many more media jobs being created for blackfellas now. Shame Stan Grant has all of them.’
Another topic around the table was the Four Corners award-winning investigative work on the Don Dale youth detention centre. Screened four months earlier, it had failed to acknowledge that Indigenous-owned outlets such as the Koori Mail had covered the same ground months before. The ABC, they said, treated Aboriginal Australians as subjects of, but not participants in, the national conversation. Four Corners was middle-class white people talking about blackfellas to other middle-class white people. And yet, they acknowledged, it was only when Four Corners screened that politicians took notice. A royal commission was announced the day after the broadcast.
Where might the voices of these Aboriginal journalists fit on the ABC? The national broadcaster has few places for anger. The ABC is mostly rather nice. Perhaps this hunger for more radicalism, for more voice, is a common thread between my Forbes farming friend and the Indigenous journalists, even though they would agree about little else. And yet, in a hopeful sign, as this essay went to print I heard that one of the Indigenous journalists included in that conversation has just been offered a job at the ABC. Kudos to Guthrie and her focus on diversity.
So to the premise of this essay. We are lucky to have the ABC. We could easily have lost it. Today it represents our best chance that the participants in my three conversations, and a million other conversations around the nation, might share some sense of what it means to be Australian.
The ABC is mostly doing a good job. Eighty-six per cent of Australians believe it plays a valuable role, and that figure has remained steady for years. The percentage of Australians who describe ABC news and current affairs as ‘balanced and even handed’ has bounced around between 77 and 80 per cent over the last few years. No commercial news service gets anything close to those figures.
As former prime minister John Howard once put it, we would still have an Australia without the ABC, but it would be a very different country. It is hardly surprising, then, that the ABC is constantly at the heart of national contest. Those who want to change the country—or those who want to resist change—must deal with the national broadcaster.
What is surprising is how little time is spent in discussion or serious strategic thinking about the organisation’s present and future. The ABC board is opaque. It has had quality members as well as a distressingly high proportion of ratbags. One hopes it engages in strategic planning, but insiders have suggested that for the last decade or so, various political ideologues on the board have used the precious time to chew over the predictable chestnuts, then signed off on strategies coming from management.
There is hostility, of course. The ABC is frequently at the centre of the political storm of the day. People see bias in everything with which they disagree. But more damaging than government hostility is neglect and carelessness. Communications ministers and cabinets on both sides of politics have kicked around convenient political footballs about individual programs and given away ABC board positions like lollipops as rewards to fellow travellers. Politicians seem to spend more time worrying about radio shock jocks such as Alan Jones and the Australian newspaper—both of which have comparatively small audiences of the converted—rather than thinking clearly about what the ABC should be, what it should do, where the public money should be invested, where it is failing and which, if any, of its functions should be allowed to fall away.
What is the justification for a taxpayer-funded media organisation in a time, it might be argued, of media plenty? The average Australian family no longer gathers around a single screen. We have multiple channels, cheap music, mobile media, quality drama on cheap subscription services and the foreign news outlets more accessible than ever before. The barriers to entry to the media business have been brought low by the World Wide Web, and there are many new players. Meanwhile, the legacy media outlets struggle with broken business models.
It is commonly claimed that modern media—particularly social media—encourages us to live in bubbles and silos, never encountering views with which we disagree or news that challenges our prejudices. The moral panic runs ahead of the evidence. The debates tend to be conducted as though there was an era in which young people avidly read broadsheet newspapers, when they have never been big consumers of news. There is strong evidence to suggest that young people are consuming a wider range of news on their mobile devices than the previous generations did through broadcast and print.
In Australia the small size of the media market has tended to mean most outlets are middle of the road. They have had to be to make a profit. But in Europe and the United States there is nothing new about media that serves the prejudices of particular political groupings. The difference is that now, through social media, the choice about what you see and hear is made not by you, but through opaque algorithms that serve you content on the basis of what you have previously sought and consumed. Meanwhile, an estimated 90 cents in every online media advertising dollar flows to Facebook and to Google, which also owns YouTube. Critics of Michelle Guthrie have suggested, because she once worked for News Corporation, that she is a Murdoch stooge. I don’t think that’s true, nor do I think she is anyone’s stooge. But I wonder why people aren’t more worried by the fact that her job immediately before the ABC was with Google. Google and Facebook are the dominant publishers of the twenty-first century. They hold a power that is new in human history. Alongside them, Murdoch looks puny.
It seems that the key political division of our time is not between left and right—whatever those words mean these days. Rather it is the divide between Insiders and Outsiders—those who have agency and voice, those who feel included in the national conversation, and those who are excluded and angry. Internationally, there are those who vote for Trump, and those who abhor him; those who want Brexit, and those who don’t.
We are not in Europe or the United States. We are here, in our (mostly) English-speaking wealthy country on the edge of Asia. And in our national broadcaster we have an asset that could make our trajectory different, and better.
This is the premise of this essay. I think this is a core aspiration that should be used—across drama, documentary, chat, information, music and news—to guide the discussion of what the ABC should become in a time of change. There will always be a need to balance the niche and the popular, the different audiences and their different priorities and needs. All must be served, or we lose the reach and with it the potential. There must be the entertaining and the educative. There must be the private spaces and the town square.
If it can do all these things, the ABC represents the possibility that we might be able to make the Inside bigger, and that there will still be times when we come together. This is the rubric against which we should measure its success.
The idea that publicly funded media organisations offer some guarantee against fractured democracy is not mere fancy. The Reuters Institute for the study of journalism at Oxford University was recently commissioned by the Danish Government to review the evidence on the impact of public service media. It examined more than 1000 academic and other studies from around the world, and found clear evidence that public service media increased the levels of political knowledge and political participation and had a positive impact on trust, knowledge, diversity and social cohesion. Meanwhile, researchers from the Amsterdam School of Communication examined the idea that citizens select only media messages that are in line with their political preferences, leading to polarisation and extremism. It was true, they found, that left wingers tended to select public broadcasters while right wingers chose outlets that echoed their views. It was also true that the largest group in their study—65 per cent of the population—watched very little news and current affairs, less than one program a week, and barely read newspapers.
Nevertheless, all groups consumed content from the public broadcaster. It played a linking role, fodder for shared understandings. Although Dutch citizens exposed themselves to different media in part based on their political affiliations, none of the clusters completely avoided the public broadcaster’s news. The researchers remarked, ‘This is entirely different compared to the US where public broadcasting plays a marginal role and only reaches a minimum amount of US citizens.’ The researchers concluded that partly as a result the Netherlands was less politically polarised than the United States.
Australia’s investment in this nation-binding capacity is not particularly generous in world terms. The Canadians did a study in 2004 comparing government funding per head of population for public broadcasting across nations. The average per year was $80 for each inhabitant. Australia was well down the table at $44 per head. Below us were Italy, Spain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. Top of the table was Switzerland at $154 per person closely followed by Norway, Germany and Britain.
It would be nice to be able to draw a clear line between national unity, healthy public life and investment in public broadcasting, but nations are not so simple. Britain, for example, is the home of the BBC, which reaches a massive 96 per cent of the population—and of the national fracture between Insiders and Outsiders manifested in the Brexit referendum.
Public media is not fairy dust sprinkled on democracy. Nevertheless, as a component of the mix it represents powerful potential. The ABC, more than any other institution, occupies the space between the private reflections of individual Australians and our capacity as a nation to cohere. In these polarised and fractured times, a strong publicly funded national media organisation holds the possibility that we might not be taken by surprise at the views and life experiences of our fellow citizens—that we will retain some threads to bind us and enable us to talk.
At any time in the last 25 years, it would have been true to say that the ABC was poised on the edge of fundamental challenge and change. Media is the fastest-changing industry on the planet, and standing still has never been an option. Nevertheless, this year could be a landmark.
After ten years under one managing director, Mark Scott, the ABC has a new leader in Guthrie. She has held the job for just under a year at the time of writing. For most of that period, the main remarkable thing about her has been her ineptness at the public-face aspects of her job. Her speeches and her appearances in the gladiatorial combat of Senate Estimates hearings have been mostly bland and occasionally embarrassing. She has declined media interviews (including with me)—that might have given her a chance to explain her priorities. She has been heard, in private conversations, to deny that her job has a political dimension—a jaw-dropping statement. Rather, she claims, it is managerial in nature.
She should not be judged too harshly, nor solely, on these shortcomings. Her discomfort in the public sphere is more marked because her predecessor Scott was a master politician, speaker and media performer. But Russell Balding, who preceded him, was nearly invisible. He needed a team to accompany him to Senate Estimates, for which he swotted as though it was an exam, and hardly ever gave a speech or agreed to an interview. His predecessor, Jonathan Shier, was too much in the public spotlight, mainly because he was a high-profile disaster.
Guthrie’s public ineptness will matter little if she is internally competent, strategically adept and successful in maintaining or increasing ABC funding. This is the way her media managers are spinning it—that she is focused on internal management, not external image. One year in, it is still too soon to come to firm views, but in early March there was what was billed as a landmark announcement, setting her stamp on the organisation.
She made a speech to staff that contained a series of announcements, including an executive restructure. Her speech, broadcast online to ABC staff as well as to a face-to-face audience in Ultimo headquarters, had a slight air of newly discovered crisis, bringing with it the need for a sharp change of direction. ‘Transformational change over the next year is essential if the ABC is to realise its full potential,’ she said. The media dutifully wrote up the announcements as a big deal, but the changes she announced were hardly ground breaking. The restructure was a resorting of 14 divisions into eight, but there was no change to the existing four content divisions. Although Guthrie, like most people who think about modern media, has talked about the need to concentrate on content and its distribution, rather than to think in old, platform-based categories, her new structure still includes divisions with the distinctly retro names ‘television’ and ‘radio’—not even the modest rebadging of ‘video’ and ‘audio’ that the internet world might suggest is appropriate. Also surviving are the news and regional divisions. The digital content division has disappeared, to be absorbed into the others. So too ABC International—about which more later.
Given the build up to the announcement and the talk of radical change, some observers had expected a more fundamental reshaping—perhaps with two overriding content divisions labelled ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’.
Guthrie announced staff cuts as a result of this restructuring. She described this as being 200 job losses from middle management. However, it quickly emerged that about 80 of these jobs came not from management but from production support roles. What many observers still don’t realise is that these cuts to production staff were not new, but the hangover from much deeper cuts of 400 staff announced by Mark Scott following budget cuts in 2014. In this way, Guthrie’s speech was misleading—akin to a politician presenting as new something already announced. It was not deliberate. She clarified the true situation in a memo to staff a couple of weeks after the announcement. But one does have to wonder who writes her speeches.
Of the 200 job cuts she announced, only about 120 are new. As for who goes, the detail has yet to be worked out. Guthrie has made it clear she regards the ABC as overmanaged, and many content makers would agree, despite repeated external reviews that have found the ABC is lean and efficient. Although the media dutifully wrote up the announcement as ‘sweeping’, and Guthrie herself seems keen to suggest a fundamental departure from previous practice, it was fairly light on—an adjustment rather than a fundamental change, and by no means the biggest cuts to staff in recent times.
The more interesting part of the announce-ment was about how the savings from the cuts would be spent. First, there were to be new positions in regional Australia. This was politically smart, right in principle and widely applauded.
The other announcement was a content fund to increase to $50 million, from which ABC staff can bid for funding in a competitive process, with ‘big ideas, fresh thinking and openness to smart risk-taking’. Staff were encouraged to partner with universities and the independent production sector in making these bids. The aim, the documentation surrounding the announcement proclaimed, was to ‘fill audience gaps identified by the audience division, including gaps related to life stage, cultural background, socio-economic status and geography’.
Guthrie said she wanted the content fund to help increase the ABCs overall reach from 69 per cent to 85 per cent by 2020. Nobody seemed to notice, but this was a change from her rhetoric of just a few months before, in the ABC Annual Report, when she had declared that the aim must be to increase reach to 100 per cent of Australians by 2025. Most of those in the know regard 100 per cent as both impossible and inappropriate for a taxpayer-funded broadcaster. It would take the kind of lowest-common-denominator content that would make the ABC indistinguishable from commercial counterparts—and the money spent on gaining that audience would mean money bled from other areas of the broadcaster.
Guthrie herself has not been available to quiz about these matters, but her director of news, Gaven Morris, fronted the Melbourne Press Club a few weeks after her announcement. Asked about the 100 per cent aim, he said he did not think it was meant literally. ‘I don’t think Michelle means that literally every Australian should use the ABC,’ he said. Rather, she was concerned that all demographics should be served. He used his own family as an example. He came from a working-class home in which the ABC was simply ‘irrelevant’, he said.
In this, Guthrie is surely right. If the ABC is indeed finding emerging gaps in the audience, we should all be worried. She is right, as well, to encourage big ideas on how to maintain reach in fractured times. But what about those gaps? Asked about the claimed emerging gaps in the ABC audience, Morris said he could not provide figures, but that the large suburban working-class areas such as Logan City in Brisbane or the western suburbs of Sydney showed up in the research as areas where the ABC was rarely used.
I asked the ABC to provide the data from the audience division that formed the basis for Guthrie’s assertion about emerging gaps in the audience. Although the ABC annual reports are studded with statistics, there has been nothing in them over the last five years to support the statement about socioeconomic status, geography and cultural background.
I was told no data could be provided, except for a 2016 study of news reach, that did not contain any surprises for those who are aware of industry trends. Television audiences are softening due mostly to the departure of younger audiences. Sixty-five per cent of the television and radio news and current affairs audience is aged over 50. Interestingly, the television program that attracts the largest proportion of younger viewers is Q&A, with 31 per cent of the audience being under 50.
Also predictably, ABC News Digital is dominated by younger viewers. Sixty per cent of the audience online is under 50. However, even here ABC News has a stronger reach among older people. ABC digital news reaches 31 per cent of Australians aged more than 50, compared to only 21 per cent of Australians under 50.
None of this signals a particularly ABC-related problem. Young people have never been big consumers of news. The decline in appointment television among the under 50s is an international and industry-wide trend and the ABC figures are not out of kilter with those at Channel 9 or Channel 7. On the other hand, the ABC is keeping up and sometimes ahead of industry trends on picking up digital audiences—although these do not entirely replace those lost from traditional broadcast mediums.
So much for news content. What about drama, music and the rest? Thank-fully the ABC Annual Report provides the figures, though nothing to support the statement about audience gaps. The ABC’s iview service—catch-up television streamed on demand—was the first of its kind in Australia and is growing fast, in part driven by the launch of the ABC Kids iview app for mobile devices, which accounts for 82 per cent of online plays of kids content. Parents are tossing their mobile phones and tablets to the kids to keep them occupied—an entirely new way of consuming ABC content.
Drama is the most viewed genre on iview, with Australian drama the driver. Flagship Australian drama series reach more than 1 million plays each. Meanwhile as Australians reduce the amount of time they spend listening to conventional radio, podcasts are rising in popularity, with ABC RN dominating the landscape.
Triple J, the ABC’s national youth network, is the number-one Australian radio station on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. Last year its reach among people aged 10 and over was up from 1.89 million to a record 1.93 million. Triple J’s Unearthed continued to discover undersigned Australian artists through its website and digital radio station.
At a time of fundamental disruption in media, so far as one can judge, the ABC is doing a fairly good job at adjusting. On the information available, the air of newly discovered crisis in Guthrie’s speech was not justified. The ABC has been wrestling with these issues for years, has been a significant innovator, and is doing well against industry trends. None of this is to suggest that change is not necessary. The rise in digital reach does not yet entirely offset the decline in radio and television. Change will continue. Michelle Guthrie is said to be encouraging the ABC executive to think about content that can bring the nation together. She is said not to have given up on the idea that there may still be media experiences that the whole family and all demographics can enjoy. Remember them? The ABC drama Seachange in the late 1990s caused the coining of a word. Further back, Countdown was an unmissable appointment for young Australians. It increased the amount of Australian music that made the charts, and today for those of us aged over 50 it is that rare thing, a shared national cultural experience and memory.
Could there be a modern equivalent? It’s fun to play with ideas for how Guthrie and her executive might spend the new content fund. What about a show with a format similar to that of The Inventors, but focused on policy? Ideas could be presented each week with short shareable videos, and a mixed panel of experts might be asked to assess them and pronounce a winner, with the audience making a people’s choice through social media.
Or what about some biting class-based humour? Then there are the stories of the excluded, of the Outsiders. A few years ago ABC Open was launched. The idea was that producers employed in the regions would assist people to tell their own stories at the same time as teaching digital skills.
ABC Open still exists, but the content has become niche, distributed largely online and mostly bland. Yet surely this could be the basis for the kind of radical entry into the national conversation that we might have in response to the pace of change and the way that change is affecting Australians. There could be stories from the people losing their jobs in the Latrobe Valley, or Collie in Western Australia. There could be tales from young people working for less than the minimum wage, and shut out seemingly forever from home ownership, regular jobs and all the things their parents took for granted.
To inform this, it would be helpful to know what’s working now with those audience gaps. For example, do Chris Lilley’s satires—Summer Heights High was a ratings hit—appeal to young people? Do working-class young people watch The Chaser (I suspect not)? Is Upper Middle Bogan watched by—ahem—‘bogans’, or is it merely another means by which the middle class talks to itself, and excludes everyone else?
Let’s hope the ABC board has either asked for, or been given, the data, because Guthrie is right. If there really are newly emerging gaps in the audience, then that is a matter of national concern. If the ABC represents the middle-class talking to itself, albeit with regular nods in the direction of those less fortunate, it will fail as the kind of national conversation we should be having.
Ask why we have an ABC, and there two ways of answering the question. One is historical. In the 1920s a series of royal commissions wrested with how Australia should cope with the extraordinary new world of broadcasting, with its potential to conquer distance and bind a nation. One option was to create a federal government broadcasting monopoly. This was rejected in favour of creating a non-commercial national broadcaster to work side by side with commercial stations. Unlike the BBC on which it was modelled, the ABC had from day one to exist alongside commercial operations, at arm’s length from government yet always dependent on consolidated revenue for funding. Thus the relationships were set that persist to this day—a tension between the broadcaster and the hand that feeds it; a body meant to be out of the reach of politicians, yet required to report to parliament.
The ABC was part of what journalist Paul Kelly has called the Australian settlement—a consensus that government should be involved directly in providing services, security and in enriching the life of the community. The Australian Broadcast-ing Com-mis-sion was of a piece with railway commissions, electricity commissions and all the other machinery of nation building. When black and white television came along, governments accepted their responsibility to fund the ABC’s entry into the new world. The same happened when colour television replaced black and white. There is thus a history of commitment to publically funded media across emerging technologies.
The ABC survived the market-based user-pays reforms of the 1980s and 1990s. New Zealand provides an example of how easily it could have been lost. In the late 1980s, the New Zealand public broadcasters became state-owned enterprises expected to compete commercially and return a dividend to government. Although there have been attempts since then to claw back public service functions, New Zealand has effectively lost almost all of its public broadcasting capacity.
User pays carries with it the assumption that those who cannot or will not pay will go without. For the ABC, that has not been regarded as an acceptable outcome. The ABC remains taxpayer funded, mostly free of advertising, and free at the point of consumption. If we see in today’s Western politics—in Brexit and in Trump—the legacy of the 1990s, as the losers from globalisation and economic rationalism take out their anger at the ballot box, then the ABC, as a survivor from different times, is an asset as we try to work out the future together.
Nevertheless, the ABC suffered. It became a corporation, rather than a commission. The biggest cuts to the broadcaster came during the Hawke–Keating era, and the levels of funding have never fully recovered. Today the ABC’s Annual Report states that in real terms the ABC has 29 per cent less operating revenue from government than it did in 1985.
Another threat, perhaps bigger in perception than reality, came during the peak culture wars of the Howard government, as left and right battled it out on the field of national identity. Both sides of politics had a history of stacking the ABC board, but the Howard government took this from a matter of broad political affiliation to ideological extremity. Meanwhile the communications minister, Richard Alston, became the organisation’s chief critic, and Jonathan Shier, appointed to change the culture of the ABC, instead became the most inept and least mourned of ABC managing directors.
Yet the Howard years were far from all bad. It was under Howard that the ABC regained some of its funding. Despite the disruption, successive managements maintained a consistent focus on digital innovation at a time when the government was not prepared to fund or back this, and when not many in media fully understood the imperative. Overall, and contrary to popular perception, the ABC probably ended the Howard years stronger than it began them, and was well placed to accommodate the new emphasis on digital brought by managing director Mark Scott, who was appointed in 2006.
When Scott attended Kevin Rudd’s 2020 summit in 2007 he proposed five new digital television channels for the ABC. There was to be the ‘home’ channel of ABC 1—conceived as the place where the nation came together. The recently launched ABC 2 would play Australian content. The three new channels were to be a dedicated children’s station, a dedicated news and public information channel, an educational channel connecting to digital resources for schools and lastly, ABC 6 would offer the best of international programming.
Scott was successful in securing the children’s channel and ABC News 24—one of the main innovations of his time. The other two ideas were quietly dropped. It’s a measure of how fast things have changed, and how difficult it is to predict the future. Imagine the difficulties now if Australian taxpayer dollars were spent on trying to secure more international content in the era of Netflix and Stan—particularly since those services have meant the prices you pay for international drama are higher than they used to be. Educational materials, too, are more efficiently delivered online. The idea of school kids gathering around the television belongs to a different generation.
Today the ABC is much more than it was in the Hawke–Keating era—and on much less funding. It has four national radio networks—Radio National, Classic FM, Triple J and ABC News Radio. It runs Radio Australia, a news and information radio service for the Pacific region, and eight capital-city local radio stations, 48 local and regional radio stations, six digital radio services (Double J, ABC Jazz, ABC Country, ABC Grandstand, Triple J Unearthed and ABC Extra for special events). There are four conventional television stations—the main ABC1, and ABC2, ABC3 and ABC News24 as well as ABC iview for on-demand viewing. There are countless pages of online content. There are 56 offices in Australia and 11 overseas bureaus. There is ABC Open.
Then there are corners of the organisation that even ABC insiders are barely aware of, such as the research and development division, which thinks through the future of media. It is experimenting with virtual reality technology and the idea of media ‘walls’ in the smart homes of the future. Its website speculates that soon the ABC may need to ‘Monitor and interpret brainwave activity and other physiological data in order to choreograph the delivery of sounds and sensations to media smart homes’.
Through the last two decades, a potent though infrequently remarked upon threat to the ABC has come from those who love it most—people who might be described as left-wing conservatives. Often they see themselves as the ABC’s best friends, and thus they defend it from change, because change can only mean loss. It would be a mistake to suggest that any one group or person has held all these views consistently, but if the ABC had listened to its friends at various times over the last 15 years, it would never have established websites or digital television mutichannels. There would not be a 24-hour news service or ABC iview. Triple J would still be run by ageing hippies. If resistance to change had succeeded, today the ABC would have trouble answering those who question its relevance. Rather than debating what it should do in the future, we would be asking whether we need it at all.
This is a lesson for the future. The ABC must change. New managing director Michelle Guthrie is right about that. It’s the direction of that change that’s the issue, and the capacity to carry it out.
Those who know enough about the ABC to do so tend to refer to the charter as the support for their views on what it should and should not be doing. Yet the charter, contained in Section Six of the ABC Act, is really not a great deal of help. It defines the functions of the ABC as being to provide ‘innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard as part of the Australian broadcasting system consisting of national, commercial and community sectors’. It goes on to mandate the provision of ‘programs that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community, and programs of an educational nature’. The organisation is also obliged to broadcast programs internationally that ‘encourage awareness of Australia and an international understanding of Australian attitudes on world affairs’. In doing all this, the ABC must ‘take account of’ the services provided by commercial and community broadcasters.
Section b (a) of the charter, which requires the ABC ‘to provide digital media services’, is the most recent addition, and an important one. Before its insertion in 2013, in the dying days of the Gillard government, there was nothing in law to suggest that the ABC should have websites, apps, catch-up television services or any of the other modern essentials of a serious media organisation. The ABC was under attack by its commercial competitors—particularly News Corporation—for operating beyond its broadcasting responsibilities, and in competition with commercial outlets. The legislation introducing this charter change would almost certainly have caused an uproar, had not the then minister for communications, Stephen Conroy, snuck it in under cover of the even more inflammatory legislation that followed from the Finkelstein Inquiry into journalistic standards, including the creation of a new regulator. The commercial media were in such a froth of united opposition to that prospect that the insertion of a crucial five new words in the ABC Charter passed almost without remark.
Yet we may have those five words to thank for ensuring that the ABC remains relevant. The ABC Charter makes it clear that the national broadcaster is not only a market failure broadcaster, limited to picking up the clearly worthy but non-commercial. It is also obliged to ‘entertain’ and to ‘provide a balance between broadcasting programs of wide appeal and specialised broadcasting programs’.
In other words, the charter provides indications, sets up tensions, but can mean almost anything. On the one hand, the ABC must be distinct from its commercial rivals, or why should it expect to be taxpayer funded? On the other hand, if it does not have wide appeal, it can hardly achieve its primary mission of contributing to a sense of national identity.
There is also a charter obligation to ‘reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community’—a commitment it has arguably fallen down on, with the existence of SBS providing a convenient excuse. The charter says the ABC is to ‘encourage and promote the musical, dramatic and other performing arts’. Yet the orchestras have gone. Finally, there is the international obligation—perhaps the most troubled and neglected of all.
With the reduction in funding referred to above, something—many things—have had to give. Largely out of view of the public, we have lost important areas of public broadcasting capacity. First, over the last decade, the ABC has become a less regional, more Sydney-centric organisation, all for the sake of cost efficiencies. The local 7.30 Reports have been bled of resources, limped on with uneven quality, then closed down. Regional production has been cut. Guthrie’s allocation of increased journalistic resources to the regions will not address all that has been lost.
Second, one of the main trends of the Scott years was to outsource production of drama and documentary. It was probably essential, given the funding situation. Ten years ago there was hardly any Australian drama on ABC television—an enormous failure on charter responsibilities. Partnering with independent producers has meant that money goes further, because extra cash can be harnessed from film corporations, other arts funding bodies and private investors. Independent producers can access tax rebates not available to the ABC.
Today most of the landmark dramas, panel shows, documentaries and comedies are not wholly ABC owned, meaning that when they are sold overseas or to pay tele-vision, the revenue is shared, and the ABC does not own all the rights. The concern is that this means shows will be selected largely on their commercial value rather than on charter values. ABC management insists this isn’t so—that the public broadcaster’s cash is the crucial ingredient, giving creative control. Perhaps, but common sense suggests that just as ABC commissioning influences the independent sector, helping to build its health, it is also almost inevitably true that the sector has changed the ABC culture, subtly influencing its priorities.
Meanwhile outsourcing has fundamentally changed the nature of the ABC. Today it is not so much a maker of television shows as a commissioner and acquirer. Few ABC viewers would realise or care that popular and high-quality shows such as Gruen, Rake, Janet King and The Beautiful Lie are not ABC made. It would be hard to argue that there has been a reduction in quality. For the last 15 years, the Australian independent production sector has been strong on creative ideas and capacity. But should it ever falter or slacken, should the creative talents that drive it retire and not be replaced, we will discover that we have lost much of the capacity to tell our own stories.
Third, there is international broadcasting—a clear charter obligation, yet also a clear casualty of successive rounds of cost cutting and government neglect and carelessness. In Guthrie’s recent reorganisation, the international division disappears altogether, absorbed into other operational areas. This might be less worrying were it not for the way it has already been eroded.
The history of the ABC’s international presence could be the subject of an essay on its own, or even a book. It is a shameful story. In 2014 the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade ended its financial support for the Australia Network service in the Asia–Pacific. This followed years of government mismanagement—attracting a scathing auditor-general’s report among other things—in which the contract for the service got caught up in the Labor Party’s factional warfare, with foreign minister Rudd favouring putting it out to tender to a private operator, and communications minister Stephen Conroy and Gillard favouring the ABC.
When the Australia Network lost funding, a combined 1000 years of journalistic experience in our region walked out the door. The names lost included Sean Dorney, the leading journalistic specialist on Papua New Guinea, Jim Middleton (now working for SkyNews) and Catherine McGrath. It is hard to see how this kind of journalistic capacity will ever be rebuilt.
The charter obligation remains, and today the ABC’s Radio Australia, run on the smell of an oily rag, and Australia Plus, a television service and online and social media presence, attempt to meet it. To pay the bills, the ABC has had to partner with advertisers—most controversially the Swisse ‘wellness’ company, which has been one of the main targets of the ABC’s Checkout consumer show, resulting in a defamation suit by Swisse against the ABC. On the day I was writing this, a Swisse ‘sponsor announcement’ dominated the Australia Plus website. It was news of Nicole Kidman celebrating a new partnership between the company and Ferrari.
In these uncertain times of shifting alliances, when China is rising and the United States declining, at a time when the countries of our region are investing in media as public diplomacy—when state-sponsored broadcasters such as Al Jazeera, China’s international broadcasting network and the BBC are gaining new audiences and power, Australia has given up on a large part of the conversation with our region, for no good reason. The Lowy Institute has remarked that as public diplomacy, broadcasting is cheaper and more powerful than exercises such as the Australian stand at the Shanghai Expo. This reduction in capacity has occurred as a result of political ineptness, petty infighting and lack of vision.
Then there is news. The ABC is now the single largest employer of journalists in the country—not because it is on a hiring spree, but because the main commercial newsrooms have shrunk as the advertising business model that has supported them collapses. Journalism across the Western world is in crisis—and this is one of the main justifications for having a ‘market failure’ broadcaster—making sure that a minimum level of journalistic capacity is maintained. The ABC has had to spread its journalistic talent more thinly. Journalists are employed to cut and package content across dozens of different platforms.
In his Melbourne Press Club address, ABC news director Gaven Morris said that the new emphasis at ABC News has to be to do less of the ordinary kind of news, which can be picked up free of charge on a dozen platforms, and instead devote more time to in-depth stories that matter. Few would argue. Yet every morning the ABC local radio news bulletins are full of little but stories torn from the police rounds blotter. Former prime minister Paul Keating recently said the ABC was letting Australians down in news. ‘What you get on the ABC is: “A truck has just overturned on the Pacific Highway.” It’s like in the 1970s.’ He said the 7.30 Report had become a ‘news magazine’ instead of a hard-news-breaking operation. Meanwhile Lateline, one of the few venues on television for extended interviews on issues that matter, has been bled of resources so consistently that some think it would be better to put it out of its misery.
The ABC remains the home of some of the country’s best journalism. In regional areas it is often the only reliable source of local news. Yet here too, a mix of funding starvation and political carelessness means that we have, bit by bit, lost significant parts of the capacity represented by publicly owned media, even as the new platforms bring the potential for larger audiences.
This essay might well be read as an argument for more money for the ABC. I’m happy for it to be taken that way. But the reality for Guthrie and her team is that neither side of politics is likely in the foreseeable future to commit to the kind of funding increases that would see the rebuilding of the organisation’s lost capacity. Nor is there fat to cut. Repeated reviews of the ABC over the years by outside consultants have found that it is a lean and efficiently managed organisation, delivering more content for less money than its commercial counterparts. Savings, allowing the expansion of the digital presence, have been made largely from new technology that means lighter staffing in studios, for example. Guthrie’s new content fund cannot be simply created. It must be paid for through cuts made elsewhere. The ABC is not a magic pudding.
So how could my suggested rubric—the building and maintaining of a capacity for national conversation and identity—be better met? Writing this essay, I have been thinking about Antiques Roadshow. Each weeknight it precedes the ABC television news on ABC1—the latest in a long sad history of lame offerings in that timeslot. Guthrie, in her March speech to staff, mentioned the slot as one for which she would particularly welcome fresh ideas.
Antiques Roadshow comes from Britain. It is a very nice program, in the weakest meaning of the word. Antique appraisers travel to various stately homes and picturesque locations and invite local people, including a gentle sprinkling of rural eccentrics, to bring their treasured objects for valuation, at which point there are terribly British expressions of amazement and pleasure. I half expect to see the cast of Midsummer Murders arrive with a selection of murder weapons for appraisal.
Some kinds of content are still cheap, and I guess Antiques Roadshow must be one of them. But why should our public broadcaster spend any money on it at all? It does not swell our national conversation, nor contribute to our idea of what it means to be Australian. On my template of what the ABC should do, Roadshow would be cut tomorrow.
And yet, clearly, it can’t be—or not without being replaced. Doing almost anything else in that timeslot would probably cost more—and that would mean something else would have to be cut. Here is the challenge faced by the ABC. In the future, when all of the audience for appointment television has gone, there will be no place for Antiques Roadshow on the ABC. But we are not there yet. Playing music, or resorting to the old test card would hardly be acceptable. And, as my 87-year-old father—a Roadshow fan—points out to me, those who watch Antiques Roadshow are almost certainly going to leave the set on and take in the news and perhaps 7.30 as well.
Or what about the radio station Classic FM? It is not expensive, compared to the talk-based Radio National, but it still costs the salaries of presenters and transmission. The ABC annual report tells us that ABC classic FM includes only 30 per cent Australian music—the lowest of any of the ABC music stations. Is this sufficient justification for a public broadcaster? Does this swell the national conversation?
And yet it is also Australia’s only national classic music network. It supports music-making by Australian artists around the country. While the audience may be small, it is passionate. Former ABC managing director Donald McDonald used to send cabinet ministers CDs of Classic FM as Christmas presents, in hopes of soothing the savage beasts by reminding them there was more to the ABC than its journalism. Any suggestion that Classic FM be cut would cause outrage.
Perhaps Classic FM could become simply music, with no announcements (some listeners complain the words get in the way in any case). Or perhaps it could become a classical version of Trible J’s Unearthed, and devote itself exclusively to Australian composers and performers. But that, too, would cost more. And the audience, it is probably safe to say, would be alarmed by any suggestion that they should simply stream the music they love. Here we have one of the main problems faced by the ABC. We are simultaneously in the new media world, and serving the needs of the old media audience.
Every new initiative must mean ceasing or cutting something else. So in thinking big about what the public broadcaster should be, how its capacity should be used, and what it might do for our national conversation, we also have to think about how to use the strengths of what remains and what we can do without.
Which brings us to SBS. Not many countries have public broadcasters funded through the taxpayer’s purse. Hardly any have two. In 1978 the government saw SBS as a key piece of public infrastructure to support one of Australia’s greatest social experiments: the transformation from a white European nation to a multicultural society. Then as now, the charter of the ABC was broad enough to accommodate any bandwagon parked within it, and prime minister Malcolm Fraser’s original intention was that the ABC should pick up a greater role in multicultural broadcasting. Only when Fraser became convinced that the ABC’s heart wasn’t in the mission did he create a separate organisation. Ever since it has limped along as the ABC’s even poorer relation.
Over the years in which Mark Scott was managing director, the ABC did substantial work, largely under wraps, on examining the potential for a merger with SBS. A 2009 Boston Consulting Group report recommended that they become one organisation. But in a nice piece of management-consultant euphemism, the report stated that while this could be quite easily achieved from an organisational point of view, ‘legal, political and cultural issues are far more likely to be on the critical path’. In other words, where the shit fight would happen.
The benefits, back in 2009, were estimated to be savings of up to $248 million in yearly costs and another $58 million in asset sales. Today, it would probably be more. Most ABC insiders accept as a given that a merger will happen over the next few years—probably largely by stealth, with ‘back office’ functions being merged while the public-facing broadcasting brands remain.
There is little doubt that if the SBS were being created now, it would be as a series of digital multichannels of the ABC. Nor is there much doubt that it is falling down in its mission. Since the early 1990s when SBS started taking advertising dollars as well as government money, multilingual material has disappeared from prime time on SBS1 to be replaced by mainstream fare, such as Top Gear, which has since gone to Channel 9, and Mythbusters. As one Channel 10 executive charmingly put it, ‘All the ethnics are watching Masterchef.’
We need what SBS does, or rather what it could do. Today there are twice as many people in Australia born overseas and from non-English-speaking backgrounds as there were when SBS was founded. The job of integrating them has become more complicated as the mix has moved from Europe to Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Meanwhile, Australia is in stiff competition with other OECD countries for skilled migrants. There is also competition for international students, who have become a vital source of revenue for our higher education sector.
A well-managed merger between an ABC newly committed to diversity and the SBS could be an improvement for both, and a more efficient use of public broadcasting funds. The risk is that the savings made would not be returned to public broadcasting, but instead siphoned off into consolidated revenue. If that happens, our capacity to address multiculturalism through broadcasting will be another casualty of government negligence, and the nation will be the weaker for it. No government in recent times has displayed the kind of vision for public broadcasting that might reassure us.
One of the reasons Michelle Guthrie got the job as ABC managing director was that, having come from a job at Google, it was thought that she would understand the new importance of distribution. Once media executives were fond of saying that content was king. Today they are likely to add that distribution is queen. The winners of the new media race, from ISIS to Buzzfeed, are those who can distribute content efficiently.
Guthrie has made it a priority of her reign to push more partnerships with other platforms—such as pay television, Google, Facebook and Apple News, getting ABC content out further and wider. The ABC, in this model, becomes all pervasive—encounterable on many different platforms, to many people who will never deliberately tune in to an appointment with Tony Jones, or wait patiently each week for the latest episode of Janet King.
The figures to support this push are compelling. Gaven Morris told the Melbourne Press Club that the award-winning Four Corners episode on the Don Dale youth detention centre attracted three-quarters of a million viewers when it was first screened. Within hours the controversy took off, and an inquiry was announced. In response, another 1.8 million people accessed edited videos of the program on Facebook, and there were another 460,000 views on YouTube, all within days of the original screening.
Another example was a Sally Sara story, ‘Freedom Riders’, about kids from the violent South African township of Masiphumelele learning to surf. Originally made for Foreign Correspondent, it attracted 300,000 viewers on television, and another 5000 viewers on iview. But short-form videos distributed on YouTube and Facebook have been viewed more than a million times.
The new platforms offer bigger audiences for the best of ABC content. Guthrie, in her first few weeks in the job, asked her executives whether the ABC was the home of Australian stories, as they were accustomed to saying, or the source of Australian stories. It’s an important question, because the combination of the growing importance of new distribution platforms, together with the established trend of ABC outsourcing points towards one possible ABC future.
Perhaps the ABC might become not an institution, but rather a bucket of money accompanied by expert panels that will commission content to be made available on all platforms—pay television, Google, YouTube—even commercial broadcasters. Why spend money on transmission towers, bandwidth and spectrum when there are new, efficient and free means of getting content to users? It’s easy to see how this model might appeal to market-oriented managers, politicians wanting to save money, and former Google executives such as Guthrie.
But this is perhaps the biggest danger of all for a healthy public broadcasting future Should the ABC ever cease to become a broadcaster and a publisher, we risk giving it up altogether. This is because, as recent history shows, we can’t trust the new platforms. Google and Facebook deliver content to users on the basis of algorithms that rely on data collected—what people have previously bought and sought. ABC content served on these platforms would serve as another means for these massive enterprises to gather our data. Second, there would be no guarantee of national conversation. Rather, the risk would be of encouraging fragmentation. The leading journalism academic Emily Bell outlined the risk for journalism in her recent AN Smith lecture. Google and Facebook, she said, had become not a means of connecting with others but
… an open invitation to stay in our lane, in our interests, our geographies, our views, our media and our lives. The really efficient thing about social media is we don’t have to even try to do that ourselves anymore, the mysterious algorithmic underpinnings of Google and Facebook do it for us, and we don’t even notice. Until we miss something that happened in someone else’s lane. For liberal America Trump happened in someone else’s lane.
Gaven Morris at his Melbourne Press Club address said he believed that Facebook and Google were increasingly conscious of the need for quality content, that the era of click bait was falling away. As this trend increased, he suggested, the power dynamic between organisations such as the ABC and the distribution platforms would change, and the ABC would be able to have a say in how its content was distributed. It is, to put it mildly, a wildly optimistic point of view.
The ABC has little choice but to use the new platforms to distribute content if it wants to reach audiences, but if it ever loses the capacity to make its own content and distribute on its own platforms, then to that extent we become a colony of these new publishers and their successors—international players that rival the power and the boundaries of nation-states.
Emily Bell argued that we are wrong to buy in to the Silicon Valley narrative that old institutions are inevitably going to perish. Rather, she said, we should be newly attentive to the values and the capacity that they represent. She was talking about journalism, but I think the point relates powerfully to publicly funded media and to the ABC. For a middle-ranking power such as Australia, a public broadcaster represents our voice—our bulwark against colonisation. We need it for talking to others and for knowing ourselves.
Some will think that I have failed to address the main issue about the ABC: its alleged left-wing bias. I have ignored it to this point for reasons that I hope are by now self-evident. It isn’t the issue. It is a distraction, a falsity and a trap. There are far more real and important things to worry about. ABC staff, like many media workers, probably skew to the left in their personal views but with rare exceptions they discipline themselves when it comes to their professional work. Some of the more conservative broadcasters who have joined the ABC in recent times have struggled with the same discipline, before largely joining their colleagues in an ethic of bipartisan professionalism. The repeated surveys on ABC news and current affairs continually confirm that this is so. Most Australians trust the ABC. The vast majority think it is fair and balanced. Regular audits of election coverage confirm the balance (not that balance is the same as fairness, but that is a debate for another day).
The ABC has a powerful culture that is broadly concerned with social issues, including social equity. At its best it is neutral, but curious and questioning of the way things are. This is surely appropriate for a public broadcaster and, I would argue, for media organisations more generally. The notion of the fair go, after all, is meant to be one of the things that binds us. Even Tony Abbott would surely agree. Education and culture, both of which necessarily include an assessment of the rightness of how things are now, are part of the reasons the ABC exists—charter responsibilities.
More dangerous, as I have suggested above, is a vague middle-classness that fails to appreciate other world views. This is something I would like to see the ABC address with more determination and resources. As I was writing this essay I listened to Fran Kelly broadcasting from outside the closing Hazelwood power station, and interviewing locals who will lose their jobs. It was a good broadcast, showing the ABC is attempting to address its city-based prejudices. It was also a rather light-on effort. Rather than hitting town for a single day, the ABC should be using its regional resources, including the potential of ABC Open, better to give voice to working communities and connect them to the national conversation. Diversity is not only about ethnicity. It is also about geography and about class.
We live in polarised times, and partisans of the right have consistently tried to drag the ABC into the quagmire by behaving as though political bias was the main issue. Meanwhile partisans of the left see a Murdoch conspiracy behind every bush and lamppost, and in the process reduce every-thing to personalities and tribalism. The left wing, as I have said above, can also be destructively conservative about the ABC. Change is necessary. The partisan spats are a dangerous distraction. They are one of the reasons that governments of both colours have been so negligent in dealing with some of the issues I have discussed here.
We should be awed and grateful that the ABC has not only survived but also maintained such reach and power. The ABC is doing a good job, but not a perfect one. The job of stewardship faced by the ABC board and by Guthrie and her team is enormous, and there are very few easy answers. There are gaps and holes and complacencies that need to be challenged. Nobody in power has ever seriously suggested we should do without the ABC, but at the same time parts of its capacity have been destroyed or given away without sufficient discussion or thought. If only that would stop.
Here we have an immense national asset, a tremendous legacy. Its job is to connect us, to help maintain some common understandings of who we are, the issues we face and the values we share. We have to hope that our own generation will not be the one that allows that capacity to slip away.
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