A Modest Proposal for the ABC

The Germans, for whom efficiency and precision are cardinal virtues, have a highly effective way of paying for their national broadcasting service, the Arbeitsgemeinschaft der öffentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunkanstalten der Bundesrepublik Deutschland or ARD. Citizens who listen to and watch its programs pay a voluntary tax, collected by the government together with their income tax and passed direct to the ARD. Those who for whatever reason wish to disavail themselves of the state broadcaster’s services have only to register as non-viewers or listeners and they pay nothing.

The arrangement suits everyone. The ARD—the second-biggest public broadcaster in the world after the BBC—is publicly funded but no one who disapproves of its output is obliged to hand out money to keep it on the air. One consequence is that the ARD takes a close interest in the demographics of those who do not pay the tax and conducts surveys and designs programs to try to win them back. People who have opted out one year can sometimes be persuaded to opt in again the next.

Do Australia and the ABC have anything to learn from this German system, particularly with regard to public concern about political and cultural bias at the national broadcaster and the latter’s thinly veiled contempt for those insufficiently respectful of the ABC’s lofty status as to complain about it?

Before attempting to answer that, a clarification. The account above is, as the late Edgar Lustgarten used to say at the end of his masterly little crime films in the 1950s series Scotland Yard, “a true story, with only the names changed”. For ARD substitute Christian churches in Germany. They are financed by a tax exactly as described, which no one has to pay. What follows is a modest proposal that, yes, we do have something to learn from the German system. A voluntary tax is the way we should finance the ABC.

It is reasonably likely that sooner or later a Coalition government, probably under Tony Abbott, will succeed the present incumbents, who increasingly resemble the residents of the asylum at Charenton in an amateur production of Marat/Sade. Apart from repealing the carbon tax and the infamous Lavarch racial discrimination act the new prime minister will want to do something about the Augean stables of the ABC and hose away the noisome piles of leftish prejudice, the mephitic accumulation of years of what outgoing chairman Maurice Newman has criticised as the “groupthink” of its staff. But what? Tinkering with the present arrangements won’t change much. It might prompt a bit more window-dressing to give the impression of balance but the political and cultural assumptions that underpin ABC output would remain. The ABC as a structure must be reformed, and the way it is financed would be a good place to start. (This of course assumes that we need any form of government-sponsored broadcasting service, an assumption that I should have thought far from proven. I doubt though that selling off the ABC is an option the Coalition would pursue.)

If we have to keep the ABC we can still curb its high-handedness. At present the corporation is presented with a sum of taxpayers’ money to use as it will. A voluntary tax would make the ABC more responsive to public opinion by tying the broadcaster into a direct relationship with its audience of the sort it can currently afford to ignore. It could of course continue to supplement its income with revenue from its sundry commercial activities, its ABC shops and so on. And its endless on-air commercials for itself, especially on television, which are irritating without telling you anything you are interested in knowing about or don’t already know, could be made to pay by using the time to advertise real things, as on SBS.

The ABC might further benefit from a re-examination of its corporate structure. It was conceived as a radio broadcaster, onto which television was subsequently grafted. The ABC follows the model of the old Postmaster-General’s Department, which used to run both postal and telephone services. The PMG was split up years ago and the same should happen to the ABC. Radio and television are different forms of creative endeavour requiring different skills and the fact that they both transmit “over the air” is not sufficient reason for keeping them together, any more than a common use of airspace would be a reason for the RAAF to run Qantas.

The ABC has only itself to thank that there is a growing demand for its reform. It has fouled its own nest. Quite apart from its childish indulgence in bias it has repeatedly abdicated its responsibility to produce the kind of programs commercial broadcasters will (supposedly) not produce, programs that are the raison d’être of its privileged status. This is especially true of television: indeed, an argument could be made that television has dragged the ABC down, because it is there that the corporation’s mistake of forgetting that its public funding is supposed to keep it out of the marketplace is most visible. The ABC does not have to, and therefore should not, compete for ratings. But it does, and with the unfair advantage over commercial competitors that whereas they, when airing tripe, have to ensure that it is tripe some advertiser is prepared to sponsor, the ABC can program anything its progressive documentary-makers, its leaden-penned drama scriptwriters or its “edgy” middle-aged “young” comedians can come up with, with total impunity.

If making the ABC dependent on a voluntary tax and splitting it into two corporations would not of itself eradicate the inherent culture from which all bias and arrogance in programming spring, a change in program-makers probably would. ABC news and current affairs in television and radio should be put out to tender. Other news-gathering organisations could bid to run them—even the Murdoch media—horror of horrors—might win a tender. But if it could do the job to the satisfaction of the new corporations’ streamlined managements (and some salutary belt-tightening from the top down might well be necessary under the new funding), why not? Pace Mr Finkelstein QC and his groupies, the Murdoch organisation’s biases are nothing like as evident in its output as are those of the ABC, especially in current affairs. Besides, much ABC non-news programming is already outsourced so the principle is established even within the corporation as it is. And if bringing in outside operators to run ABC news and current affairs were objected to as wasting all that talent and expertise we’re always hearing about from ABC apologists, there is nothing to stop current ABC staff forming consortiums to bid to make the programs on which they had hitherto been employed, if they could overcome their pampered self-indulgence. 

A voluntary tax would have the additional virtue of giving those who are most vocal in support of the ABC the opportunity to pay even more for the benefit of their beloved institution. For an extra annual amount you could have your name inscribed on some roll of honour as a silver or gold ABC taxpayer. Imagine the pride that Friends of the ABC would feel driving around in their elderly Volvos with a windscreen sticker reading “Platinum ABC Taxpayer On Board”. 

Christopher Akehurst contributed “Smoking Out Evil Spirits at the CSIRO” in the January-February issue.  

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