The utter failure of Their ABC

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation has failed. It has operated for 80 years and expended tens of billions of taxpayer dollars. It is largely unaccountable and goes its own way. It owns vast media and other assets, employs thousands of staff and currently operates on a budget of $1.18 billion. It enjoys a monopoly presence in many market segments and is not required to interrupt its programs with advertising, therefore optimizing the consumer experience. And yet, despite these massive advantages, it commands only 15%-16% of its target television audience and about 20% for radio. Its performance in other areas of responsibility is equally pathetic.

The ABC should be either closed down and its assets sold off, or broken up into its component operating parts, which should in turn be either sold or re-established as much smaller state-owned corporations. Moreover, given the rate and direction of change in the media and communications market, there is good reason to sell these state-owned assets quickly, while they still have some value.

Those parts of the ABC to be retained in public ownership should have very specific roles to play where there has been clear market failure and there is a public interest in having the relevant services provided by public entities, e.g., a Regional Broadcasting Corporation and a Schools Broadcasting Corporation. These must be properly resourced, but their aims and functions should be very clear and constrained, their boards representative and accountable to the constituencies they serve.

Once such areas are properly and efficiently catered for there is no reason to retain the ABC in anything like its present form. A vast amount of state-owned corporations and infrastructure has been privatised over the past few decades and there is no reason why the ABC should be exempt from this and continue in public ownership.

In fact, despite its pretensions to iconic status, there is nothing special or necessary about the ABC. That it exists at all as a lavishly publicly-funded media conglomerate is an accident of Australian history, as it emerged when the radio industry was in its infancy and there was no settled business model for broadcasting. The federal government couldn’t decide whether to adopt the free-enterprise model that had emerged in America, where broadcasting was financed through advertising, or the statist model adopted in Britain, where funding came via taxes and licence fees. Consequently, it allowed the two systems to operate in parallel, justifying the existence of the ABC on the basis that it met ill-defined special needs and otherwise dealt, allegedly, with market failure. Behind this cloak the ABC progressively diversified into many areas, where it usually performed poorly while nevertheless continuing to expand its role.

The lamentable result of the 80-year experiment with the ABC as a public broadcaster is partly explained by one of the institution’s most unfortunate characteristics. Over the years it has self-servingly projected itself as some sort of national icon — “Your ABC” — and as something all Australians should be proud of. However, at the same time, it fell under the control of a self-perpetuating politico-cultural elite with very particular tastes and highly predictable leftist political views. As a result, it has assumed an obvious left-of-centre corporate identity that most closely echoes the ideological position of the Greens. Not only doesn’t this attract consumers for its services, it positively alienates and indeed frequently infuriates much of its potential audience.

Revealingly, the ABC seems not only unconcerned about this situation but is perversely proud of it, regarding its incapacity to engage the bulk of the Australian population as a measure of the extent to which it is fulfilling its charter to cater to minority (i.e., left-wing, sectarian, and culturally elitist) interests. It has also nurtured a dismissive attitude to the Australian “masses”, who evidently don’t know what is good for them. Only because it is taxpayer funded can it indulge in such delusional thinking, which would have ensured the demise of any private company that so blatantly failed to identify, value, and service the needs of its market.

The ABC’s attitude was exemplified by a recent speech by its new chairman, James Spigelman, an eminent member of the legal profession whose career rose to dizzy heights under federal and state ALP administrations. In his speech, Mr. Spigelman exhibited a breathtaking chutzpah as he offered various and specious arguments to justify and enhance the privileged position enjoyed by the organization he now heads. For example, he had the boldness to assert the ABC provides “particularly reliable news and information”, when such hyperbole clearly has no basis in reality.

He also rejects the principle that media organisations should operate on a level playing field, insisting that the ABC must be exempt from the draconian system of journalistic regulation the federal Labor government is threatening to introduce. He says this, mind you, while being happy to see every other media organization subjected to outrageous oversight, up to and including the possibility of seeing editors jailed for failing to bow before an appointed panel’s rulings on how news and opinion should be presented.

He also appears to believe the ABC has some pre-ordained role to play in the emerging media landscape, oblivious to the fact that traditional media monoliths like the ABC perform poorly as sources of innovation and so often fall victim to groupthink, a characteristic that Mr. Spigelman appears to accept and approve. Nevertheless, he insists that it should be given a blank cheque to pursue various dilettantish New Media experiments, asserting as justification that “this is how the ABC’s audiences see it and the ABC continues each day to meet that public expectation”. However, he fails to explain how we get from some guesstimation of the alleged desires of the ABC’s audiences (15%-20% of the public) to a fully-fledged “public expectation” that mandates the ABC’s expenditure of scarce taxpayer funds on amateur-hour activities in a dynamic field dominated by gigantic corporations worth hundreds of billions of dollars, many of which have themselves lost vast amounts of money, or even gone broke, trying to carve out their places in the brave new media world.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Spigelman pointedly referred to the objections made in 1933 by Sir Keith Murdoch to the public funding of the ABC as a competitor to the Herald & Weekly Times, the for-profit media outfit he helmed, remarking snidely that Rupert Murdoch’s present concerns show how little things have changed over the years, the implication being that such concerns are merely self-serving and illegitimate. In fact, the apt comparison should be between the massive achievements of News Corporation, driven by entrepreneurial flair, and the puny progress of the ABC, retarded by bureaucratic torpor.

In a similarly self-satisfied fashion, Mr. Spigelman claims that “there is no public debate in Australia that seriously questions the continuation of the ABC’s traditional services”. This may have been true for a time, when the public had faith in the ABC. However, it is no longer the case. The ABC has developed and mutated largely unchecked for 80 years, insulated from the disciplines of the marketplace and willfully oblivious to the evolving interests of the Australian people. It has become the ungainly and self-important bureaucratic monster that now looms large over Australia’s media landscape, seeking to dominate both the terms and content of our national political debate and cultural experience. The time has come for radical surgery on our octogenarian national broadcaster.

Mervyn F. Bendle is a frequent contributor to Quadrant and Quadrant Online

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