Well here we go again: Another government inquiry into the performance of the ABC and SBS. But despite the political breast-beating about the need for greater efficiency in our national broadcasters, history suggests that this inquiry, like the many that have gone before, will result in little more than tinkering at the edges of this problem at best.
There are obvious and simple efficiency options available. But implementing these would mean navigating a political minefield which protects the ABC in particular.
The Abbott government’s terms of reference for its inquiry say it will focus on the costs of inputs, the back-of-house processes delivering ABC and SBS programs, products and services. There is nothing new in this. SBS management floated the concept of a backroom merger with the ABC six years ago at then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s 2020 brainstorming summit. It argued that the creation of a single platform to manage common elements of broadcasting technology and infrastructure could achieve economies of scale. This would leave the public broadcasters free to focus on their core businesses — the creation, aggregation and dissemination of content. Any savings could be redirected to content creation.
A starting point for this would be in the delivery of transmission and distribution services which now account for well over $250 million of the public broadcasters’ $1.4 billion annual budget. A logical follow-up would be for the broadcasters to operate out of the same premises. This would free up valuable real estate now occupied by SBS, particularly its headquarters in Sydney.
In late 2008 then-Communications Minister Stephen Conroy announced a review of the ABC and SBS, flagging his support for some degree of backroom synergy between the two. But the focus of this review quickly shifted to the issue of transparency in board appointments. While Conroy clearly had little love for the quasi-commercial SBS he was driven by a desire to demonstrate that a Labor Government could upstage the conservatives by taking the politics out of the board-appointment process.This costly exercise was little more than a charade, as the Prime Minister had the last say anyway.
Claims of political bias have triggered calls for the ABC to be pulled into line. All I can say about this is ‘good luck’. The ABC through its manifold services has greater reach than any other media organisation in Australia. Politicians of all persuasions are only too aware of this. At the same time it is fair to ask where is the demand for SBS coming from?
The multicultural appeal of community and ethnic broadcasting which led to Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser creating SBS in the late 1970s is no longer there. Society has moved on. The large ethnic groups that were the target of Fraser’s immigration settlement initiative have been replaced by their English-speaking, Australian-born children, who have adapted comfortably into the world of rapidly changing communication platforms.
When the Labor government led by Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, announced in the 1986 Budget that it would be amalgamating the ABC and SBS to meet financial policy constraints, all hell broke loose. Ethnic community groups launched an intensive campaign in support of SBS, lobbying that ultimately saw the Australian Democrats, who held the balance of power in the Senate, overturning the amalgamation decision. The Abbott government, already confronted by a hostile Senate, has pointedly stepped around any talk of amalgamation even though this would fit comfortably into Treasurer Joe Hockey’s financial policy knapsack.
A sidebar to all of this is the future of the country’s international television servcice — Australia Network — which was gifted to the ABC in perpetuity by Conroy. ABC Managing Director and former Fairfax editorial director Mark Scott, who also styles himself the ABC’s “editor in chief”, successfully convinced Conroy that his organisation, and certainly nothing associated with Rupert Murdoch, such as Sky News, was the most appropriate and reliable vehicle to deliver the Australia’s soft diplomacy message overseas.
How the ABC’s paranoia about its editorial independence could sit comfortably alongside government propaganda is anyone’s guess, but there was the annual sweetener of a $20 million-plus Foreign Affairs handout. Whatever the case Australia Network’s message, under ABC control, was to say the least confused .
If Tony Abbott doesn’t believe the government needs to engage in this sort of propaganda he should cancel the contract with the ABC.
But if he does believe that here is a role for this type of service he should take direct control of it, as the US Government does with Voice of America.
Malcolm Colless is a freelance journalist specialising in political and communications commentary. He worked for The Times newspaper in London for three years and was then chied political correspondent for The Australian in Canberra from 1977 to 1981