A useful policy Malcolm Turnbull might implement would be to sell the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. No, seriously! While the new Prime Minister is four-square in the debt of the national broadcaster for assiduously promoting his telegenic image and alleged inevitability, he has also said he is in favour of opening up Australia to new ways of doing business. He understands the importance of a broad digital economy to our future. So, why not offload an outdated, government-funded behemoth that tilts the playing field of the communications economy? Only Nixon, that staunch anti-communist, could have opened relations with China. Only Turnbull, the ABC’s most ardent Liberal sponsor, can present the case for selling it.
True, such a move is most unlikely, despite Turnbull’s history of betrayal. But were he to do it, such an initiative might give the digital economy a big push. New business opportunities in media would no longer be hobbled by unassailable competition from seemingly-endless “free” content emanating from the generously funded ABC.
Back in 1929, when the then-Australian Broadcasting Company was set up to bring news to us all, nobody in government could have foreseen the internet or that, by 2015 Australians would have so very many diverse sources of information and entertainment. Simply put, the need for a state-owned ABC exists no more.
The launch this week of the NBN’s satellite has finally put to bed one of the ABC’s last rationales: that it must stay state-owned if it is to bring news and entertainment to Australia’s vast Outback, which no commercial provider can or would span. Basically, by its own logic, the ABC exists to lose money in the bush.
The ABC’s other big plea — that it is uniquely free of commercial and advertising pressures — has been untrue for ages. Consider a flagship program like the ABC’s Q&A. For years it has been an effective and relentless promoter of those massive for-profit enterprises Twitter and Facebook. How has this breach of the ABC’s Charter been continually allowed by its Board? (editor: how is that so many other breaches also avoid the board’s scrutiny?) Consider also how the ABC shamelessly advertises DVDs, books and sundry merchandise put together by private enterprises, but linked in some way or other to the ABC’s own programs. Why are these items allowed to be flogged at all hours via a supposedly commercial-free broadcaster?
And then consider ABC’s sports coverage, where the names and logos of hundreds of commercial firms are given wide publicity. Oh, what a jolly time there must be in private advertising agencies across the country, as they work out how much unpaid airtime they will snag on the ABC by getting advertisers to throw “sponsorship” money at a team here and a sportsperson there!
The ABC has de facto supported a whole range of private advertisers’ products for years. The only difference with existing commercial broadcasters is that the ABC has forgone much of the income it could rightly have earned from showing those products on its TV channels. Selling the ABC would allow it to earn what it is due, rather than pretending the taxpayer-funded service is somehow above unseemly commerce.
But, you may be thinking, what about the highbrow culture, science and documentaries that the ABC shows? Would these disappear (at least from free-to-air TV) if the ABC were to be sold off? Well, first, many of these elite programs are not produced by the ABC, but bought from overseas or produced by companies working under contract. You might think of The Chaser, say. as an ABC production, but it isn’t. Rather, like so many other ABC shows, it is purchased from an outside supplier. Such programs would still exist for a privatised ABC to purchase and show.
Second, and more important, most “elite” programs will transition to the internet; indeed, they already are — a fact demonstrated by the success of the on-demand iView service. Expend that service and you and I will be able to access them to our hearts delight and probably at very little direct cost.
Well then, what would happen to the ABC’s wonderful crucible for developing young journalists, actors, producers and technicians? Wouldn’t those jobs disappear if the ABC were sold off? To the contrary, the ABC’s partisan grip on junior employment in some of these areas would be released. Demand for these workers might well increase and their salaries too, once a low-paying, monopolistic government-backed player gives way to wider enterprise.
There is no strong case of leaving the ABC (and its funding) as the plaything of governments of either political persuasion. Australians would be richer, literally, for selling off the ABC and quickly. We might then use the funds in desperately needed areas or even to pay off some of our nation’s huge debt — a slather of red ink, by the way, about which many ABC journalists seem entirely unconcerned.
Who might buy the ABC? Well, for a start, there are a quite a few wealthy, left-leaning dilettantes. Internet mogul Graeme Wood, the largest single contributor to the Greens, underwrites the local manifestation of The Guardian. Buying the ABC would be a great opportunity for Wood and others like him to put their money where their mouths are.
Then there is a second tier of wealthy, left-leaning media identities who have been very keen to see the national broadcaster continue to promote the stories and themes they find so very attractive. The actress Cate Blanchett, for example, isn’t short of a quid and very keen to promote climate catastrophism. Surely she would eagerly embrace the opportunity to convene ABC steering committees — the left just loves meetings and minutes — and back her judgment with her own money. There are plenty more like her to populate a privatised ABC boardroom.
And then there are Australia’s large trade unions, which often have effective control (via board appointments) of industry-related super funds. Wouldn’t it be a good investment in their principles for the unions to each own a piece of our ABC, via those very fat funds! Indeed, the first steps in this direction have already been taken with the unions’ support for The New Daily. Some might object that this represents the mis-use of members’ money, but since when have the bruvvers paid any heed to critics of their presumed right to act as, and only as, they see fit, especially when it comes to spending rank-and-file dues?
So, what if none of the above stump up the cash to buy the ABC? Well, I suspect that we could still sell the ABC (or possibly just merge it) with a leading international broadcaster. You’re probably thinking the BBC, but I fancy Al Jazeera is a better prospect. Their world views are similar and, an added advantage, such a relationship might help the ABC’s coverage of the World Cup in Qatar!