Commercial media can’t satisfy Australian audiences: new ABC chair

The ABC has been criticised for offering rolling 24-hour news, but chairman James Spigelman says the ABC must deliver a comprehensive service. ABC

The ABC’s new chairman, James Spigelman, has rejected claims the broadcaster should steer clear of the audiences already served by commercial rivals, arguing instead that the commercial sector’s ability to continue to deliver the services Australians expect was in doubt.

In his first speech as ABC chairman, the former NSW Supreme Court chief justice said given the digital revolution had undermined traditional media, it was understandable there had been expressions of anxiety over public broadcasters from those with commercial interests at stake.

He was speaking at a conference exploring the value delivered by public enterprises.

“Already it is apparent that digital technology constitutes a profound challenge for media organisations that have built and sustained businesses on pre-convergence assumptions,” Mr Spigelman said.

He added that current pay walls and online advertising for newspapers could no longer sustain the news gathering infrastructure of the past, and that the reduction of commercial TV and radio news and current affairs coverage to a “tabloid core” had been noticeable for some years.

“These developments are unlikely to be reversed,” Mr Spigelman said.

He said there had never been a time when the ABC was simply a market failure broadcaster, obliged to fill gaps in the commercial offering, and in fact the ABC was directed to provide “comprehensive broadcasting services”.

When the ABC launched its 24-hour news service in 2010, it was criticised by Sky News chief executive Angelos Frangopoulos, who argued it would mean taxpayers were forced to pay for “needless duplication”.

Journalists Chris Masters and Michael Gawenda, and publisher Eric Beecher have also questioned the ABC’s decision to provide opinion and commentary via The Drum.

Mr Spigelman said while there was no public debate in Australia that seriously questioned the continuation of the ABC’s traditional services, there was some commentary about the ABC’s expansion into online and mobile platform delivery.

“These platforms are ubiquitous in their availability and, in that respect, are becoming the same as traditional radio or television sets,” Mr Spigelman said.

He added that suggesting such delivery should be restricted because it was new was akin to arguing radio programs should not be delivered to transistor radios because they did not exist when radio broadcasting started.

But despite the changes to the media environment and increased expressions of concern about the public broadcaster from commercial interests, Mr Spigelman said some things had changed very little over the decades.

“In 1933, when the ABC commenced an independent news service, the chief executive of one of our major media groups was so concerned with the impact such as service could have on both his company’s print and commercial radio operations as to call for a reduction in the ABC’s revenue. That person was Sir Keith Murdoch, Rupert’s father.”

The full version of James Spigelman’s speech can be viewed here.