The National Commission of Audit - released on May 1 – recommends slashing all community broadcasting funding in Australia. For some, this is a logical response to the nation’s need to collectively “shoulder the burden” of our apparent economic woes. For others it appears both unexplained and unjustified.
Certainly it raises questions with regard to both the role of media in our society, and the “value” of community broadcasting.
There are more than 360 community radio stations around Australia, each of them, in theory, with an inclusive governance structure producing local media content by and for their local communities. The stations – ethnic, religious, youth, GLBTI, radio for the print handicapped, music, Indigenous, along with more than 80 TV stations – make up Australia’s third media sector, and are powered by more than 20,000 volunteers.
The sector often flies under the radar of the Australia psyche, yet internationally it is consistently held up as one of the world’s most expansive and successful examples of community broadcasting.
In the last budget the sector received A$17.7 million in Federal Government funds – with just over $5 million of that dedicated to the transition to digital radio technology. Yet in three short sentences – in Volume 2 of the Appendix – the Commission of Audit has deemed community broadcasting unworthy of Federal Government funds:
The Commonwealth Government already provides over $1 billion per annum to the operation of the public broadcasters. There is a limited rationale for the Commonwealth to also subsidise community radio services. Continued government funding of this area does not meet the Report’s principles of good governance.
Since 1984 the Community Broadcasting Foundation (originally called the Public Broadcasting Foundation) has transparently distributed public funds to community broadcasters. As an independent non-profit funding body, it allocates grants through competitive rounds assessed by volunteer committees.
The grants are small financial contributions that in many instances make the difference between a station covering its basic running and transmission costs, or not. Isn’t this public money well spent?
Community broadcasting began in Australia in the mid 1970s and is different to public broadcasting. It arose out of an identified need to provide an accessible space for ordinary Australians to have a voice. That need has not disappeared.
Despite more than four decades of radical change within media technology and content production, there remains a critical need to actively facilitate the voices, issues and opinions that are underrepresented in the mainstream media.
The Commission of Audit noted that:
Media convergence, especially the availability and access of text, audio and video media via the internet, is increasingly eliminating the traditional arguments for public broadcasting. The need for government intervention or support has now been largely superseded by technology and commercial imperatives.
Where is the evidence to support such a claim? While the internet provides many opportunities, it does not have a democratic intent, or a big picture focus on the role of the media in striving for the betterment of society.
Online media platforms do not seek to address issues of inequality and injustice. Information and access online is not free, and in many parts of the country even getting online remains a challenge.
Neither online technologies, nor public broadcasters, actively facilitate marginalised people having a voice in the media. Community broadcasting does all of these things – which is why its democratic function remains essential.
The recommendation by the Commission of Audit to stop funding community broadcasting goes to the heart of what we value – and what “value” indeed means in our present-day society. It makes us contemplate what is deserving of our public funds. Among the many questions raised are the following:
Do we consider independent, local community news and information, along with community language radio shows, and a significant space for local music and culture, to be of value?
Do we want to have community owned and operated media outlets?
Do we need a third media sector – separate from public and commercial – that prioritises the access and participation of everyday Australians?
Are we going to accept that public funding of community broadcasting activities doesn’t equate with “good governance”?
The issue of value is deeply ingrained in an ideology that is ubiquitous throughout the Commission of Audit and the Abbott Government. It is a value system that clearly prioritises the economy above community.
There is absolutely no evidence to suggest this model presents increased opportunities for the poor and marginalised to participate in the media. Similarly, there is no evidence that a “free” market economy equates with an egalitarian distribution of freedom of speech.
Consistently the public’s active participation in society is considered vital to a functioning democracy. And the media plays a central role in the flow of information, along with the sharing of views and ideas.
Community broadcasting is in a unique position to contribute to communicative democracy. If there was ever a need to step up and voice your support for a non-commercial, independent community broadcasting sector in Australia it is now. Before the first nail is placed in the community broadcasting coffin.