Future news

Hands off our ABC!

AAP/Stefan Postles

James Spigelman mounted a stout defence of the ABC at the Press Club the other day, with three important arguments.

First, the ABC is very good value for your tax dollar, by comparison with the cost of, for example, Foxtel. Subscriptions to the latter are at least five times the cost of the ABC to the Australian taxpayer.

This is not to say that Foxtel is poor value. I subscribe to it myself, for Sky News, the movies, quality TV drama imports and more. But the oft-heard suggestion – likely to be heard much more often in the coming months - that the ABC costs too much to the hard working families of Australia is ridiculous.

Take away the ABC – or cut its funding to the point at which it ceases to be the ABC as we have known it - and people would have no choice but to buy into the much more expensive private subscription service offered by Foxtel. And guess who benefits from that? Not the average Australian, that’s for sure.

Second, the ABC is an incubator for creative talent. It has been the launch pad for some of Australia’s most innovative writers, actors, comedians, directors and producers. Many artists who are today highly commercial prospects started their careers as unknowns at the ABC, finding there the space to experiment and fail that commercial media companies for obvious reasons find much harder to make available.

As Spigelman said in his speech, this doesn’t mean that the ABC should be seen as a ‘market failure’ service, doing only those things that the commercial outlets won’t or can’t. Public service media should strive to be popular with the mainstream audience, at the same time as they are creative risk-takers. This means transmitting reality TV, game shows, soap operas and all the other genres found on commercial TV (albeit at the level of quality that the tax payer has a right to expect).

But only the ABC, with its revenue stream insulated from market conditions, can afford to back those outliers who might, perhaps, become the commercially successful mainstream stars of the future. In doing so it provides what is in effect a creative subsidy for commercial media.

Third, a pluralist democracy needs a source of impartial journalism – journalism, that is, driven not by the interests of a private proprietor or a particular political party, but by the public interest in citizens having access to the information they need to make sense of the world around them, and to make rational decisions when required to do so, such as in elections.

More broadly, the ABC, like the BBC and other public service organisations across the world, has a remit ‘to promote social cohesion, and nourish our national memory and identity’, as Spigelman put it. This is especially important in rural Australia, where the ABC has a uniquely extensive network of local radio stations servicing the needs of small communities.

Here, he gave some ground to the ABC’s critics by acknowledging that in his opinion the ABC had failed the impartiality test, not ‘systematically’, but in perhaps one percent of its output. We’re all human, was his defence, even ABC journalists. Under his chairmanship, Spigelman noted, mechanisms to prevent partiality or bias have been put in place, such as regular, externally produced Editorial Audits and internal reviews.

Spigelman did not name any specific programs or journalists in his remarks, so I can’t comment on the validity of his observations on bias, but his concern to ensure that the ABC is scrupulously impartial in its coverage of national affairs – and seen to be – makes sense at a time when some of the most overtly biased commercial media in Australia are engaged in a campaign to undermine public confidence in the corporation.

ABC staff who, as I wrote last week, are not any more ‘left’ in their political allegiances than their colleagues at News Corp Australia, should welcome this scrutiny, and work harder to ensure that they are not vulnerable to damaging accusations of bias. Anything less would be a betrayal of their privileged place in Australia’s media ecology, and provide an open goal to the organisation’s enemies.

If the ABC’s chairman conceded ground on the issue of bias, he was unapologetic in stating the case for its continuing online presence. Like the BBC, the ABC has been a pioneer in online content provision, ensuring that the vast cultural potential of the internet remains a national asset as well as a source of private profit.

The internet was not invented to further the personal wealth of global media barons, after all, and if the ABC has a competitive advantage online, it is chiefly because audiences value and trust its content, which of course they have paid for with their hard earned taxes.

Commercial media are free to compete on those terms, and many do so very successfully. But the existence of the ABC keeps up the pressure upon those organisations to maintain standards. Sky News is an excellent service, not least because the high standard of ABC news and journalism requires it to be if they are to remain competitive. The same logic applies in other countries, notably the UK, and it applies online as well as on TV and radio. An ABC-less digital future would be a deeply depressing prospect, and not just for those in the audience who hate the relentless advertising which disrupts so much of commercial media content.

Commercial media proprietors are of course free to demand the abandonment of the internet by the only media organisation dedicated to serving the public and national interest. But let’s not pretend that in doing so they have anything but their own profit margins in mind. The privatisation of the internet on ‘competition’ grounds would benefit only those who, in this writer’s view, already have more than enough of the nation’s media under their control.