On the day that the ABC released the results of a Newspoll survey on attitudes to the corporation, managing director Mark Scott addressed students at QUT with the message, ‘It’s our ABC’! ‘Us’ being the Australian public, of whom 84% regard the ABC as valuable, according to the Newspoll survey.
In a significant rebuff to the vociferous critics of the ABC in some of the commercial media, the poll found that only 9% of Australians thought it was not doing a good job.
Interestingly, Sky News headlined a story about Scott’s speech thus: ‘ABC boss hits out at Newspoll’. Speaking as someone who was there, that seems a curious angle to take.
Even curiouser, the 84% approval figure was not reported in this item.
Far from hitting out at Newspoll, Scott used the survey results to attack those critics of the ABC who challenge its legitimacy and seek to undermine its public service status; those such as Queensland senator James McGrath, who has proposed selling off Triple J and other ABC assets. Scott conceded that there were too many websites at the ABC, too much of a long tail in the digital space, suggesting that there may be a shrinkage of its online presence down the track.
But when questioned about which parts of the ABC, if any, he would choose to sell off, Scott rejected the notion of privatisation.
Why? ‘It’s our ABC’, as the Newspoll survey shows, and as Scott was clearly proud to assert with reference to hard numbers; the Australian public’s ABC, that is, and notwithstanding the noise made to the contrary by influential controversialists, there appears to be no public appetite for dismantling the corporation to the benefit of the commercial sector.
But Scott’s speech was frank and clear on the need for change within the ABC. There ‘can be no room for hubris or complacency’, as he put it. He quoted Lampudesa’s The Leopard to suggest that ‘if we want things to stay as they are, things need to change’.
If the ABC, in other words, wishes to survive and prosper in the digital era, to retain its privileged place in the affections of the Australian people, it must adapt and innovate to the needs and expectations of an increasingly mobile, lean-forward audience who watch and listen to their media content on smart phones and tablets, rather than TVs and radio; who want to interact with that content, to share it, and also to participate in its creation.
All of this, Scott insists, the ABC understands and must address in its strategic decisions around content provision.
Scott noted, for example, that while the ABC dominates the children’s market with programs such as Peppa Pig, and the over-50s market – ‘We own the rest homes’, he proclaimed with a smile – the 20-50 demographic was less secure. How do we address that gap, he asked. There was no answer to that question in the speech, but neither was there any doubt that an answer must be found, if public support and funding are to be preserved in the years and decades ahead.
Scott repeated the notion that the ABC is not an organisation which exists only to fill gaps in the commercial content marketplace, although it must certainly provide important content in the public interest which the profit-driven media fail to deliver, such as children’s programming, or arts, religious and science coverage.
But Scott cited the success of digital catch-up service iView, and Kitchen Cabinet on TV, as models for the kind of innovative, engaging, relevant ABC he wished to see going forward.
In some ways the speech could be read as an appeal to the ABC’s more ideologically minded critics to respect its place at the heart of Australia’s national culture, and to get the message of the Newspoll survey. Public and private media have co-existed for decades, he pointed out, usually without rancour or excessive rivalry. This appears to be what the Australian audience wants, so let’s get on with it.
We’ll see if this appeal to reason and evidence impacts where it matters on the current debate around the ABC’s future funding and role. If peppa pigs could fly, maybe.