Welcome to In Conversation, our series of discussions between leading academics and major public figures in Australian life.
In this instalment, Mark Scott, managing director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, is in conversation with Rod Tiffen, Emeritus Professor of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney.
Scott was appointed to a five year term as managing director in July 2006. This was renewed in July 2011. Before taking the helm of the ABC, Scott was editor-in-chief of Fairfax newspapers.
This In Conversation touches on a wide range of themes including:
- Scott’s chances of running the BBC
- the BBC and ABC compared
- public broadcasting models
- the ABC and commercial broadcasters
- attacks on the ABC
- government influence
- the tender process for the Australia Network
- the internet and the ABC’s pre-web charter
- News 24
- the future of the ABC
- WH Auden
We hope you enjoy it.
On Scott’s chances of running the BBC
Tiffen: When I was down in Melbourne for Australia Day, I suddenly got a call from an Age reporter saying you’d been on a shortlist of possible candidates to become head of the BBC, and I’m afraid I immediately threw cold water …
Scott: Good, so did I.
Tiffen: And I said … there’s just no way the BBC would ever appoint a non-Brit. I wonder though if you did get such and opportunity what would appeal to you about running the BBC, and would it be just like running the ABC? What do you see as the key differences in the strengths and weaknesses of each of the organisations?
Scott: Well, I think I should start by saying that my assessment of that story was exactly the same as yours, and I’ve said publicly I expect the next head of the BBC will be British. Being a very British institution, it’s almost inconceivable that it wouldn’t be, and I’m very happy here, and I have a very rare thing in media: I have a contract as the CEO of a media organisation with quite a long time to run.
On the BBC compared with the ABC
I’ve often reflected on the BBC, and I think of course there are similarities and we’re both founded in that Reithian [after John Reith, founder of the BBC] tradition to inform and educate and entertain and I think, particularly early on, the ABC owed a lot to the BBC but there are a few quite stark differences.
The key one is the license fee and what the license fee means and does. It’s a tax in a sense on every household and it raises them a lot of money so it’s something like they get six times the money that we have, to deliver to three times the population, with geography the size of a postage stamp. But I think it means because every household is directly paying, the BBC has to deliver a value-for-money proposition to every house, and so that means that they do things that are vastly more populist than we do.
I think the way we’ve emerged here and even the way we were at the beginning, far more like a public good, valued by the public, paid for by the public, we’ve got a 90% approval rating that’s very consistent, we reach over 70% of the population each week.
But we’ve always operated as part of a mixed model: there was private sector radio when we were on radio, private sector television when we’re on television, so we have a significant share but not a dominant share, and I think one of the things the BBC has to deal with is the fact that it’s still that giant in the UK media ecosystem: it’s a giant online, it’s a giant in television, it’s a giant in radio. We’re not a giant, we’re a significant part of the mosaic and the landscape here.
On public broadcasting models
Tiffen: In the late 1990s McKinsey & Company did a survey of public service broadcasters around the world. They divided them into three types; there were some like Italy and New Zealand that had a sizeable audience but no distinctive programming - almost indistinguishable from a normal commercial broadcaster. There were some that had distinctive programming but only a very small share of the audience such as the US. And then there are some such as the BBC and NHK which had both distinctive programming and a large share of the audience. Now it seems to me the ABC is not quite in that third category, it’s got distinctive programming but it’s not as central to the media mix in Australia as the BBC is in Britain. Does that constitute a difficult balancing act in setting priorities and programming?
Scott: I think one of the reasons why, as a public broadcaster, we’ve been able to keep our place and our position is the fact that we haven’t taken advertising. I think if you start taking advertising and your revenues are really being driven by that advertising dollar, then you really are programming to attract the advertisers, and I think the choices become quite different in that respect. So we haven’t done that.
The charter talks about taking into account what’s happening in commercial media but lets you do programming of wide appeal and of specialist interest. ABC television is not simply meant to be Radio National on the telly, but there’s room for programming like Catalyst and Compass, just like there’s room for the new Andrew Denton and Adam Hills and a range of drama and the like. So, I think we try and find that sweet spot.
It’s where I think the funding reality hits us as well; even if you could make an argument that the BBC shows programs like Masterchef, [so] we should as well, there’s just no way we can afford to do those kind of big, blockbuster factual or family programs. … I’m comfortable with the mix that we run. I’m comfortable with serious news and current affairs, plenty of entertainment, some pioneering comedy, good mix of drama, good mix of factual, the best of the English language international stuff and a good domestic mix as well. … Ratings matter but they’re not the only thing that matters to us; you want stuff that’s going to engage your audience but you also want to make sure it’s high quality, distinctive, working under your charter and I think we get that balance pretty right.
On the ABC and commercial broadcasters
Tiffen: It’s always been a media system with commercial dominance, for many years it was 2 to 1 commercial [Nine and Seven to the ABC] and 3 to 1 commercial [with the addition of Ten] now it’s about 3 to 2 [with the addition of SBS], does that constrain you, [or] liberate you, because in a sense the commercial dominance sets the norms of what people expect TV to be?
Scott: I think we’ve got to be a little bit careful when we think about … our engagement with commercial broadcasting. I think commercial broadcasters are under enormous pressure, some of that pressure is self induced, with their borrowings and their leverage and part of it is the reflection of the competition that they’re after as well. So I think it’s important for our reference point not to simply be back to commercial television.
I don’t think it’s controversial to say the Channel 9 investment in news and current affairs when [Kerry] Packer was there was significantly different to the kind of investment today and in a sense the kind of programming that they were doing then was closer to what the ABC offers now. A program like A Current Affair in its current incarnation is very different to the Jana Wendt or Mike Willesee A Current Affair of a couple of decades ago. So in a sense, we shouldn’t be referencing back there. We should have our own standards high and I sometimes say here that if commercial standards are falling and the gap between us and them remains the same then our standards are falling as well, we’re just not noticing as much, so you need to be quite vigorous and vigilant around that.
On attacks on the ABC
Tiffen: … We’ve got just a couple of big newspaper companies in Australia, one of whom often has it in for the ABC. Does it make you more vulnerable to attack if your news priorities are different, because then people say the ABC is pursuing its own agenda?
Scott: Yeah, I think you get that, but [if] you take a long view of it as I do … these things are perennial. If I look at recent times, I think we get attacked from portions of the right, sometimes we get attacked from segments of the left as well.
We have to run our own race and run our own standards and I think the evidence is still there that as we do that, there’s a strong and engaged audience for that. In Melbourne we’re regularly the top-rating news service with our seven o’clock news bulletin; we’re really encouraged by the audiences [that were] coming to News 24 the week of the leadership challenge. We had four million viewers tuning in to News 24 the week of the [Bob] Carr appointment - that’s pretty amazing 18 months into that service.
So we’ve got to keep our own standards and part of the challenge around news is the breadth we now feel we need to do. It’s a 24-hour service on television and on radio, up to the minute online at the same time as you’ve got Four Corners still going strong after 50 years doing the detailed long-form investigative work.
There’s no doubt that something like News 24 that gets a younger audience, [and] some of the programming we’re doing there, is deliberately attempting to target a younger audience quite successfully. But that’s not really to do with us imitating commercial networks; that’s us saying, “Well who’s our audience, what’s their need and how do we service them best?” and staying true to our own goals and aspirations rather than being shaped by them.
Tiffen: When you get caught up in controversy, do you just have to take it on the chin and bear it?
Scott: We debate that, frankly. Sometimes it can be like a three card trick: they’re almost trying to lure you out, and you read something egregious and outrageous and you wonder whether in fact you should be firing up an op-ed responding, or is it just a bit of theatrics? I think we don’t get too worried about their obsessions … Every now and again we’ll do something that will upset the tabloids and they’ll have a go at us, but that’s just the way it is.
But these storms seem to pass. There are a few critics who are quite carping and consistent. I’m not sure we can do anything to appease them, and you’ve just got to be realistic on that. One of the things I think I’ve learnt about bias is that the audience member brings so much to this bias conversation. We’d get these audience logs after Kerry O’Brien had done a vigorous or torrid interview and there’d be 200 phone calls, a hundred saying: “How dare Kerry O’Brien be so tough and rude to that political guest?” and the other hundred saying: “Why has Kerry O’Brien gone soft? Why won’t he go hard?” and you realise that the audience is bringing this kind of perspective.
I don’t think that The Australian is changing too many points of view on this, and you’ve got to give credit to the Murdoch institution, they’re consistent. We have audio tapes here of Keith Murdoch in the 1930s attacking the ABC, so it’s held through the generations except my one meeting with Dame Elizabeth, she went out of her way to talk about how much she enjoyed ABC programming.
On government influence over the ABC
Tiffen: Well, that’s nice. The Finklestein report’s essential recommendation was to strengthen the right of reply but there was a sort of mandatory agency, some government involvement to do that, and immediately this was hailed as a threat to freedom of the press. There was very little evidence in this coverage, I thought, and one of the things that they never paid attention to was that the one organisation in the country the government pays for is also by far the most trusted. How much influence does government have on the ABC? You’ve served a couple of years under the Coalition and now four years under Labor, has it changed in that time?
Scott: I think it’s quite sophisticated really, these days. … The two ministers I’ve dealt with, Helen Coonan and Stephen Conroy, both quite different personalities but very similar, [showed] absolute respect for the editorial independence of the ABC. You knew at times that you did programming that didn’t make them happy or that they didn’t agree with, but it would be a passing reference but almost as a member of the audience - never with any intent or threat or anything like that at all. In fact, I find that the ministers I’ve dealt with have almost gone out of their way to reinforce their understanding of these norms that they have developed, and … one of the things I say when I’m in Canberra is that I hope we can get the conversation around the ABC to almost be a recognition that this is a really wonderful national asset that has [been] established for a long period of time. I’d like it to be viewed the way that we view the defence forces, the diplomatic corps, emergency services, in the sense that this is a real national asset.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t have debate around decisions that it makes and its level of performance, but it shouldn’t be sport just for the sake of being sport. In recent years we’ve done fairly well with that and I actually think it would serve as almost political risk for politicians to aggressively try and overcome some of these conventions that have developed around the independence of the ABC. We’re arguably the most popular organisation in the country, we have a consistent 90% approval rating, the public likes what we do and likes the way that the system works and holds the ABC together, and so you’d tinker with that at your peril … I think the public response to that would be significant.
Tiffen: It seems to me though, that this is one area where there is a bit of a difference between the BBC and the ABC that there is more multi-partisan recognition of the BBC as a national institution, a national asset. In Australia it’s at a level where you couldn’t attack it frontally, no politician could, but in areas like board appointments you can sort of harass at the edges. It seemed to me that one of the big differences under the Howard government was not just that they appointed people who were more sympathetic to their view or other but appointed some people who didn’t believe in the ABC as an institution. Was that a problem and do you think that was a one-off?
Scott: I don’t think I really want to critique the board and board appointments, I’m part of the board and I need to respect those board conferences but what I am happy to do though is say that I think this process that has been established around board appointees in recent years whereby people are not nominated, people are interviewed, recommendations go forward and it’s a very eminent panel who are doing those interviews. We’ve had some outstanding directors appointed who have a really good contribution to make and have a terrific mix and I think the board is working very well. Your broader statement is, of course, correct: where can the government influence? Well, the government influences the appointees to the board who appoint the managing director and that’s clearly a way an influence can happen, and the other one is around funding. So it’s not to say the government doesn’t have tools and mechanisms to influence the ABC - they do, and there might be a time in the future the government uses those mechanisms again, but I think just where we sit at the moment, and I hope for the foreseeable future, I think we’ve gotten to a point where we’re getting good board appointments and there’s a sense of a bipartisan acknowledgement of the leadership of the ABC in a whole series of areas in the Australian media sector at the moment.
On the tender process for the Australia Network
Tiffen: I worked on a few reviews of [the Australia Network] for the ABC, and it struck me then that … to get proper government funding you needed to show that there was value to the taxpayer, to the Australian national interest, but equally you had to assert and maintain total editorial independence. I wonder if in the tender processes initiated by Kevin Rudd there was sufficient recognition of the limits of what government involvement should be?
Scott: We argued that whilst governments put some things out to tender there are some things you don’t put out to tender, because there are some things that governments should do, and that we thought you shouldn’t put your international broadcasting out to tender the same way you don’t put your diplomatic [representation]: “Who wants to run the embassy in Japan?” You don’t do it!
And that’s not to say there shouldn’t be robust questions around performance, around outcomes, around value for money but to make it contestable we argued it was unnecessary and it was questionable. And so we are pleased now with the outcome that we have got, we’re very happy to engage with Canberra around the outcomes and the performance of that network but a key to its strength and its credibility in the region is its independence and the fact that there are no conflicting stakeholders, there’s no other commercial imperatives driving the ABC, that we are an independent public broadcaster and they are the values that we are bringing. … This is not a trend that’s being followed around the world - that you would outsource your public broadcaster. No one else is doing it. In fact, we would run into other broadcasters around the world who were bewildered by the fact that there was a prospect of a tender process for this.
On the internet and the ABC’s pre-web charter
Tiffen: Moving to the growth of the multimedia environment and the fragmentation of audiences and so forth, in the seemingly simple older days when there was just analogue TV and analogue radio it was quite clear the ABC was a radio broadcaster and a free-to-air TV broadcaster. Now in the age of the internet, media convergence, and so forth, it seems to me that your strategy - which is one that I also believe in as well - is what we might call a “big ABC strategy”, that you don’t want to be tied to a diminishing share of where people get their media. But on the other hand these growth strategies bring their own problems, and you’ve been criticised, for example … [by people saying that] your internet activities are trampling on smaller operators and things like that. What do you say to that?
Scott: It’s a complicated area. Our charter was written in 1982, so we’re interpreting that charter for a modern era, so we have great content paid for by the Australian people and we want to get it to them at a time they want, on a device they want, in a format they want, and our public has really embraced the ability to get our content in a more convenient form for them. The numbers that we’ve had, I mean two million iPhone apps downloaded, 800,000 iView apps on the iPad, hundreds of thousands of the Triple J Unearthed app - huge numbers, far bigger than we think anyone else in Australian media, so the public are embracing it and loving it. I think we just look at our charter and think of what it means, there was some criticism around The Drum, for example: should we have created The Drum? Well, my view is in this era … part of news is commentary and analysis. It always has been part of newspapers, to provide analysis is what we’ve always done, to have a website to be able to do that I think is hardly surprising. I think we handsomely staff it to the tune of one and a half people, but we leverage off a lot of the rest of what the ABC has got.
I sometimes think we get criticised for some our activity but the reason some of our activity has performed well is that competitors have not performed as well. We started The Drum about the same time as Fairfax started the National Times. The Drum is a far more compelling proposition than The National Times. I think The Australian had some timidity really developing a strong opinion forum because they were protecting their print franchise, fine.
So we actually walked through the middle of a contested space. We hardly resourced up and muscled everyone else out of the way, but we found an audience and we engage with that audience. I think there were some criticisms around the funding we got for ABC Open but nobody is doing what we’re doing in regional Australia around providing opportunities for our audience to engage and respond and create content, the way ABC Open happens. … If we were simply that grand old, somewhat sentimental haze or nostalgia around this old radio and TV service then we’d be fading off into the sunset. The fact that we’ve been out there and we created the great catch up television service in iView, when none of our competitors did, [is] very important, [in order] to be the real leaders in social media … in the Australia media landscape.
On being overstretched
Tiffen: One of the particular issues is that you are funded by government and your funding is fixed through all sorts of formulas that have nothing to do with new challenges and expanding activities and so therefore you’ve got to meet these new challenges but with fairly severe resource constraints, are there issues of over-stretching…
Scott: One of our frustrations with Canberra, a point we continue to make, is that they love the idea that we’re doing all the new stuff and they want us to trail blaze in ABC Open, terrific what we’re doing and the way our content will be used by the NBN but of course we’re still funded as if we only do radio and television, so we’re funded for the big television towers and the transmission but there’s no money really there for digital content, certainly not for digital distribution, [and] that’s quite expensive, so that’s a bit of a challenge. I think News 24 is a very virtuous story for the ABC, a number of things we’ve done in recent years have been specifically funded by government and we got extra money for the children’s channel and the drama money and ABC Open, but a number of other important things that we’ve done in recent years like News 24 and iView and the iPhone and the iPad apps, no extra money for that.
So what we had to do with News 24 is that we implemented really a very big overhaul of our television production model, changed the way we work, implemented new technology, there were a significant number of redundancies through the organisation and really reengineered it, probably a process that was overdue, and the bulk of the money that we saved, we reinvested in ABC News24. Here’s where I think you’ve got to be sophisticated in your engagement with the government. It’s not as though we didn’t ask for money for a news channel, but either the money wasn’t there or they weren’t willing to fund it. I think the prospect of more tough questioning from more ABC journalists was not something that they relished the prospect of handing over dollars for, but it was almost like “Well, if you want to do it that’ll be your call.” We did want to do it, I think we would have weakened the organisation if … we had said, “If you are really interested in breaking news, you have to sign up to pay TV and go to Sky”.
In this era there’s an expectation that the news will be there around the clock and we have to be able to deliver that and deliver that on free to air television, so we saved the money, we reinvested it, and we delivered a dividend back to the Australian public.
On News 24
Tiffen: Just one follow up on that, especially in regards to News 24, this isn’t about the ABC in particular but about these all-news channels generally, and the speed of news and that sometimes is described as more mistakes more quickly, is there an adequate build up of quality control to go along with the increased productivity and output that such ventures demand?
Scott: I think so. We don’t lower the bar for News 24; we expect to be accurate and authoritative and to make sure that story is fair, balanced and right. We do program reviews, we do train and develop our staff. I think it’s a different kind of narrative; I think the audience expects that - it’s not like a long-form documentary that you’ve spent six weeks curating for Four Corners. It’s live, it’s the best information we have at the moment, but I think our audience expects that. The people who are working on News 24, the leadership there is senior, serious, they’ve worked, many of them, across the gamut of our programs and we’re bringing all those values to bear.
On News 24 one of the things I’m pleased about is that we can demonstrate the breadth of our coverage around the country and the breadth of our correspondents around the world. … There will be really good stories done from our Hobart newsroom that would have only ever made the 7 o’clock news in Hobart that now you can bring to a national audience. There will have been days when our correspondent in Moscow or Johannesburg will have had a good story that will have not made a run for 7 o’clock, but we have an appetite for that content, and often that longer content [runs] on News 24.
We have all this wonderful resource that’s happening on radio and one of the things that delighted me was one of those plans we had, and it was “Let’s just put TV cameras in those radio studios,” and there’s the finance minister being interviewed by Fran Kelly, there’s the camera, [and] we cross live to that.
On the future of the ABC
Tiffen: It has been an era of change but there’s no prospect of the change ever slowing down, let alone stopping. You’ve been the head of the ABC for about six years now, looking back on those six years, how different are things now? And looking forward six years, how different do you think things will be?
Scott: Time’s gone by really quickly. Really, really, stunningly quickly. … When I was appointed, there were so many people that were in my ear kind of just pronouncing doom: it’s a defeated broken place, shadow of its former self, the tide is running out. I got here, and started wondering around and chatting with people, I decided the place was in far better nick than I thought and that morale was actually higher than anyone had led me to believe.
But I did think pretty early on that the potential was great, but we needed to have a clarity around being multi-channel, multi-platform, being a public broadcaster in the digital era and work towards that and I think we have, we’ve worked pretty well as a team and an executive and support from the board and support from governments around that. I think there’s a lot of hard work ahead.
I gave a speech a few years ago called The Fall of Rome and I used WH Auden’s poem. It was about what happens to media empires and why they fall, and the last lines are:
Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.
It’s that sense of ominously, quickly, big things are happening out there and I think one of the things we will deal with here is life with fast broadband delivering seamlessly acres of global content and the fact that our competitors were once Seven and Nine, the Macquarie radio network and Aus Stereo, Fairfax and News, but now it’s going to be Google, it’s going to be Apple TV, it’s going to be Spotify, it’s going to be these global giants sitting on hundreds of billions of dollars cash, moving right into the content play with audiences able to dramatically personalise their viewing experience and a real transformation.
There’s that law that says around technological change, the impact of changes are overestimated in the short term and underestimated in the long term, I think we’re just getting that underestimated kind of thing now. And so what will the place of the public broadcaster be in this era? What are the content areas where we will still have a unique competitive advantage to be able to provide something that nobody else can or will, or will be able to afford to? Where will be our space? And how do you prepare now to lock down and secure those spaces for yourself and this vastly different media landscape?
Now it’s quite a lot of hard work and hard thinking … I think we can see some of those areas now but it’s going to be dramatically different and we are part of an ecology that’s going to be undergoing change. Those newspapers are hammered, commercial television is under pressure, it’s all swirling around us and that’s just what makes media such a fascinating industry to work in, that you’re in the midst of all of that.
This is an edited transcript of the conversation between Mark Scott and Professor Rod Tiffen. Please leave your comments and opinions below.