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What would be the point of yet another ABC inquiry?

Prime minister Tony Abbott may be a fan of institutional inquiries and a critic of supposed ABC bias, but he has nothing to gain by responding to calls for yet another review of the ABC. First, there’s…

There’s no clear need for a review of the ABC’s operations – and such calls have a long history. Sarah Ackerman

Prime minister Tony Abbott may be a fan of institutional inquiries and a critic of supposed ABC bias, but he has nothing to gain by responding to calls for yet another review of the ABC.

First, there’s no clear need for a review. Claims of ABC bias are always tenuous, especially given the extensive accountability framework developed over six years by former editorial policies director Paul Chadwick – after the 2003 inquiry into allegations by former communications minister Richard Alston of biased coverage of the Iraq war.

Bias is a less persuasive rationale after yesterday’s announcement about “editorial audits” on information programming. ABC chairman James Spigelman told the National Press Club that the ABC has already begun to commission industry experts to do up to four impartiality checks annually on coverage of contentious political issues such as asylum seeking.

That leaves crowding out in digital markets as a point of contention. However, this is also a weak rationale in the Australian context.

As creative industries pioneer Stuart Cunningham has argued in his latest book, public service media like the ABC can have a sponsoring – rather than chilling – effect on innovation, at least where its competitors are not already in position to do research and development and where it isn’t the dominant market player.

Two examples illustrate this. The ABC’s online streaming service, iView, is a model for video-on-demand services that has yet to be matched locally for useability and functionality. The ABC has also set an accessibility benchmark with its television audio description trials for blind Australians.

Spigelman acknowledged yesterday that the ABC does compete to some extent in service delivery. Yet it was designed to do this after the 1982 Dix Inquiry, which found the national broadcaster was:

…slow-moving, overgrown, complacent, and uncertain of the direction in which it is heading.

Dix triggered the then-Australian Broadcasting Commission’s transformation into a public enterprise, with innovation added to its charter. This laid the groundwork for its digital expansion.

However, despite the claims made by News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt that the ABC stole fact-checking website PolitiFact’s thunder, its online news presence seems to have had little impact on the scope of competition.

Clearly it was not a deterrent to the UK’s The Guardian or Daily Mail setting up online Australian editions.

Predictably, News Corp has led the push for an inquiry for ideological and commercial reasons. That, historically, has simply been its modus operandi.

Back in the 1930s, the then-CEO of the Herald & Weekly Times, Sir Keith Murdoch, argued the ABC shouldn’t be broadcasting radio in competition with private operators, or delivering independent news. Now his son Rupert tweets his unhappiness about state-funded and leftist media:

Yet the BBC, News Corp’s bête noire, has come up with a market value test that makes its developmental agenda more open to competitive scrutiny. This is something Rupert should applaud.

Public value testing

In 2005, the BBC introduced a two-step public value testing process that would help it justify the rationale for any new digital operations. Since then, its market impact assessment model has been widely adopted across Europe as a way of increasing the transparency and rigour of product and service development.

But these so-called ex-ante tests have also generated long, costly and ultimately ritualistic verification processes.

In Norway, national broadcaster NRK’s 2011 bid to develop a web-based travel planner with three public sector partners took 18 months, four levels of review and royal intervention to resolve in its favour. The project folded shortly after approval.

Inquiries like this make blunt policy instruments and may undermine the process of innovation they were mean to serve.

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp has led the push for an inquiry into the ABC for ideological and commercial reasons. AAP/Dan Himbrechts

Another inquiry?

The ABC is one of the most scrutinised organisations in the country. This year alone the ABC’s regional commitment has been the target of two Senate inquiries, into regional television production and news services.

In the last decade there has been a significant review or inquiry roughly every three years – including KPMG’s funding adequacy investigation (2006), and former communications minister Stephen Conroy’s Digital Economy: Future Directions inquiry (2009) and the Convergence Review (2012). This raises the question: what use would there be in another?

Reviews can certainly curb the scope of organisational ambition. The 1997 Mansfield Inquiry, for example, led to major cuts to Radio Australia’s network and forced ABC Online to develop under the radar for years, as a “non-core” service.

Reviews can also deliver unpredictable results. For instance, the Howard government’s 2006 internal KPMG funding review revealed the ABC needed A$125 million more over three years just to sustain its operations.

Furthermore, one of the only major policy outcomes from the Convergence Review was parliament’s approval of ABC and SBS charter updates earlier this year, which mandate them to deliver digital media services. This was a move that had bipartisan support.

So, at this moment it’s hard to see the public, rather than the private, value in yet another inquiry — or even the political sense in the idea.

Join the conversation

23 Comments sorted by

  1. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    I agree, what would be the point of a review - what is it looking for?

    It's no doubt because the Libs want more favourable treatment. As the author suggests, the ALP and the Libs are probably handled pretty even-handedly.

    What I get bored with, though, is the uniformity of voices and worldview in ABC opinion.

    I'm a progressive and support, for example, same-sex marriage, multiculturalism, and a compassionate response to refugees. But every commentator employed by the ABC - literally every one - agrees with me. Even Amanda Vanstone.

    This doesn't reflect the diversity of views in the population. And it doesn't make for thought-provoking viewing and listening.

    1. Fiona Martin

      Senior Lecturer in Convergent and Online Media at University of Sydney

      In reply to Rory Cunningham

      Good observation Rory. Reith's in demand - popping up on local radio, Q&A and the Drum in the last year.

      My experience is that the view spectrum you encounter depends on the shows you consume and the networks you listen to. Local radio often surprises. It's a soapbox for Nats and Liberals, councillors and business people of all persuasions.

    2. Ken Swanson


      In reply to James Jenkin

      I agree

      That is the test. Not guests Fiona but paid conservatives on staff with mainstream roles.

      Name one. You cannot!

    3. Fiona Martin

      Senior Lecturer in Convergent and Online Media at University of Sydney

      In reply to Fiona Martin

      But seriously Ken, there are 3,576 content makers (as they are now classified) at the ABC. This includes the executive producers, producers, researchers and presenters who produce broadcast programs and online material, and have influence over the content of these.

      Your sample only includes those presenters you have identified as meeting your "not conservative" criterion. It proves nothing about the number or influence of ABC content makers of a conservative political - or other - persuasion…

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    4. Ken Swanson


      In reply to Fiona Martin

      That would be like me saying that Andrew Bolt is not conservative and is always objective and displays no political bias in his content.

      Vanstone has an obscure program out of prime time

    5. wilma western

      logged in via email

      In reply to Ken Swanson

      Chris Uhlmann used to work as a media person for the Libs. He has gone somewhere else after the election.

      Josephina Cafagna was one of the regulars on Vic ABC radio and TV 7.30 report. She got a job working for Ted Baillieu after a very fortunate little item boosting the Waubra Foundation's propaganda .

      The new Liberal MHR for Corangamite Sarah Henderson used to work on air on ABC TV. That's a few.

      More important is the ABC respecting and sticking to its charter to provide news and comment with balance and impartiality.

  2. Robert McDougall

    Small Business Owner

    oh, the point is to have an impressive pile of paper that can be reduced down to a "pamphlet" (LibNat speak for a plan) that says what they and Murdoch want it to in order to fallaciously support an ideological/economic imperitive to dimsantle and sell off the last major information channel that is not under the thumb of the "Axis of the Incompentently Evil."

  3. Ben Marshall
    Ben Marshall is a Friend of The Conversation.


    Thanks for the article and context, Fiona.

    I think the point of a further inquiry is that the Coalition have everything to gain and nothing to lose by launching it.

    Just as Bolt's claims that there's been no global warming for fifteen years is a lie, so the Coalition / Murdoch press' claims of ABC bias are lies.

    They're not meant to be believed as much as they are the rattling of spears on shields to signify the anger, intent and determination of the aggressor - in this case the Coalition…

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    1. Ken Swanson


      In reply to Ben Marshall

      They have done a snow job protecting Gillard in the AWB union scandal

      Nothing to see here boys and girls. Do not even mention it.

  4. Craig Myatt

    Industrial Designer / R&D

    Perhaps we should instead demand an inquiry around the relationship of news ltd to the coalition...this apparent potential exchange of favours was highlighted in the past between Murdoch and past UK PMs.

  5. Roger Simpson

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Geez wouldn't you just love to see the back of that malignant old conservative Rupert. Lets hope he decides to cryogenically freeze himself for a few decades so we can be rid of his bile and his minions of ignorant and clumsy spruikers such as Bolt, Ackerman, Henderson, Albrechtson, IPA,etc...

    1. Ken Swanson


      In reply to Roger Simpson

      Geez wouldn't you just love to see the back of that malignant old `leftie Kerry O'Brien. Lets hope he decides to cryogenically freeze himself for a few decades so we can be rid of his bile and his minions of ignorant and clumsy spruikers such as Jones, Barry, Kelly, Faine, Adams, Cassidy, Dempster, Pilger, Crabb, Green, the Gratten Institute, the Australia Institute etc.....

  6. Peter Dawson

    Gap Decade

    This all happens automatically - the Libs get in and there is an expectation, eagerly anticipated by the conservatives, that a rocket will be put through the ABC. I think Abbott can see that a move against the ABC would likely turn into a parallel of Howard's Medicare moment, where Howard discovered that the people would dismantle his government if he dared dismantle Medicare (though I could be wrong). And, after all, the ABC could scarcely be less of a threat to the corporate agenda. As Cory Bernardi points out, the only thing left for it to do in that regard is refuse government funding on ideological grounds and take to advertising instead.

    1. wilma western

      logged in via email

      In reply to Peter Dawson

      Good point , and they forget that so many rural and regional people rely on the ABC....also as one who would know (don't remember who) once said "The last thing the commercial channels want is for the ABC to launch into the commercial advertising market - already too much competition there " ( for the advertisers" dollars)

      Bolt and co argue contradictory points . They rave about the terrible influence of lefties, programmes about global warming etc and at the same time pour scorn on the ABC because less than 20% of the population are regular audience.

  7. Matthew T Davis


    The new Government are having a 'review' into everything.
    In some cases it's to justify inaction. In others, to justify breaking or shifting the meaning of election commitments or "policy goals".
    In this case, I suspect, it's a good old fashioned witch hunt.
    There are no real witches and everybody knows it. The ABC is easily ahead of any other media outlet in any survey on trustworthiness - ie. "who do you trust to report the news truthfully and without bias?". The population have spoken. Rupert, king of a dying print empire kept alive with profits of a pay tv monopoly, takes on the ABC at his peril.