If one didn’t know better, one might think that right-of-centre governments in both Australia and the United Kingdom are working in lockstep to undermine the long-established and hugely popular public service media institutions over which they have been given (temporary) custodianship.
The Conservatives in Westminster, and the Coalition in Canberra, have both been active in questioning the continuing viability and sustainability of core public service media principles. These are principles which are generally acknowledged to have done by their respective audiences quite well for nearly a century, and to have made both countries’ public service media systems the envy of the world, but are now alleged to be no longer fit for purpose.
Both are testing the public mood, it seems, to gauge how far they might be able to push it.
In the UK, demands by senior Conservatives for the BBC to drop popular formats such as The Voice and become a “market failure” broadcaster are accompanied by a government green paper on the future of the BBC.
In Australia, following the firestorm around Zaky Mallah’s appearance on Q&A, the ABC is under investigation after intense pressure from Tony Abbott and his ministers to decide “whose side it is on” in relation to news and current affairs coverage of issues such as Islamic State and environmental change.
No-one, not least this author, doubts the legitimacy of rigorous scrutiny over these publicly funded cultural behemoths, including their journalism. The BBC did huge damage to itself by its handling of the Jimmy Savile and Lord McAlpine cases. The ABC could have more voices such as Patricia Karvelas - who, after many years with The Australian, is essential listening on RN Drive – in its news and current affairs programming.
At the structural level, the media environment has changed fundamentally since the establishment of public service broadcasting in the earliest days of the analogue era. Some of those changes – such as the decline of news and current affairs in Australian free-to-air commercial TV these last years – strengthen the rationale for well-funded, universally accessible public service media.
Others, such as the explosion of multichannel digital services on Foxtel and elsewhere (and BSkyB in the UK), do raise valid questions about the remit and reach of the public service. I for one don’t think the BBC should go to the wall over the rights to broadcast Wimbledon. Do the BBC and ABC need to operate all the channels they currently run, on all the platforms where they’re currently present?
Public service media must be prominent online, because that’s where more and more content lives, and where more and more people choose to access and interact with it. It is absolutely the role of public service media to be in that space, constraining the baser instincts of pure commercialism and profit and offering people a different kind of cultural experience and engagement than they will find on TMZ or 4Chan. But do they need to be everywhere, simply because they can?
Mark Scott has already answered “no” to that question in the Australian context, with his announcements last year of a streamlining of the ABC’s digital provision. Yes, the ABC must be on the internet, just as the 20th century required it to be on radio and TV, but it can be more strategic and focused than it has been in developing its online presence; more sensitive to the competitive pressures of commercial media too.
All of this applies equally to the BBC. The organisation colonised the internet early on, pioneering the use of digital tools in the public service context when Rupert Murdoch thought the world wide web was just a passing fad. The BBC, freed from the demands of private share holders, was able to innovate and invest in online services such as iPlayer, which upped the ante on streaming technology and pushed the industry as a whole into new terrain. But that doesn’t justify the purchase of the Lonely Planet travel guide empire for $240 million some years ago.
So there is room for debate, and much to talk about in relation to what public service media are for, and how they can best fulfil their role in the digital century.
But in Australia, as in the UK – and again, one might be forgiven for thinking it more than serendipitous that the issue is so high on the news agenda in both countries right now – the debate is enmeshed with the decades-long anti-public service campaigning of the News Corporation presses. Distinguished broadcasters such as Jonathan Dimbleby have warned that, with a Conservative government now in sole control of government, private media interests – the Murdoch empire in particular – are out to “destroy the BBC”.
Reading The Australian and The Times/Sunday Times as I do, I’m struck (not for the first time) by the consistency in content and style of critical coverage of public service media. Editorials on both sides of the world declare that the time has come for fundamental review of the public service model; news stories tell tales of excessive management salaries and celebrity fees; columnists weigh in with a near daily flow of anti-public service media polemics about “lefty lynch mobs” and the like.
Not all the criticisms are erroneous or motivated by deep personal hatred of public service media. Some are more thoughtful and reasoned than others. There are things about public service media that do need to be fixed. Not necessarily the things that a News Corp controversialist thinks need fixing, mind, such as the BBC’s insistence on producing quality popular entertainment as part of its core remit.
But the sensible, informed debate which we seek on the future of public service media risks being drowned out by the sound of anti-public service media governments and their media allies in both countries seizing their moment to do what even Margaret Thatcher failed to achieve – that is, reduce our great public service media institutions to docile, market failure shadows of their former excellence, providing worthy fare – not The Voice, heaven forbid! - to those who can’t afford to pay Rupert and his family $1200 a year for a basic subscription package.
I leave for the UK on Friday, and will be updating readers on how this debate proceeds over there in the next few weeks and months. What is already clear is that public service media in both countries face the fight of their corporate lives. Time, maybe, for the public both here and there whom they serve to step up and lend a hand.