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ABC efficiency review must not be a stealth attack on effectiveness

Unless things have changed greatly in the last eight years, it would seem that the ABC has little to fear from a review of its efficiency. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Due to Australia’s small population and high concentration of few media voices, public broadcasters play a pivotal role in shaping the media ecosystem and cultural landscape. With the ABC and SBS under scrutiny ahead of the budget, The Future of Public Broadcasting series looks at the role of these taxpayer funded broadcasters, how they shape our media and whether they provide value for money.

The ABC has transformed itself over the last few decades. The national broadcaster has very substantially expanded its output and outlets while almost constantly operating under severe financial constraints. Its management structures are lean and geared towards optimising its performance.

In 1977, the ABC’s most successful radio program in Melbourne was also its most controversial. Terry Lane’s morning program on 774 not only had high audience numbers, but also strong listener involvement. The program had generated some angry criticism in conservative circles, and eventually Lane was taken off air, a move that was greeted by an outpouring of public anger.

Before that move, in the multi-layered public service management structure of the ABC, Lane was accountable for his on-air performance to seven different people with overlapping administrative domains. Lane recalls that in those bureaucratic days, memos from managers were colour-coded according to the rank of the sender.

Five years later, when Lane was approached to return, nearly all those seven positions had disappeared. He would now be answerable only to the Director of Radio. Already the ABC was moving towards a more streamlined and rational management model.

In the mid-1980s, ABC managing director David Hill said the broadcaster must do more with less. This is a call that most of his successors have essentially echoed.

Yet no matter how much the reality changes, the public rhetoric of its critics is determinedly stuck in the imagery of a bloated, bureaucratic public service broadcaster. This is why, in 2014, it is still possible for communications minister Malcolm Turnbull to call for a review into the “efficiency” of the ABC and SBS.

Conservative government inquiries

It has become a habit for conservative governments to call inquiries into the ABC. The Fraser government had the Dix inquiry, which reported to the government in 1982.

This inquiry was entirely appropriate, called as the national broadcaster approached its 50th anniversary. It was professionally and fairly conducted. The inquiry was a fruitful exercise, feeding into a process that culminated in a restatement of the ABC Charter and a bipartisan commitment to the ABC’s institutional role.

Immediately after being elected in 1996, the Howard government called the Mansfield inquiry, which had a remit to examine ABC activities with a view to future funding cuts.

Bob Mansfield recommended a cessation of international broadcasting. Radio Australia was severely cut, but did survive after a vigorous campaign against the recommendation. Mansfield’s other major recommendation was for the ABC to sell its properties and lease accommodation, a recommendation wisely ignored by all concerned.

Although the Howard government duly cut the ABC’s budget, the Mansfield inquiry backfired on the government as a political exercise. It brought forth overwhelming evidence of the public affection for the ABC. Public opinion polls consistently attest to the unique standing of the ABC among Australian media today.

The Howard-era unreleased reports

The Howard government commissioned but never released several reviews into the ABC. AAP/Dean Lewins

Almost unknown to the public is that during the Howard government there were four further inquiries into the ABC. These included two reviews into the ABC’s governance and procedures by the Australian National Audit Office, one by the Macquarie Bank in 2002, and one by consulting firm KPMG in 2006.

Turnbull could aid informed public debate by releasing all previously unpublished reports on the ABC if and when his own report is tabled.

The Howard government commissioned, but then did not publish, the KPMG report into the ABC’s funding adequacy and efficiency. The best account of its conclusions has recently been given by former ABC executive Geoff Heriot. Presumably contrary to the government’s wishes, it argued that the ABC suffered from a “structural funding deficit” and had to bear costs that commercial operators didn’t face.

The KPMG report concluded – a conclusion that has grown more emphatic in the years since – that the range and scale of ABC operations, in Australia and overseas, were unmatched by any other Australian media organisation. It concluded that the ABC was “a broadly efficient organisation”, which provided a:

…high volume of outputs and quality, relative to the level of funding it received.

The report recommended substantially increased funding for the national broadcaster. The Howard government, although not giving the full amount recommended, did increase the ABC’s funding in the next budget.

The current political context

So, unless things have changed greatly in the last eight years, it would seem that the ABC has little to fear from a review of its efficiency. However, there are grounds for fearing that “efficiency” is but a fig leaf for ulterior political motivations.

Since the federal election there has been a stream of vitriol towards the national broadcaster. Even on election night itself, News Corp ideological warrior and former Liberal Party staffer Chris Kenny, undeterred by prime minister Tony Abbott’s promise to the contrary during the election campaign, said that the ABC’s budget should be cut.

The Australian has also continued to obsessively and relentlessly seek to discredit the ABC on any grounds it can find.

Then, after controversies involving the publishing of leaked material from Edward Snowden and reports of asylum seekers being mistreated, Abbott claimed that:

A lot of people feel at the moment that the ABC instinctively takes everyone’s side but Australia’s … you would like the national broadcaster to have a rigorous commitment to truth and at least some basic affection for the home team.

Tony Abbott made a pre-election promise that the ABC’s funding would not be cut. AAP/Julian Smith

Then we had the unprecedented spectacle of the prime minister publicly intervening in a civil case, the defamation action taken by Chris Kenny against the ABC TV program The Hamster Decides. Abbott not only seemed to assume the outcome, but said it was the sort of thing that would come up when discussing ABC funding. It is hard to imagine any self-respecting judge allowing such a contempt of court to pass unrebuked.

This is the political context for the inquiry into ABC efficiency. But who could object to greater efficiency? Efficiency relates to the rational, productive means of achieving an organisation’s goals.

It is normally much more important, but much more difficult, to probe an organisation’s effectiveness. An inward-looking examination of efficiency without looking at effectiveness runs the risk of tacitly redefining goals especially those that cannot be simply measured.

For example, should a journalist’s productivity be measured by the number of words they produce in a day? If so, simply regurgitating press releases and speeches would be the path to greatest “productivity”.

In terms of resources used for audiences reached, one way of increasing the ABC’s “efficiency” would be to cut back on how it serves rural and regional Australia. But that would run counter to the ABC’s understanding of its mission as per the ABC Charter.

If the government wants to change the ABC’s priorities, it should seek to do so by public debate in parliament. A departmental inquiry into “efficiency” – without any grounds for public input – should not be a mask for seeking to damage its effectiveness.

Read more articles in The Future of Public Broadcasting.

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