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Expert panel: is there a place for the ABC in modern Australia?

Taking the politics out of it, what should the ABC be doing with its reduced budget? AAP/Joel Carrett

In the recent ABC funding debate, many have questioned what the public broadcaster is for. What should its role be in Australia’s contemporary media landscape?

Some argue that the ABC is a market-failure organisation, a “safety net” for anything the commercial sector can’t do. Others argue that it should focus on audiences as citizens, rather than consumers, to be different to commercial players.

Taking the politics out of it, what should the ABC be doing? The Conversation asked a panel of three experts to respond.

Fiona Martin, Senior Lecturer in Convergent and Online Media at University of Sydney

Let’s return for a minute to the flawed National Commission of Audit report, which prefaced these cuts to the ABC and SBS. It provides the government’s real political understanding of their role – and fails to get it right on market failure or innovation.

The Commission of Audit report claims online media and convergence have eliminated the need for state-funded public service media. That is not at all proven. We don’t have solid research on Australian media diversity or accessibility that takes into account online sources or the impact of social media. A recent Canadian media diversity project provides a template (and noted the increased influence of media giants like Google), but to claim the issue is settled here is hubris.

In the last major world study of media concentration, Australia was 25th out of 30 countries in local voice diversity. At the recent Journalism Education and Research conference, Rod Tiffen and Franco Papandrea revealed that Australia has become the developed world’s most concentrated newspaper market.

Meanwhile, diversity of local television and radio news has hardly altered, except for the ABC and SBS. News sharing within organisations has increased. And the city-based Guardian Australia or Beecher stable websites have made little sustained impact in terms of covering local, rural, state or Indigenous news and affairs.

The other disappointing thing about the Commission of Audit report is that it fails to evaluate the roles of the ABC and SBS in either technical or social innovation.

As Geoff Mulgan argues, social innovation is about spreading new ideas that meet society’s needs. Specialist features, documentary and investigative journalism are critical here. They provide knowledge evaluation, which underpins trust and drives behavioural change.

Mainstream media are cutting back on long-form journalism and local online start-ups are struggling to finance it. However, we know little about how people use or value these media forms.

The ABC and SBS also have an outreach mandate. ABC Open’s storytelling and media literacy project trains hundreds of regional Australians in media production each month. As Open’s Cath Dwyer indicates, Open has published more than 8600 people. SBS’s free educational training materials around Go Back to Where You Came From and First Contact take complex immigration and race debates into classrooms and online forums.

So are these effective, valuable investments in achieving policy goals?

That’s where the government needs to look for the real value of public service media. If it’s going to audit the ABC and SBS’s effectiveness, it might better evaluate their contribution to voice diversity or innovation.

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism at University of Melbourne

So Nick Cater thinks the ABC exists as a market-failure safety net, a kind of Centrelink of the air.

Well, that certainly suits the agenda of Rupert Murdoch, in whose newspaper his column appears. It is obvious from the relentless campaign The Australian has been waging against the ABC for years that News Corp has a business objective to emasculate a potential rival in the digital space.

But where does this idea of the ABC as a mechanism to counter market failure come from?

The ABC’s charter, which forms part of the Act of Parliament under which it operates, requires the ABC to provide innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard that contribute to a sense of national identity, inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community, and to make programs of an educational nature.

In doing so, it is required to take account of the broadcasting services provided by the commercial and public sectors of the Australian broadcasting system.

To interpret that as a market-failure mechanism is absurdly reductionist.

And Cater’s argument fails on its own terms. A market in information and ideas that is overwhelmingly dominated in print by a single provider – Rupert Murdoch – is in any case an instance of market failure as expressed in the democratic currency of diversity rather than in financial currency.

To the extent that the ABC adds diversity of voice, it does act as a counter to market failure. But it does much more. Most importantly it is trusted by the public, far more than is any other media organisation, to provide that bedrock of reliable news and information without which a capitalist democracy cannot function.

Sinclair Davidson, Professor of Institutional Economics at RMIT University

The best argument for public broadcasting would be a “market failure” or incomplete market approach. The argument would be that commercial media couldn’t or wouldn’t serve some niche market that need be filled. In the absence of private enterprise, the government steps in.

That argument has historical validity, but the advent of modern technology has substantially reduced the barriers to entry. Now there is no argument for government-provided media content.

What of emergency service communication? Government can enter into contracts with private providers – including mobile phone carriers – to provide emergency information. No need for the ABC there.

A far better argument would be that public broadcasters could be more innovative or controversial than commercial operators. Who but the ABC would ever broadcast the controversial mini-series Angels in America? Yet in the United States that series was produced by the private sector and aired on pay TV.

What of the “Australian voices telling Australian stories” argument? Just under half (47%) of Australian content broadcast on ABC1 during prime time is new material – implying that the other 53% is repeats. But then, the ABC has only an 18.1% share of the prime-time metropolitan market. In other words, “Australian voices telling Australian stories” looks more like a slogan for an industry assistance program rather than fulfilling a market niche.

So while there may well have been good reason for the ABC to exist in years gone by, there no longer is a market-failure justification for keeping the ABC in public hands.

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