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Neither the ABC nor SBS have anything to fear from community forums

AAP/Lukas Coch

Some have questioned senator David Leyonhjelm’s demand that in return for his support on the government’s bill to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission, the public service media organisations ABC and SBS be required to hold regular community forums. Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young described it as “a ridiculous suggestion”, and accused Leyonhjem of “playing off the ABC and SBS in order to exchange votes in the Senate”.

Motivations aside, it can’t be a bad idea for publicly funded media to be held more accountable to their taxpaying users than has been the tradition in Australia. A community forum seems a sensible way of going about it.

It’s rightly regarded as the ABC’s democratic job to apply critical scrutiny to politicians and business elites. Programs such as Q&A do this very well indeed. Confronting our elected representatives with an audience of informed, engaged citizens every Monday night has become a centrepiece of Australia’s political culture.

Why not, then, subject ABC and SBS management to a similar kind of scrutiny, where the people who pay for the organisations get to watch over the watchdogs? If run well – that is, in a constructive spirit where all sides take the exercise seriously – it can only benefit the standing of the public service media at a time of growing digital and political challenges.

The main public service body, the ABC, is strong in 2016, with outstanding approval ratings and high audiences – including for political formats such as Q&A. It does a lot right. And in these times of rising extremism and post-factual news culture, we need the ABC more than ever. But it isn’t perfect.

Like the BBC in the UK (which has actually been much worse in this regard, until the Savile scandal blew the lid off the organisation), with which the ABC has many things in common, there has been a sense of aloofness in its past relationships with the public. This is in the nature of large, public bodies with rigid bureaucratic structures. But in the digital era it is no longer acceptable.

Both the ABC and the SBS have made great progress in utilising digital tools for public participation and interactivity. Both Mark Scott and his successor, Michelle Guthrie, have put digital transformation at the heart of their strategy. Adding more opportunities for personal, face-to-face dialogue into that mix will enhance the public’s sense of engagement.

Just as we expect politicians to be open and accessible to their voters, so too the leaders of a body such as the ABC must relinquish what remains of the elite-mass paternalism that characterised the 20th century, and approach their audience as genuine partners in a shared endeavour – to maintain the enviably high standards of publicly funded televisual culture in this country.

The forum idea has not been rejected by the ABC or the SBS. A spokesman for the latter welcomed it, noting that:

SBS engages regularly already with the community through a variety of forums, and believes it is important not only f or its Board, but for SBS to be meeting with and listening to the communities it serves. Members of the SBS Board regularly attend community and industry forums and functions, and Board meetings have been held in Hobart, Alice Springs and Canberra, in addition to major metropolitan cities in recent years. In arranging Board meetings in 2017 and beyond, SBS will take any relevant change in government policy into consideration.

Neither the ABC nor the SBS have anything to fear from such encounters. On the contrary, by listening more systematically to the voices of listeners and viewers in the regions and localities beyond the inner-city echo-chambers where broadcasters tend to live and work (Leyonhjelm rather mischievously referred to it as the “goat’s cheese curtain”) – and being seen to listen – will shore up the public’s currently strong support for their continued existence.

In short, then, community forums for the ABC and the SBS should not be seen as a concession to the anti-public service media lobby, but a logical development in democratic accountability. And if they are streamed or televised, all the better.

Brian McNair is the author of the ARC-funded study, Politics, Media and Democracy in Australia: public and producer perceptions of the political public sphere (with Terry Flew, Stephen Harrington and Adam Swift), Routledge, 2017 (forthcoming).

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