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The ABC should work with commercial media outlets, not compete with them

The ABC could be used to support struggling sectors of the media environment. AAP Image/Dan Peled

The ABC should work with commercial media outlets, not compete with them

As the ABC’s managing director Mark Scott approaches the end of his decade-long tenure, Media Watch this week provided a platform for him to highlight his achievements and fire off a couple of parting shots.

It’s not ideal to see the ABC CEO using an ABC program to defend the ABC, but presenter Paul Barry did a reasonable job of representing the other side. “Too rich, too powerful, and biased” was the gist of it.

Before responding, Scott emphasised two key achievements: the launch of ABC News 24, and the move online. iView in particular, he said, had led the Australian media market in streaming technology.

Both services came from within existing budgets, paid for by savings and cuts elsewhere in the corporation. They were contentious at the time, but are now key planks in a sustainable digital future for the ABC.

Of course, these achievements are precisely the cause of criticism from The Australian and others who have accused Scott and the ABC of “imperialistic expansion” laying at least some of the blame for Fairfax’ troubles at their door.

Echoing the UK Conservative Chancellor’s attack on the BBC’s “imperial ambition”, the opponents of public service media in Australia dispute the ABC’s right – Scott would say duty – to be more than a market failure broadcaster.

Scott responded by pointing out that in the US, where there is no public service broadcasting to speak of (just PBS, supported by philanthropic donations), the death of newspapers has gone farther and faster than in Australia.

On claims of left-wing bias, and Tony Abbott’s famous “whose side are you on?” attack after the Zaky Mallah affair, Scott said:

We do a different style of journalism to the journalism that I think increasingly you see in News Limited papers and increasingly you see with different columnists as well. You know, a lot of that criticism comes from right wing commentators and they wonder, where are the strong right wing commentators on the ABC?

We don’t do that kind of journalism. We don’t ask questions about our journalists’ voting pattern and where their ideologies are. We look at the journalism that they put to air, and we have strong editorial standards that demand fairness, balance and impartiality, and we hold them to that test.

On occasion ABC journalists fail, Scott admitted, but what news organisation doesn’t? And as the Malaysian government of Najib Razak struggles to deal with the fallout from the latest Four Corners expose of alleged high level corruption and murder, we see once more what public service journalism is all about.

Scott’s other purpose on Media Watch was to argue for the continuation of current funding from the Turnbull government. Otherwise, he said, ten per cent of the news budget was at risk and job cuts would follow.

I’ve argued before that Scott leaves an ABC that is strong and confident, as well as popular with the majority of the Australian people. He’s overseen a tough digital transition and negotiated the Abbott years with skill.

In the interests of securing its place in the broader Australian media ecology, though, it may be time for the ABC to consider innovative approaches to supporting commercial media that are genuinely struggling with disruptive technologies, such as the local press.

The BBC, which has faced similar challenges to the ABC and is currently in Charter Review, provides an interesting example of what public-private media cooperation could look like.

As part of the 99-page dossier The Future of the BBC, the BBC has outlined a plan to support local news organisations. Citing declining numbers of regional reporters as “not good for our democracy, our government institutions and our citizens”, it proposes several solutions.

They range from a shared data journalism centre, to sharing BBC audio and video clips with local and regional news organisations.

The BBC has also suggested they invest funds in a Local Accountability Reporting Service. This would support 100 public service reporters to cover councils, courts and public services across Britain, with their work available to every news organisation.

While this service would be funded and administered by the BBC, any news agency or local paper could compete for the contract to cover their local area.

There are plenty of issues associated with these plans, and so far the BBC has been light on the details. There’s considerable complications around rights and attribution, and not every local media group in the UK supports it.

But it seems like an excellent way of embedding public service media in the cultural life of the country, helping to fill a gap in the public sphere that the commercial press are increasingly unable to.

Could something of the kind work in Australia’s dispersed regional and local communities? If the ABC is not the cause of the commercial media’s problems, especially in the local journalism sphere, that doesn’t mean it can’t do more to be part of the solution.

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