What kind of ABC do we want?
By Prof Don Aitkin
Two themes have been prominent since Malcolm Turnbull first spoke about cut to funding for the ABC. The first is that there was a promise, which has been broken, not to impose cuts on the ABC.
The second is that there is something special about the ABC that makes it a kind of icon of Australian life, so it should be protected against anything and everything.
There is no doubt that Tony Abbott made a specific promise that there would be no cuts to the ABC. Equally, he did say that there would be a reduction in the size of the public service, and the ABC is certainly part of that: it is a statutory corporation owned by the Australian Government. Julia Gillard did say that there would be no carbon tax under a government that she led. Yes, circumstances changed, but that was a promise that she did not adhere to.
My own view is that politicians’ promises during election campaigns are hardly to be taken seriously. I wish it weren’t so.
As to the second, here’s Misha Ketchell, one of the editors at The Conversation:
No serious commentator or politician disputes the achievements and ongoing value of the ABC to the quality of Australian life. The question is, rather, what does “public service media” mean in the second decade of the 21st century, and how far should the ABC’s reach into the broader media environment extend?
It’s time to go beyond the cultural politics of the latest cut and think ahead to what kind of media we want our children and grandchildren to have access to. And then to think about what the ABC needs to deliver that vision.
Well, it all depends on what you mean by ‘achievements and ongoing value’, doesn’t it? I would regard myself as a serious commentator, and I think the ABC has to some degree gone off the rails. As I have written elsewhere, it has admirable documents in its Code of Practice and its Editorial Policies. But, despite them, the ABC seems committed to the view that anthropogenic global warming (AGW, later transmuted into “climate change”, and later still into ‘extreme weather’) is a real and present threat to humanity.
Such a position is at odds with both these documents. Among other things they state that ‘Aiming to equip audiences to make up their own minds is consistent with the public service character of the ABC’ — and who could disagree? Accordingly, ‘The ABC has a statutory duty to ensure that the gathering and presentation of news and information is impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism’.
I don’t think it does its duty here. And to be fair, I don’t think it is possible for any news-gathering and news-disseminating organisation to do this perfectly, because one has to have a position about what is ‘newsworthy’, and how that ‘news’ should be presented. But you don’t help people ‘to make up their own minds’ by giving them only a part of any story. And in many areas, not just ‘climate change’, the ABC’s position is clear: there are rights and wrongs, goods and bads, and it knows which is which.
No listener or viewer needs to know much about the wrongs and the bads, even if that is not how those involved would describe themselves, because the ABC knows best.
How many Australians do watch or listen to the national icon? There’s no simple answer to such a question. Its reach is greater in regional areas, and less in the big cities. Nielsen and similar ratings can give you audiences for particular programs or particular times of the day, and particular days of the week. The ABC’s Annual Report for 2013 is a bit hazy on all this, but I did see that the biggest number listed is 19 million for the number of plays of ‘Peppa Pig’ on iview.
The report claims that the combined audience reach for radio, television and online is 73% (presumably of all Australians), but what does that number mean? In radio, it seems to have, on average, about a quarter of the big-city audience and about the same in the country. In television it claims 17.8% of the prime-time metropolitan and 19.5% of the regional audience.
These figures don’t make it something that everyone watches, listens to and knows about. Rather, there are people who only watch and listen to the ABC, people who watch both the ABC and commercial stations (I’m one of them, for news, anyway) and people who never watch or listen to the ABC. The ABC conducts its own community surveys, and discovers that 85% of Australians think that it ‘plays a valuable role’.
Well, I think it does too. But I also think that its news and current affairs areas have a pronounced cultural bias which gets in the way of presenting news in a balanced way. The annual report started with a quotation from the first address given on ABC radio in 1932:
This service, the ABC, now belongs to you. We are your trustees. It is a service that is not run for profit, but purely in the interests of every section.
It is to me a true indication of the problem inside the ABC that this statement was given such prominence, because in my judgment, the ABC is not run ‘in the interests of every section’ but in the world-view of its staff and management.
The cuts to funding are not trivial, but they are what every other organisation in the Australian public sector has had to deal with, and they do not mean the end of the ABC as we know it. But it would be nice if they were a start towards a truly balanced and professional ABC, because that is the ‘kind of media we want our children and grandchildren to have access to’, Mr Ketchell.
Professor Don Aitkin was Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Canberra from 1991 to 2002 and has a long-standing interest in policy studies and practice relevant to higher education and research. His intellectual interests centre on history, political science, music and literature.