Media outlets, including Crikey, jumped on last Friday’s story about Chris Masters’s biography of Alan Jones being canned by ABC Enterprises. But none of them seem to be asking why the national broadcaster is publishing books in the first place.

The
argument for a government-funded radio and television network, as I
understand it, is based on the idea that since the number of
broadcasters is limited, the government needs to ensure that an
independent, distinctively Australian voice is present to balance the
commercial networks. It’s an argument about market failure and the
importance of impartiality, especially in news and current affairs. I
don’t agree with the argument, but at least it makes some sort of
sense.

But
how is any of this supposed to apply to book publishing? Publishing
resources aren’t limited the way the broadcast spectrum is. The market
is full of publishers, large and small, foreign and domestic, serious
and trashy. And for those who still can’t find a publisher, technology
has brought the costs of self-publication well within reach. What can a
government-owned publisher add to this?

In its statement on the
Jones book, ABC Enterprises said it has “a clear responsibility to
deliver a commercial return to the ABC.” That seems to rule out any
argument based on market failure: if your publishing is commercially
driven, why not let commercial publishers do it?

The answer
seems to be that the publishing business, like the “ABC shops”, is
supposed to make money to feed back into broadcasting, supplementing
its government funding. But this just amounts to funding a public
service out of a special tax on (rival) book publishers, instead of
general revenue. As I said in Crikey 18 months ago, when ABC shops were
debated, “If you think these things are essential government services,
let’s fund them out of taxation … If you think the book trade should
be government-run, then nationalise it …”.

Instead we get government authorities that try to behave like businesses, and end up with the accountability of neither.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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