What role is there for public broadcasting in the new media age of plenty, asks Institute of Public Affairs fellow Chris Berg in The Australian today. It’s a fair question – indeed the most important question facing the ABC.

But it seems as though Berg doesn’t’t really want to find an answer. He just wants the ABC cut back.

Well, here are some answers. The unique thing about public broadcasting is that it is civic space, not commercial space. It is, or should be, a town square rather than a shopping mall.

In an age when the public role of journalism (and, for that matter, drama) risks being subsumed into the business of media, the ABC is likely to become more relevant, not less. This is providing, of course, that it maintains its point of difference – which means shunning advertising, including (indeed, most crucially) on its websites.

The ABC Board and Managing Director have yet to make a definitive statement on this website advertising issue, and I for one wish they would. The failure to do so undermines confidence that they know what they area about.

But at the same time almost every major speech of Managing Director Mark Scott’s since he got his job last year has contained that crucial “town square” phrase. He seems to see the ABC as a place where Australian citizens can meet and address their common concerns – presumably without people trying to flog them stuff.

The “town square” language is a lift from and resonant with the public journalism movement in the United States, led by New York University academic Jay Rosen among others, which has now morphed into a movement exploring the impact of new media on the changing relationships between content makers and audiences.

If Rosen lived in Australia, with its strong tradition of publicly funded broadcasting, his experiments would almost certainly be finding a home at the ABC. The national broadcaster, after all, includes thousands of content-makers who are already in the pay of the audience. It is appropriate that the relationship become more interactive and direct. Those ABC types who resist this need a wake-up call.

And it simply isn’t true, as Berg suggests, that there is plenty of quality journalism out there. Certainly there is a surfeit of packaged international and national bite sized chunks, but where do you go to find news on your town, or in depth news on anything Australian? The answer, for many people, is the ABC. In rural and regional Australia it is often the only answer. The ABC’s local “Backyard” websites are among its most popular and most important, and the restructuring Scott announced last year included big moves to capitalise on this in the new media world.

Having said that, it would be good if ABC journalists broke a few more stories. Anyone remember the last time the ABC had a cracking good yarn all of its own? Have they forgotten how to do it? Some describe ABC newsrooms as places where the phone never rings – unless it is a public relations operative on the other end.

Berg suggests the ABC adopts the C-SPAN US cable television model, in which a not for profit network streams debates, speeches and press conferences without political commentary. But the ABC is already doing more of this. Mal Brough’s media conference was streamed yesterday, for example. With funding for another digital television channel, there are possibilities for a “citizens’ channel”.

Berg dismisses the early attempts to find answers to his question – such as the website accompanying the screening of the Great Global Warming Swindle – as fads and gimmicks. It is true that at the moment they are hit and miss – as you would expect with new things.

But it’s a bit much for Berg on the one hand to suggest the ABC hasn’t turned its mind to the challenges of the new media age, and on the other hand to dismiss the evidence that it has.

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