The Rudd government is confronting a host of thorny questions as it contemplates the future of public broadcasting in Australia. But the Australian media seem to have ignored this week’s developments on the subject in France, which throw an interesting new light on the debate.

One of France’s two main TV networks, TF1, was privatised in 1987. The other, France 2, remains in public ownership, funded by both licence fees and advertising revenue. Earlier this year, however, French president Nicolas Sarkozy proposed that advertising on public television be phased out, and this week, following a report by a parliamentary commission, details of the plan were announced.

Ads on the public channels are to disappear from next year after 8pm, and altogether by the end of 2011. The shortfall in funding will be made up by new taxes on internet and mobile phone providers, and on the private broadcasters (who are expected to receive a windfall gain in advertising).

This is a strikingly unorthodox direction for a centre-right government to take. In the Australian debate, the right is associated with increased commercialisation and the left with taxpayer funding. France seems to have got things the other way around.

Both the broadcasting unions and the left-wing opposition are deeply sceptical of Sarkozy’s plan, seeing it as a grab for government control. As part of the reforms, the head of public television will in future be appointed by the president, rather than by an independent commission.

The French left is therefore being brought around to a realisation of something that still eludes their Australian counterparts: that government funding ultimately means political control. Them what pay the piper, call the tune. To expect governments to keep funding a powerful tool for public information without trying to influence the content of that information is, to say the least, wildly optimistic.

If you depend on private sponsors for funding, there is some scope for choice; what offends one sponsor may appeal to another, and the loss of any one sponsor need not be devastating. But when all the money comes from one source, that source has the power to throttle dissent.

Supporters of ABC “independence” here have a lively awareness of the risks of private funding. A glance at the French experience might help alert them to the much greater risks associated with public funding.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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