Charter Shmarter. Every time someone is cross with our public broadcasters, they ask “what about the charter”? Is the ABC not being brave enough, different enough, or too driven by ratings? Is it too like the commercial channels, or too elitist? Is it too left wing, or not controversial enough?

Spicks and Specks might be fun, but is a music game show “charter”? East of Everything might be Australian drama, but isn’t it just SeaChange revisited? Doesn’t the charter say the ABC has to be innovative?

Charter, charter, charter. Sometimes you think that nobody actually reads the document of which they speak. At the 2020 summit, participants called for the charters of the ABC and SBS to be reviewed, but so far as I can determine gave no hint for why or how this might be done.

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The truth is that the charters of our public broadcasters are gloriously broadly worded, binding them to almost nothing, and open to interpretation by whomever is in power.

This is not necessarily a bad thing in a document governing an arts organisation. Ask the judges of the Miles Franklin Award whether they wouldn’t rather Miles had allowed them to give the gong to works by Australians, without insisting that they also be works about Australia.

So what do the charters say, and what do they not say, and what should they say in the new media world?

The ABC Charter is here. It binds Auntie to providing “innovative and comprehensive” broadcasting services, and then goes on “without limiting the generality of the foregoing” to talk about national identity, informing and entertaining, educating and reflecting cultural diversity, as well as encouraging the arts. In doing all these things, the ABC should “take account of” services already provided by the commercials, and its responsibility to “provide a balance between broadcasting programs of wide appeal and specialized broadcasting programs”.

So there you have it. Could mean anything. Clearly light entertainment is there as well as information and education. In the past critics such as Michael Duffy have suggested the ABC should limit itself do providing those “public goods” that the commercial sector cannot provide, and forget about everything else — such as light entertainment and bite sized news. In other words, he would like to keep Radio National.

More recently critics like Chris Berg have argued that activities like establishing an island in Second Life are not part of the brief. “There does not appear to be any under-provision of idiots with money to spend in Second Life.”

So how should the charter be reconsidered?

The one thing among all the chatter that really sticks out is that the ABC is no longer only about broadcasting, nor can it be if it is to remain relevant. While the charter does allow the organisation to do pretty much anything it likes that helps it to broadcast, there is no doubt that the emphasis and end purpose is conceived as the airwaves.

What should a charter for a publicly funded new media “space” require? The words that are clearly missing from the charter at the moment are “participation”. The ABC should be chartered to encourage public engagement and participation in its offerings.

The ABC is moving towards this. Look at Unleashed or Heywire. Both Managing Director Mark Scott and the 2020 summiteers talked about the organisation being the nation’s “town square” in which Australians can meet to discuss their concerns. But critics like Berg ask how will this be different to the many other blogs and sites available for this, and why should the taxpayer fund it?

I actually don’t think this question is too hard to answer. First, the ABC is different precisely because it is paid for by the taxpayers, and employs professional journalists, producers and directors. The internet makes that relationship more direct, and raises the possibility of good quality content makers being in the commission of the public in a very direct fashion. Most blogs consist only of audience participation, and while this is useful it isn’t enough. What is needed is collaboration between professionals and audience, and professionals who are responsive to the audience. The ABC is one of the likely places for this to happen.

Second, the ABC does not take advertising, and that means that it can be a town square, rather than a shopping mall – speaking to the audience as citizens, not only as consumers.

Which leads us to the SBS Charter. This too is non-prescriptive. It says the “principal function of SBS is to provide multilingual and multicultural radio and television services that inform, educate and entertain all Australians and, in doing so, reflect Australia’s multicultural society.”

But note that phrase “all Australians”. The present Managing Director, Shaun Brown, has emphasised that phrase to argue that SBS cannot be only an ethnic broadcaster.

He has gone further. In a speech last August he argued that this part of the Charter meant that “SBS must not and cannot be defined by its audience.”

“It is no more true to say that we exist for ethnic Australians than it is to say that all ethnic Australians watch or listen to SBS because they are ethnic. Such generalisations belittle all of us.”

“Rather the Charter requires us to be defined by our content and services, reflecting Australia’s multicultural society to all Australians.”

Huh? And that’s not being defined by your audience? This seems to be confused thinking to me, particularly in the interactive age. And if SBS is serving all Australians, then how is it different from the ABC — other than because it takes ads?

Brown also said the preoccupation among commentators with the fact that SBS takes advertising has precluded broader debates about its function. He says that the ABC/BBC model of Government funding is not the only way to do public broadcasting.

Perhaps, but I think the truth is that taking ads inevitably blurs the purpose and emphasis of an organisation. Would Brown be able to say that the audience does not define his service if he didn’t take ads? The risk, of course, is that the advertisers will come to define it.

Nor does the remarkably thin corporate plan for SBS shed much light on how the organisation conceives its responsibilities. One of the few specifics is a commitment to major expenditure on Australian content – but $100 million over five years will not change the course of history.

So where does this leave us? Yes, the charters need revisiting, if only to broaden the focus from broadcasting to all the many things a new media organisation must be. But in organisations that must indeed be increasingly defined by their audiences, we would be silly to make the documents too prescriptive.

What “public goods” might the public actually require once given their voice in the new town squares? None of us know. It’s quite scary — but good scary — to think about it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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