A transcript of ABC managing director Mark Scott’s speech to the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association.

I am delighted to be able to join you for this Commonwealth Broadcasting Association gathering and to be able to share some insights from our recent experiences at Australia’s public broadcaster, the ABC.

Looking back: an age of scarcity

The ABC, like many other public broadcasters, was based on the great model in the Reithian tradition established by the BBC.

Now, in these new millennial years, few remain true to that tradition — truly independent, comprehensive public broadcasters, created to inform, educate and entertain; to reflect the nation to the nation; and to project the nation’s values to the world.

The ABC and the BBC however, have remained true. Both were founded in an age of scarcity, and many of their assumptions were based upon that scarcity.

At a time when many of those assumptions have been demolished, it’s appropriate to ask: in a digital age of plenty, what role can the public broadcaster play?

And tonight, I’d like to tell you a story — it’s not strictly a tale of two broadcasters — but is an alternative success story to that of the BBC.

A success that’s based on a different funding model, based on a new definition of public good that meets new demands created by significant change that’s taken place in the Australian media landscape.

The ABC’s is a very different history though, to the BBC’s. It never had what Lord Reith memorably described as the BBC’s “brute force of monopoly”.

The ABC has always operated alongside commercial broadcasters. Commercial radio stations were in place before the ABC was created in 1932. Australia itself had been Federated just thirty one years
earlier; and in creating the ABC, the founders in the Australian Parliament believed they would help create a nation.

The ABC was expected to both compete with and complement those commercial services. It did not however, have its own news service in its early years.

The news was instead bought from Australian press proprietors like Sir Keith Murdoch, father of Rupert.

In 1936, the ABC’s Federal News Editor urged the ABC to appoint its own news gathering service. Sir Keith Murdoch’s newspapers began calling for a reduction in the ABC’s licence fee on the basis that
an ABC news service would constitute “improper competition”. As James Murdoch’s recent MacTaggart lecture shows, it’s a phrase that has resonated for the family down through the years.

Our public broadcasters were created as a result of direct Government intervention in the market to provide services that would come to be valued. The ABC lived up to that promise, linking the nation,
providing distinctive programming and growing the appetite and appreciation for what radio could offer (broadcasting the Bodyline tour of 1932/33 certainly helped) — on public and commercial stations.

When we started in radio, only 6% of Australians had a radio licence.

When we started in television, only 2% of Australians had a set in the cities in which transmission had commenced.

And for a decade, there were only three stations available — the ABC and two commercial channels. The ABC’s offerings in the early days of radio and television were broad: from high quality, distinctive
Australian content, to specialist broadcasting in areas like religion, science and arts, right through to the high cost broadcasts of major sporting events. Audiences grew as did the power and money of those
who had taken a stake in commercial media operations.

Australia turned out to be excellent at growing media barons who took advantage of the massive barriers to entry, making it difficult for others to reach large audiences and sell them to advertisers.

With the costs of printing presses, the scarcity of television licences and the difficulties of transmission in a vast country like Australia, Kerry Packer became Australia’s richest man and Rupert Murdoch started on a path to becoming our most prominent global citizen.

I think there is a sustainable argument that for decades, Australians had the best free‐to‐air television service available in the world. There were not a lot of channels — at most five were available in the cities.

*Read the full text of Mark Scott’s speech on the Crikey website.