ABC Managing Director Mark Scott is, at this very moment, getting to his feet to give the AN Smith Lecture in Journalism at the University of Melbourne. Titled The Fall of Rome: Media After Empire, it has been billed as a landmark statement. It fulfills that promise, while not containing any earth shattering revelations or instant solutions to the problems facing media.

You can read the lecture here.

Mark Scott gives a good speech – well written and for the most part, well judged.  It will be interesting to see what the mainstream media make of it, if anything, because despite its undoubted significance there is no easy news point or grab. The obvious route would be to pick up on his criticism of Rupert Murdoch’s plans to make people pay for content. Scott depicts this as the last frantic efforts of a media emperor to:

deny a revolution that’s already taken place by attempting to use a power that no longer exists, by trying to impose on the world a law that is impossible to enforce.

No media company has solutions to the collapse of business models and the new threats, says Scott.

For newspapers, the last great hope now seems to be something called Waiting for Rupert, the man who just four years ago said he wanted to “make the necessary cultural changes to meet the new demands of the digital native” says he’s not going to respond to the demands of these digital natives.  Instead, they – who have never in their lives paid for news online – will be asked to respond instead to his demands and start paying..

The mission to make people pay for content will not work and cannot work, except for a few highly specialised high quality brands, says Scott. I think this is one area of the speech where Scott’s bark is bigger than his bite. Read carefully, and he says a pay model will work for some things. Yet his language is more condemnatory than that message would suggest.

The reason for this slight slippage in rhetoric is in the speech itself. Scott knows that the commercial media organisations are “after” public broadcasters, attacking their right to exist in the new world of media plenty. He is joining the battle.

But more significant  is Scott’s central message that power has shifted to the audiences, and that this cannot be resisted, but must be embraced.

News gatherers cannot compete with the audience, who are everywhere and now able to publish to the world with elan and efficiency. We no longer live in a world in which ownership of a printing press or a broadcasting licence brings unique  power. They very strategies and thinking that built the media empires may now be the things that bring them undone.

Scott depicts the ABC as living in a constant state of fear that it is not moving “fast enough or bold enough to meet the challenge of the times”. Personally, I think that’s a healthy kind of fear. I’d rather be frightened of not changing than frightened of change.

Scott  is thinking in terms of “ten thousand channels, not five delivered to your living room”  and constant reinvention.The ABC is asking:

What is television? What is radio? In doing so, we are questioning nothing less than the very foundations upon which the ABC has been built over the course of 77 years.  You have to be ready to be truly bold.

He reprises the idea of a public “broadcasters” role as being a town square in which citizens can meet and discuss their affairs.

Scott’ speech begins with the feel of an elegy. He quotes an Auden poem on the fall of the Roman Empire, and continues with better turns of phrase than those who used to sub his copy on the Sydney Morning Herald would have expected to find.

He continues through a nice framing of the challenges and the struggles of the declining empires, and ends with some “hestitant suggestions” about the way forward. He says that the only media organisations that will survive are those that accept that all the rules have changed.

The future lies, not in owning everything but in being part of something. This means that the audience “long treated with an oligipolist’s disdain” must be treated with real respect and their contribution valued.

Scott’s central message is about a shift in power relationships from owners to audiences and participants. This is a hard message for any commercial media company to swallow.

It is no accident, of course, that the public broadcaster takes the debate forward. Only public broadcasters can embrace audience fragmentation and is unphased by collapsing business models.  And there is a natural fit between content makers already directly in the pay of the public and the new imperative to embrace audience power.

It is hard, if not impossible, for a stock market owned media company focussed on quarterly results to innovate and experiment with the depth and speed that is necessary to even hope to keep up.

That is why the ABC is more important now than since its creation. Its new justification for existance includes innovation and experimentation at a time of collapsing business models and paradigm change in media. And that is why we can expect it to come under increasingly fierce attack from all of those who want to make audiences pay for content.

I think the battle between public broadcasters on the one hand, and those who want to make us pay for content will be the key media fight in the early part of this century.  It will be of more lasting importance than the ructions in the Fairfax Board, to name just one set of agonies.

It might be described as the battle between “control” media and “participatory” media. (Thanks to Bronwen Clune for those terms).

Scott’s speech should be seen in that context.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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