Reading Mark Latham’s comments in The Australian Financial Review this morning, I couldn’t help but wonder if he was onto something big.

Fancy calling for the Rudd government to sell the ABC.

It’s as though the past decade has passed Latham by. After all Janet Albrechtsen has been on the board of the ABC (her term is about the expire in a few months) and she’s from the side of politics that regularly calls for the ABC to be dismantled or sold off  (led by the late Frank Devine).

But this idea that going private is somehow a panacea for all the ills that may or may not afflict the ABC, is  very odd.

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Understanding economics and the business world has never been one of Latham’s core strengths.

Latham obviously hasn’t seen what has happened to the private media sector. Red ink, huge dollops of it, no matter where you look. Radio, TV, newspapers, parts of the online world. The world over.

He said today:  “Today, with the proliferation of affordable entertainment and information services, the public sector no longer needs to dedicate its resources to broadcasting.”

In this comment, Latham identifies himself as a digital clod. It’s not just about services, infrastructure, devices, it’s the content that people want. The ABC is all about content, as are all good media groups. There are none that understand the digital world as well as the ABC in this country  at the moment. And what do many people like putting on their devices? Content from the ABC (audio or video).

Of all the broadcasters in the world, two better equipped for the changes now happening would be the BBC and the ABC, both state-owned.

The write-off on his column summaries his remarks as “A politicised, trivial national broadcaster isn’t a good look for a government”.

Why? Hasn’t he looked lately at the private-sector media in this country, which is trivial in the extreme, politicised and unprofitable. Today Tonight, A Current Affair, the Confidential pages of the Murdoch tabloids, Woman’s Day, New Idea?

Besides, Latham really knows his stuff. Who does he think would oppose any move to sell the ABC? The private-sector media in this country, of course, who would be dead scared the ABC would drain valuable ad and other revenues from their emaciated businesses.

Big network free-to-air TV in this country is broke: overburdened with debt, all self-inflicted thanks to greedy current and former owners. Ad revenues have fallen and are not coming back; the newspaper groups are marginally profitable and many of their revenues in classified ads have vanished for good.

They have yet to face the sort of restructuring they have urged on other sectors, such as cars, footwear, clothing and textiles. Commercial radio is run on the smell of an oily rag and the ravings of a few high-profile people such as Alan Jones and Mr Sandilands (are they the sort of role models Latham thinks we should look up to?).

And yet the ABC is the most digital savvy and prepared of all the media businesses in this country, followed at some distance by Fairfax, with the Murdoch-owned News Ltd trailing badly. The pay-TV and FTA TV groups, plus commercial radio, are stuck in the past  so far as their understanding and ability to exploit new technologies. To appear on commercial radio these days means to be able to support advertising (live on-air reads, cash-for-comment-type scripts), not an ability to communicate.

Pay-TV is making money as are pay-TV suppliers such as Premier Media Group. Overseas it’s the pay-TV businesses of News Corp, Comcast and NBC and CBS that are making the money.

Surely Latham isn’t advocating that the ABC become a pay-TV operator (It’s the operators and the channel owners who make money). It is already helping drive business for Foxtel and Austar in this country.

The ABC isn’t perfect, just as any media or business isn’t perfect. But as someone who has worked in the private sector and observed the public sector, I know where I would prefer to work; in the private mobs. They are at least driven and have some talent.

The ABC is driven, has talent, but has the dead hand of a burdensome public-service mentality, full of acronyms, buzz words and concepts such accountability, transparency and diversity; all of which they all earnestly believe in, don’t practise, but urge on everyone else in the community.

It’s the hypocrisy of the tenured ABC types that I can’t abide, but the ABC has changed for the better in the past five years.

That doesn’t mean the ABC is better or worse than the private sector, which has proven itself  incapable of adapting to change, unless it is to change the rules to those that suit. If they were on the Titanic, they would have been lobbying the captain for better deckchairs, paid for by the shipping company, as the liner sank.

Mark Latham would have been in charge of the deckchairs.

As a Crikey subscriber and someone who began working as a journalist in 1957, I am passionate about the importance of independent media like Crikey. I met a lot of Australians from many walks of life during my career and did my best to share their stories honestly and fairly with their fellow citizens.

And I never forgot how important it is to hold politicians to account. Crikey does that – something that is more important now than ever before in Australia.

North Stradbroke Island, QLD

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