Almost 16 long, sometimes dark, years of Coalition-appointed ABC chairmen came to an end yesterday when Jim Spigelman claimed the big-window office at the national broadcaster’s corporate HQ in Sydney. That’s how slowly the board-stacking wheel turns at Aunty.

This huge time-lag has created some awkward juxtapositions. Outgoing chair Maurice Newman is a free-market conservative who’s had to deal with the Rudd and Gillard governments. Spigelman — something of a political radical at university who went on to run a department during the Whitlam era — may soon find himself answering to an Abbott government in which many have openly declared the ABC to be their enemy. The cocktail conversation at official functions might tend towards the tart.

It is, of course, far too early to speculate on the politics of the ABC under Spigelman, other than to say that his years as chief justice of NSW polished an already deft lawyer’s talent for making his point without appearing to take sides. Spigelman is also a cultured, well-read man with a strong interest in the torrid politics of Australia’s early history. Expect his speeches to occasionally sidetrack into peppery references to the Macarthur libel trials. (Defamation was already an established blood sport in Sydney 200 years ago.)

All of this will make Spigelman an interesting chair for the national broadcaster, but that’s not the angle the features and comment editors are chasing. Instead, there have been the predictable “he’s-his-own-man-who-likes-to-be-hands-on” pieces (pull the other one; it’s got Michael Kroger on it), plus that hardy, all-weather perennial: ABC funding. Drag out the same tired, old clippings file and cobble together a pull-through of recent ABC issues. Add the familiar roll-call of quotes from the usual suspects. The ABC’s funding is insufficient to do its job properly; the ABC gets plenty of money but wastes most of it. Take your pick.

This debate invariably becomes a game of ideological ping-pong between those of us who cling to the ABC as our only genuinely independent broadcasting source and those who resent their tax dollars being spent on outlets whose tone and content they dislike.  The Aunty-haters rarely have the courage to call for the ABC’s abolition or sale — they’d prefer to see the broadcaster neutered through death by a thousand budget cuts.

In truth, the ABC’s total budget appropriation is rarely cut. Sometimes a vengeful incoming government (Fraser in 1976, Howard in 1996) will swing the fiscal axe for a year or so, but most “cuts” have actually been reductions in the rate of growth. Thus, the corporation’s current financial stress is more an expression of its appetite for providing additional, often unfunded, services rather than of any targeted parsimony by the federal government.

A generation ago — when, rather quaintly, the ABC came under the Postmaster-General’s Department — senior management would trot down to Canberra with a few vaguely relevant files in their briefcases, fend off some tepid budget questioning from bored MPs and senators and then do a quiet deal with the bureaucrats over lunch at the Royal Canberra Golf Club. Any embarrassing little over-spends at the end of the financial year could be discreetly “carried forward”, or covered by a supplementary allocation.

But when David Hill became managing director in 1987 he made funding an overtly political issue. His “eight cents a day” campaign was a blatant attempt to harness the voting clout of the ABC’s true believers to blackmail the Hawke government. It yielded an indexed triennial funding deal, but the Department of Finance outfoxed Hill by tying any increases to an economic measure that rarely reflected real increases in costs and wages.

From that point, the ABC’s appropriation has been the dominant issue for Aunty and its “friends”. But what’s lost in this 25-year-long debate is that it’s not the raw quantum of ABC funding that matters, it’s the priorities the board and management set for expenditure. Ask not how much money is in the kitty, but what it’s used to buy. Should there be a full multimedia news bureau in Beijing or would that cash be better spent on developing a local sitcom?

Inevitably, the cost-efficiency thugs (sorry, management consultants) moved in and helped nudge management towards the unsavoury business of reducing “non-essential” production. That’s how ABC television has all but abandoned sport, cultural programming and in-house drama, documentaries and natural history. Beside news and current affairs, the bulk of Aunty’s flagship output is now derived from outsourcing, co-productions or straight buy-ins.

The inevitable result of this pruning has been that the main free-to-air channel is dominated by word-driven content. Talk is cheap on television, but it gives current ABC output a disappointing sameness.

With the exception of The Book Club, you’ll search long and hard to find a single prime-time program on ABC1 this week devoted to music, art, opera, literature, ballet or sport.

The board sets broad policy, not the detail of implementation. But maybe the incoming chair could ask his senior executives how all this radio-with-pictures stuff meets the criteria of the ABC’s own charter.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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