Accountability is the price of statutory independence, and the price is considerable, especially for the kind of editorial and creative independence exercised by the ABC and SBS. As the Australian National Audit Office once observed dryly of the ABC, a national public broadcaster is subject to “more diverse” expectations of accountability than a private sector operator driven principally by the need to achieve a commercial profit. Having offered this self-evident truth about the national broadcasters, the Audit Office was silent on the reciprocal accountability of government.
To survive, the public broadcaster must win and retain the endorsement of the community at large, including those who don’t frequently use its services yet support them through taxation. The public broadcaster must compete for a critical mass of listeners and viewers while also serving specialist audiences; it must retain credibility within a ratings-driven industry while adhering to public sector principles and values; it must serve Parliament, not the government; and it must demonstrate leadership through innovation. Inevitably, public broadcasting operates in a politically contested zone where — as demonstrated again in recent months — the discourse is often combative and careless.