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.

Too often a gap exists between government assertions and community perception or the findings of external inquiries. Although the gap extends across party lines, among sections of the Liberal-National Coalition it can seem wide enough to be visible from space. It is time to make government engagement with national public broadcasting more accountable and transparent, and genuinely in the public interest.

Two related decisions provide a starting point for discussing these issues. The first is the possible closure of the international television service, Australia Network — or, at least, the cessation of the ABC’s role in delivering this service — as foreshadowed recently by the Abbott government. The second is the decision of Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull to commission an efficiency review, reporting by April this year, a month before the federal budget.

The future of Australia Network is a legitimate public policy issue, and raises important questions about the role, rules of engagement and effectiveness of cultural diplomacy. Of relevance here is the inconsistency — or perhaps the ineptitude — of the former Labor government in establishing and later cancelling a public tender process for its operation. Rather than awarding a 10-year contract to the national broadcaster’s rival, Sky News Australia, which is one-third owned by Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB, the government overrode the tender panel’s recommendation and decided that the ABC would continue operating the service in perpetuity.

Although the Audit Office confirmed that cabinet was entitled to take that action, it said the matter “brought into question the government’s ability to deliver such a sensitive process fairly and effectively” (notwithstanding that it had managed routinely many other tender processes). Whatever your opinion of Sky News and its ownership structure, this clumsy affair demonstrated the intensity with which governments and power elites wrestle over issues of media domination.

“… it is the question of how he has chosen to conduct it and what he will reveal publicly about its findings …”

The commissioning of the efficiency review inevitably invites speculation as to whether this is a prelude to budget cuts, some kind of ABC–SBS rationalisation or a hunt for evidence that the ABC uses funding intended for a particular purpose to subsidise other operations. It also has a precedent under an earlier Coalition government. In 1996, soon after taking office, the Howard government commissioned an extensive review of the ABC while going ahead with two phases of budget reduction — first, a cut of 2% ($11 million per year) and then a cut of 10% ($55 million). The so-called Mansfield review nonetheless produced a strong affirmation of the ABC’s value to Australia.

The Turnbull review has a much narrower focus. It will examine “input costs” in order to determine whether the ABC and SBS are making efficient use of the funding they receive. Specifically excluded are the broadcasters’ legislative charters, questions of program quality, and whether the ABC should be allowed to accept commercial advertising.

Time will tell whether the findings about the ABC, in particular, differ from a series of less well-known reviews over the decade and a half since Mansfield reported. For a time, in fact, external reviews and audits, commissioned by the government or by the ABC itself, seemed to just keep on coming. These reviews, which required the ABC to justify its role, its performance and its need for particular levels of funding, included a major assessment by the financial consulting firm KPMG in 2006, another by the Macquarie Bank in 2002 and others by the Audit Office in 2002 and 2004. Of these, only the Audit Office’s reviews of ABC corporate governance and its conversion to digital broadcasting were made public. Often commissioned in the heat of political battle, the likelihood of such reviews being released publicly depends very much on their conclusions.

If you pay close attention today you may well hear the sounds of exasperation and anxiety about this latest probe emanating from the corridors of national public broadcasting. “We’re already the most scrutinised organisation in the country,” some staffers will argue. Performance reviews are certainly no fun. But they need to occur regularly, in the public interest, to ensure that the broadcasters deliver high value for money and fulfil the roles defined for them by Parliament, and to pre-empt the arrogance that commonly accompanies media profile or an entrenched sense of institutional entitlement.

For me, the pertinent question is not whether Turnbull should have commissioned another review or what options it might canvass; rather, it is the question of how he has chosen to conduct it and what he will reveal publicly about its findings.

*Read the rest of this article at Inside Story

Peter Fray

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