Roger Colman’s argument that the ABC and SBS should be privatised is presumably intended to kickstart a debate rather than closely argue the merits or otherwise of public broadcasting. There’s nothing wrong with that. But unfortunately the flaws of Colman’s argument end up defeating the legitimate purpose of working out what governments should be doing in the media space and what they shouldn’t.

First, some housekeeping: the ABC hasn’t run orchestras for years — they were separated in the mid-1990s and then made independent in the 2000s. Nor does it run many “remote regional radio services”. Perhaps Colman doesn’t understand the difference between “remote” and “regional”, but it’s a huge one. The ABC has over 50 regional local radio stations — i.e. stations serving communities outside capital cities, which encompass major centres like Wollongong and Newcastle as well as more “remote” places like Broken Hill and Broome.

Colman glides over the fact that these “peripheral services” would not be provided by the private sector. That is a key point: the history of regional radio over the last 20 years, even in large population centres, has been of steady withdrawal of local radio content by commercial radio licensees in favour of networked programming put together in capital cities, with the ABC left to provide the only genuine local content and emergency broadcasting services in the event of natural disasters. And, by the way, this abandonment of regional centres (whose residents aren’t exactly the higher-income demographic that Colman says is mainly served by the ABC) by commercial radio licensees has significant effects for media ownership across the whole industry: as Colman knows, it’s the key reason why the National Party is so reluctant to support reform of cross-media ownership laws.

The broader point about the ABC that Colman doesn’t address is that it is required by legislation to deliver a “comprehensive” service. He compares the efficiency of its TV and radio performance (curiously he selects Seven with which to compare it, and not Ten, which the ABC often outrates) to that of commercial broadcasters and declares it about even, but then argues it’s only because the ABC doesn’t interrupt its programs with advertising. But the flip side of its ad-free status is the “comprehensive” requirement. The ABC can’t just chase ratings and assume viewers will watch any old crap as long as there are no ads; it is required by law to “inform, educate, entertain all Australians” and thus invest in television and radio programming that will necessarily not be of wide appeal (like regional content), nor achieve the sort of reach that commercial broadcasters aim for in their target markets.

Alas, another error hurts Colman’s next argument, that governments should never own or control the media. “[C]onvention has prevented some public broadcasters like the ABC, BBC, and CBC becoming like Lenin’s Pravda and Himmler’s Der Sturmer,” he allows. Nothing to do with “convention”, Roger: the ABC’s independence, like that of other public broadcasters, is embedded in its act. Governments are explicitly prevented by legislation from directing the ABC (except in one limited circumstance). The government’s control is limited to board appointments, and as we saw during the Howard years, even when egregiously stacked with ideologues, the ABC board has minimal capacity to influence editorial content.

“A privatised ABC would be no different in that regard and would be unable to provide an independent news service.”

More to the point, beyond Godwinning, Colman doesn’t explain why governments shouldn’t own or control media. True, governments shouldn’t own or control anything without a strong public interest rationale, but the rationale for public broadcasting has been clear for many decades: broadcasting isn’t just another industry, it is an enormously important one, which is why we regulate private-sector broadcasters so tightly and why governments seek to provide broadcasting services that the private sector will not.

And the market failure that justifies government involvement in broadcasting isn’t limited to providing services to regional communities that could be provided by community service obligations. The ABC is required by its legislation to provide “an independent service for the broadcasting of news and information”. This is a service that no privately owned news outlet can provide, because no matter how rigorous an outlet’s editorial standards, it will always have commercial interests that potentially affect both the independence, and the appearance of independence, of its reportage, especially in areas such as business journalism, where editorial-commercial tensions frequently arise.

A privatised ABC would be no different in that regard and would be unable to provide an independent news service. Whether the entire population tunes in to the ABC TV 7pm news or not (and whether private-sector media like Crikey like the competition or not), all Australians greatly benefit from the country having one genuinely independent mass media news and current affairs service — and one that is trusted far more than commercial media. Similarly, the ABC is the only source for quality children’s programming, which commercial broadcasters are unable to provide without relying heavily on marketing to the target audience, despite heavy regulatory restrictions.

It’s true that other ABC functions, like Australian drama production, could indeed be privatised — but in effect its drama production already is, with the ABC now screening far more independently produced drama than the days when its in-house productions dominated.

Where Colman’s arguments have greater purchase is in relation to SBS; the public interest in government ownership of SBS TV (as opposed to SBS Radio, which performs an important community role for non-English-speaking people) is far less clear than for the ABC, certainly compared to the 1970s when SBS was established as an important component of our multiculturalism. What, exactly, is the public interest currently being served by retaining SBS in government ownership? Then again, SBS TV is already semi-privatised via its advertising. As Colman knows, the commercial free-to-airs were angry enough about SBS being allowed to advertise. Their reaction to ABC being required to advertise to fund itself would be explosive. That’s about the only reason I can think of that makes it sound like a good idea …

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Peter Fray

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