Privatising the ABC: the debate

Roger Colman, media and internet analyst for CCZ Statton Equities, writes: Re. “The ABC of why we need public broadcasting” (yesterday). Bernard Keane makes two salient points regarding my piece on the ABC. Correct: the ABC no longer runs orchestra, and does not run remote radio services, only some regional radio stations. Therefore my expense comparisons make the ABC even less efficient than I presented.

Keane is incorrect on the importance of regional ABC radio. Network regional radio (mainly Southern Cross Broadcasting) has been supplemented by the semi-commercial community radio sector. This sector is alive and kicking and demonstrates how communities make their own media services work without the ABC.

Keane provides no statistical evidence that the ABC viewing population has lower income demographics. If that were the case, SBS would not be highlighting their superior AB demographics in advertising props. SBS and ABC audiences have similar demographics. The Keane argument appears to be “tax the ‘crap’ viewers, to pay for my free viewing”.

The ABC does not provide a “comprehensive service” under its own legislative requirement. In TV (2013), 40.1% of Australians did not watch the ABC at all, not once, in a whole year. That’s an indictment of the ABC “comprehensive service”.

That Keane describes commercial services as broadcasting “crap” is his opinion. Maybe the non-ABC viewers have a similar view that ABC broadcasts “crap”. Therein lies the immorality of ABC programming: it is something we all pay for whether we like it, want it, use it, or not.

Keane doesn’t concede that ABC ratings are higher because it is free. Economics 101 — give anything for free and people will consume more. The importance of the ratings comparisons in the bang-for-buck argument needs adjusting for the extra ratings generated by an ad free environment. Keane then introduces the comprehensive argument as requiring an ad free environment. The two are unrelated.

To quote the charter and Keane, “it is required by law to inform, educate, entertain all Australians”, and therefore not just 59.9%?

As per Keane’s statement regarding the legislative protection of the ABC and the ABC board’s inability to control ABC editorial standards, as to impartiality, is the crux of the argument. The ABC has a political allegiance to the Left wing of Australian politics. In a 2013 Sunshine Coast University survey of journalists political allegiances, 41% of ABC journalists would vote for the Greens, 32% for Labor and only 14% the Coalition. It employs no conservative commentators at all.

The ABC does fill programming gaps against commercial broadcasters. However, as the ABC sources from an open programming market, the ABC’s programming would be purchased by commercial operators if it did not exist. The ABC’s ratings are so good, that Ten would gladly move towards the ABC programming genre, as the ABC outrates Ten. The United States and New Zealand models show, between these 330 million and 4.5 million population countries, that there is no reason for government ownership of a media outlet, or government financial support. The US PBS — community owned and not government funded — has a 90% reach (2013) versus the ABC at 59.9%. TVNZ is advertiser supported and profitable.

Keane then argues that the ABC provides an independent news service. What, the Nine Network, Seven Network, Ten Network are not independent? A privatised ABC and SBS would not be independent? It’s the other way round; the ABC is not independent of the Left wing of politics, and their budget largesse for the ABC. The ABC stacks current affairs programming, to drive commercial broadcasters out of that segment of the market.

The government should not own a media; it should encourage as much media plurality as possible. And the ABC, through its strategic placement of programming, is trying to drive out commercial plurality to ensure that its ALP/Greens propaganda message is what’s left. This is not good for Australia.

David Salter writes: Re: “The ABC is efficient, but we should sell it off” (yesterday). It is difficult to reason with someone who thinks Der Sturmer was Himmler’s newspaper (it was published by Julius Streicher), although we should, I suppose, make allowances for historical ignorance. But it is easy to demolish his muddle-headed and illogical arguments in favour of “privatising” the ABC (not that Colman ever favours us with an explanation of how this process would occur, or what ABC operations and assets would be sold).

His rationale for selling off Aunty rests on four broad arguments, each of them flawed. First, he claims that no democracy should have a government-owned or controlled media because governments “bend” their services to their benefit. Putting aside the statutory measures that safeguard the ABC’s independence from government, it would come as news to every Prime Minister since Joe Lyons that the ABC has favoured the party in power. They have all complained, often bitterly, that the opposite was true.

Next, Colman says of the ABC that “we all pay for it”. No we don’t. Only taxpayers contribute their share to the national public broadcaster, and only 11.5 million Australians pay income tax. But we certainly all pay for the advertising that funds the commercial media — children, pensioners, people below the tax threshold — whether we like it or not. You might hope that a specialist media researcher for a stockbroking firm could understand that.

Developing this flawed position, Colman proposes the hackneyed nonsense that it is unfair for ABC consumers to enjoy Aunty’s services “free” while those who don’t must pay for subscription networks and downloads. Yet he misses here the most relevant and fundamental element of a participatory democracy: all of us must pay for government services we might not need or want — psychiatric wards, Collins class submarines, drought relief for farmers. Public broadcasting is no different.

Finally, our would-be privatiser reveals his Friedmanesque zealotry with the unsubstantiated assertion that the ABC “has crowded commercial media out of key programming genres”. Que? I’ve been in and out of the television industry since 1967, working for the ABC, Nine, Seven and in independent production. I can think of many successful ABC programming “genres” that commercial networks have hijacked or killed off, but not one where the opposite was the case. Maybe Colman is too young to remember that Aunty once brought us Test cricket, rugby, tennis and the VFL, or that nightly current affairs in this country began on the ABC.

Margery Clark writes: Where is this fellow coming from? Other government-owned organisations that were privatised have resulted in much poorer services for the punters (e.g. Commonwealth Bank and Qantas). To say the range does not compare with commercial TV and radio is bollocks — ask country people that! Once it becomes commercial I am betting that quality would go out the door.

Peter Fray

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