Much of ABC managing director Mark Scott’s speech last night was testimony to the failure of Australia’s media ownership laws over the last 30 years. Somehow, we’ve ended up with the key battle in Australian media being between the national broadcaster and the largest commercial media company.

For News Corporation, of course, the ABC is exactly what the BBC is for its British newspapers and pay TV interests: a taxpayer-funded competitor deeply loathed not so much for purported bias or ideological opposition, as for how it provides for free what News Corp wants to charge for — and increasingly must charge for — given the collapse in its newspaper revenues.

Scott argues the ABC alone can be the nation’s town square and the trusted source of news. He is correct on that score: the ABC’s services are far ahead of any commercial media organisation in terms of Australians’ trust, particularly compared to some of News Corp’s tabloid newspapers, which are the least trusted major newspapers in the country.

But the Australian media landscape should be more than the ABC versus News. The ABC (and SBS) should be an important, but not dominant, part of a vibrant media landscape composed of a variety of commercial voices.

That landscape has long since vanished: Australia’s major media outlets are now controlled by just six groups or families, with the Murdoch family — via its control of newspapers, pay TV and the ailing Ten Network — the most dominant. That leaves the ABC as an increasingly lonely source of public interest content.

Yes, the internet, and the dramatic changes it has wrought in media across the world, is partly responsible. But that outcome reflects the decisions of generations of politicians, from Labor in the 1980s onward, who have structured Australia’s media ownership rules to facilitate an ever-tightening grip of oligopoly.

As a result, we now need the ABC far more than ever before. And that’s not a healthy outcome.

Peter Fray

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