Should the ABC kill Lateline? Why is there no longer a place on ABC TV for a movie reviewing program? Does the ABC have an added responsibility to produce more quality journalism at a time when commercial media is retrenching thousands of journalists? Should there be more (or less) local current affairs on the ABC? Why does the ABC cover minority sports watched by miniscule audiences?

At the heart of these and dozens more questions about the ABC’s raison d’etre is one overriding question: why does the ABC exist in 2014?

Without a detailed consensus answer to that question, the emotional debates about ABC funding are futile. Unless there’s clear agreement about the ABC’s primary objectives and priorities, every discussion about ABC funding ends up being framed by someone’s ad hoc personal (or political) views.

Is this really the way to make crucial decisions about one of Australia’s most important cultural institutions, which is publicly funded to the tune of $1.2 billion a year?

Right now it’s a crude, subjective and unmoored debate — a debate not helped by the fact that, arguably, the reasons for establishing the ABC 82 years ago are now redundant because the media and societal environment is so radically different.

According to its charter, the ABC’s primary functions are “to provide within Australia innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard as part of the Australian broadcasting system consisting of national, commercial and community sectors” … to broadcast programs that “contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of, the Australian community” … including “programs of an educational nature” … to broadcast “news, current affairs, entertainment and cultural enrichment” to countries outside Australia that will “encourage awareness of Australia and an international understanding of Australian attitudes on world affairs” and “enable Australian citizens living or travelling outside Australia to obtain information about Australian affairs and Australian attitudes on world affairs” … to “provide digital media services” … and to “encourage and promote the musical, dramatic and other performing arts in Australia”.

The charter also stipulates that the ABC “shall take account of … the services provided by the commercial and community sectors of the Australian broadcasting system … provide a balance between programs of wide appeal and specialised programs … and … the multicultural character of the Australian community”.

That’s it — a fuzzy motherhood manifesto that, perhaps deliberately, fails to provide any detail about key directions (“provide digital media services”) or any guidance about priorities or relativities. If you think there is clarity to the ABC’s purpose and priorities, try answering these questions:

  • Does the ABC exist primarily to fill the gaps left vacant by commercial media — and if so, which specific gaps?
  • Should ABC radio and TV compete for ratings against commercial rivals, or are ratings an irrelevant metric for ABC program makers?
  • If ratings aren’t the relevant measure of success, what is?
  • Should the ABC have carte blanche to create whatever digital content it likes, even if similar or identical content is already being produced by commercial or other content creators?
  • Should the ABC use its formidable public resources to disrupt or compete with opportunities available to commercial media?
  • Should the ABC actively encourage media diversity, or should it spend its vast budget regardless of the commercial impact on independent media?
  • Should the ABC now have a mandated responsibility (and budget) to produce more quality “accountability” journalism at a time when commercial media companies are shedding journalists and editorial resources on a vast scale?
  • Should the ABC be in the business of providing a publicly funded platform for the views and opinions of its employees — as it does on The Drum website?
  • If the ABC is mandated to promote the arts, how can it justify dumping its only television movie show just because the presenters decided to retire?
  • How relevant are its charter requirements to deliver international broadcasting in the internet and satellite TV era?
  • Should the ABC aim to create content for all Australians across all age groups and demographics, or is its primary role to produce content for niche audiences who aren’t served by other media?

We can all explain the precise filters that measure the purpose of government-funded schools, hospitals and roads. So what are the precise filters that explain why the ABC exists and how that $1.2 billion should be spent?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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