The only significant influence on the ABC’s evolution has been money, but in a roundabout way. Under the Howard government, the ABC eventually recovered all the funding it had lost in the savage cuts of 1996-97. But it won back much of that funding by committing to specific activities it judged favourable to governments of the day. Jonathan Shier secured nearly $20 million in extra funding by committing to more regional programming — mostly by opening more ABC Local Radio stations — and more business programming, both of which were positively regarded by the Coalition. Current ABC boss Mark Scott appealed to the Rudd government’s diplomatic ambitions by using the ABC’s “Australia Network” role to argue for more funding for “soft diplomacy”. Even the most significant confrontation between the Howard government and the ABC, Richard Alston’s (nearly all unfounded) 60 complaints about its Iraq War coverage, was solely the result of a money decision: Russell Balding had taken off-air the ABC Kids multichannel (established by Shier as a temporary service pending additional funding that never appeared) the morning of his appearance at Senate estimates without warning the government; Alston’s subsequent Iraq-based attack on the ABC was entirely a get-square for what was regarded as an act of bad faith by the ABC.
So how has the ABC evolved? The emphasis on business programming established in 2001 has now almost vanished. The high cost of international correspondents has resulted in them being steadily pruned; the Coalition’s axing of the Australian Network has accelerated that process. A stronger regional radio presence remains the legacy of the now-forgotten, but at the time enormously controversial Shier: the ABC has 54 Local Radio stations and, unlike the regional commercial networks, most of them provide a full suite of content rather than relying on programming networked from cities. The steady shift to networking by commercial regional broadcasters has also turned ABC Local Radio into the de facto emergency radio broadcaster in times of crisis.
Most of all, the ABC has aggressively embraced online entirely because of the decisions of successive managing directors from Brian Johns onwards. No funding has ever been provided for the ABC’s online services; indeed, during the Howard years there was a legal question over whether the ABC should be providing them under the charter, though no enterprising right-winger ever sought to litigate the matter and find out. Eventually, Stephen Conroy amended the ABC and SBS acts to put the matter beyond doubt.
As a consequence, the ABC’s funding structure looks somewhat peculiar given the way most of us experience the ABC. According to the broadcaster’s 2012-13 annual report (this year’s is due shortly), about 32% of the ABC’s $1 billion-odd 2012-13 budget went to television content production; 20% went to radio content. Those figures include news — the news division across all platforms cost around $160 million. Some 20% went to transmission (that will fall with the end of analog); 5% went to acquisitions; and support services (what Coalition ministers must call “back office”) took up 9%. You’ll notice online is missing. As there’s no separate appropriation for online as there is for TV, radio and transmission, the cost is split across other activities, though it’s mainly driven by the tiny (1%) innovation division.
But the ABC’s success in creating one of the most-accessed online platforms in the country (in 2013 the ABC News site alone was the fifth most popular, and fastest growing, major site in the country) on spare change is a double-edged sword: having done exactly what the likes of Alston wanted and created an enormously successful product without calling on taxpayers, the ABC is now under pressure to commercialise it. The Lewis report called for the ABC to charge for its hugely successful iView product, in effect charging users twice for the same content (which, purely by coincidence, competes with Foxtel, one of a number of areas where the ABC is competing with, and beating, the Murdoch family’s operations).
The ABC’s success in online, despite the lack of any funding for it, is one of the reasons the broadcaster has persistently emerged from even ideologically motivated reviews with a tick. The KPMG review commissioned by the Howard government with the goal of establishing a basis for reallocating ABC funding concluded that the broadcaster was underfunded. Bob Mansfield had also argued the broadcaster needed more money to achieve what was required of it. A Macquarie Bank review commissioned by the ABC in 2002 found that the ABC was second lowest in terms of revenue per capita among international broadcasters with just 54% of the average revenue received by public broadcasters overseas. Those figures are out of date given the substantial growth in ABC funding since then, but it’s unlikely the ABC doesn’t remain in the bottom tier of international public broadcasters when it comes to funding.
For nearly 30 years, governments have thus been unwilling to change the circumstances that mean the ABC evolves by itself, adapting to its environment rather than reflecting a parliamentary decision about what it should and, given a constrained funding environment, should not do. For all that the ABC must be genuinely independent, it must also reflect a consensus about what public broadcasting should be. As Evans’ experience shows, achieving starting a process of trying to reach that consensus is immensely difficult.