“Why does the ABC exist?” asks Crikey, striking a concerned, rhetorical pose while demanding definitive answers from government and the ABC itself.

It’s an easy question to answer. The case for public broadcasting in Australia was first made for radio in the early 1930s, and it holds just as true today: the nation is entitled to genuinely independent, accessible and reliable media outlets whose programming is provided free of charge to the maximum number of people, untainted by the commercial and/or political interests of proprietors.

Surely that’s not such a difficult idea to understand. Australians have managed to grasp the concept for the past 82 years (while making the ABC the most consistently trusted brand in the nation), yet Private Media chairman Eric Beecher now wants “a detailed consensus” and “clarity to the ABC’s purpose”. Falling into lockstep with Beecher, Crikey politics editor Bernard Keane asserts that Aunty “must reflect a consensus about what public broadcasting should be”.

Lofty words, signifying nothing. In truth, these puffed-up calls for clarity of purpose and more accountability to Parliament and the public are little more than a gloss. The real motivation of the critics who push these meaningless demands is a very simple human emotion: fear. They always come from the commercial sector of the media that fear — and resent — the competition the ABC represents.

Think that’s too long a bow? Every one of the first six dot-point questions Beecher proposes in his quest for an answer to the ABC’s existence turns in some way on the assumption that the national broadcaster is a threat to existing commercial media, or should at least be prevented from becoming a threat.

He summarises his position thus: “Should the ABC use its formidable public resources to disrupt or compete with opportunities available to commercial media?” And in case you missed what this might mean for Beecher’s own Crikey-based online business, he asks: “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?”

We get your point, but it’s nonsense. For decades, media commentators and editorialists have been seduced by the specious argument that taxpayers should not have to fund ABC services that, they assert, commercial rivals could deliver just as well, or more cheaply. Yet none of those pundits go on to nominate specific examples. If commercial outlets could produce the same programming or internet content as the ABC at the same level of quality but for less money and for larger audiences, then they would already be doing it.

Why don’t they? Because most of that content isn’t populist. It requires the investment of experienced staff and high production values, and will rarely attract enough viewers, listeners or internet eyeballs to be commercially viable.

What really sticks in the craw of Beecher and his ilk is that while traditional media markets have contracted, the ABC has managed to hold and even expand its audience. Aunty’s consumers clearly don’t need the “legislative direction from government” Keane thinks necessary to articulate the public broadcaster’s role. They’ve already voted with their remotes and browsers.

So let’s forget this silly smokescreen search for “consensus” and tackle the only real issue facing the ABC: money.

Despite the firm dollar numbers apparently granted to Aunty in the last federal budget (already a 1% cut, plus the $22 million surrendered for the loss of the Australia Network), there’s a crafty legal loophole available to the ABC’s enemies. The Appropriation Acts do not entitle a Commonwealth body to any funds it may have been allowed in the budget, but only to the maximum amount the Minister for Finance may provide to that body. In other words, Mathias Cormann is free to cut the ABC budget as much as he and Tony Abbott like.

The board has reportedly already approved contingency plans to deal with a recurrent annual cut of at least $50 million. There seems little doubt that’s the figure the Expenditure Review Committee will suggest in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook in December. So-called “back office” savings — even after a partial amalgamation of some administrative functions with SBS — could never absorb that loss of revenue.

All the Christmas talk at Ultimo and Southbank this year will be about redundancy and program cuts, not “clarity of purpose” or the ABC’s reason for existence.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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