Eric Beecher correctly describes contemporary debate about the ABC as “crude, subjective and unmoored”, and I am one to have previously argued the need for a more transparent and regular process of review of both national broadcasters.
But I think Beecher has been too dismissive of the ABC Act in providing guidance as to the corporation’s intended role and priorities (whatever its contemporary relevance or imperfections). For example, the act specifies only two types of programming that the ABC is obliged to offer: news and information, and programs of an educational nature. The first has been an enduring priority of successive boards and managements. Educational programming, on the other hand, has had more varied treatment. Before 1982, there was no legislative requirement for the ABC to broadcast educational content, even though it had long done so. In introducing legislation to change the old Australian Broadcasting Commission into a corporation, the then-minister said the government had decided to incorporate education in the act by way of recognising the ABC’s “major contribution to the quality of education in Australia, particularly in primary and secondary schools”.
There is no specific legal requirement for the ABC to produce or broadcast content such as drama, comedy, sport and game shows for audiences in Australia. Yet of course, the legislation also requires the ABC to provide entertainment, to promote the musical, dramatic and other performing arts, and to reflect the nation’s cultural diversity.
Beecher gives emphasis to the public broadcaster’s participation in the predominantly commercial media industry. In this respect, the ABC Act attempts to acknowledge the inevitable tensions and judgments required of an institution that must offer a public good and also operate within an industry environment. Clearly, the ABC cannot be effective in delivering a public good unless it can attract and retain substantial audiences to consume its services.
The ABC is required to offer “comprehensive” services and not be a niche operator. In providing programs of “wide appeal”, it provides some content similar to that offered by private commercial media entities, while balancing that with the provision of distinctive content to suit “specialised interests”. And it is required to provide leadership through innovation.
Crucially — and this addresses one of Beecher’s concerns — the legislation requires the ABC to “take account” of services provided by the commercial and community broadcasting services. It is a matter of conjecture whether the scope and scale of ABC services may inhibit the interests of private sector participants in the current tumultuous business environment. But I note the findings of two Queensland academics in 2005 who undertook “A simulation analysis of the market effect of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation“. Jamie Alcock and George Docwra wrote:
“When a government player was introduced to an otherwise free enterprise market, greater diversity, lower ‘collusion’ and greater market coverage were enjoyed by viewers. Surprisingly though, the presence of a government player also brought about increased revenues for the other market players … Similarly, privatization of the government player results in decreased viewer choice and diversity.”
Perhaps the larger issue arises from elsewhere in the ABC Act — that is, the obligation of the board to “ensure news and information is accurate and impartial”. This is an absolute requirement. Yet, as Beecher notes, the organisation has come to offer a platform “for the views and opinions of its employees” through outlets such as The Drum. There are subtleties in the delineation of what may constitute informed analysis rather than opinion. However, I fear, the extent to which ABC journalists now opine to other journalists — albeit outside core news and current affairs programs — might one day be seen to have been the ABC’s greatest strategic error.
Two other provisions of the ABC Act raise important questions.
The first is the requirement to “contribute to a sense of national identity”. It is an all-encompassing notion of civic, historical and cultural experience. Yet it is so imprecise. How effectively does the contemporary ABC reflect the Australian federation as it withdraws screen-based production activities from the states and territories? Beyond Sydney and Melbourne, the federation looks somewhat different, where the influence and need for the ABC remains essential to media diversity and to local identity within the nation.
Finally, as Beecher poses, how relevant is the ABC’s obligation to broadcast international services in the era of the internet and satellite television? This is less a question of media availability and more one of purpose. Australian expatriates will be able to access news and sporting coverage from just about anywhere. But the ABC legislation also, significantly, requires international broadcasting to encourage international understanding of Australian attitudes on world affairs. Believe it or not, most people in the world do not speak English and do not perceive the world through our cultural frame. If you want to influence attitudes, you must reach out and engage people on their terms and in their languages.
There is much to consider about the role and performance of the ABC. A necessary first point of reference is to understand the organisation’s current purpose as defined by the ABC Act.