The arguments for a publicly funded ABC are weaker today than they ever have been.

If there ever were a persuasive case for a lavishly taxpayer-funded public broadcaster in Australia, the digital age has fundamentally undermined it.

The digital age has radically reduced — some would say even abolished — the barriers to entry in the media industry. While you once would have required hefty finance for a printing press, radio or TV transmission towers and studios, citizens now have the capacity to publish and broadcast from their mobile phones.

While the media industry in Australia has unquestionably fallen on hard times, on at least one measure it is stronger than ever before: diversity. The lowering of barriers to entry has allowed a thousand flowers to bloom — Australians now have access to news and current affairs from more sources than ever before. Consider the impact and success of recent arrivals like The Guardian and the Daily Mail, BuzzFeed as well as older players like Crikey, New Matilda and even Mamamia. This diversity has been replicated in the entertainment space too, and will be substantially augmented when services like Netflix finally arrive in Australia.

Australians of course now also have easy access to the best news and current affairs from around the world. While many lament the loss of foreign correspondents, their role is far less important in a world where you can instantly access local reports from the region that interests you most.

The resources of government are always limited. Any expenditure has to be justified, because a dollar spent on public broadcasting is a dollar that can’t be spent on health, education, defence — or, ideally, returned to the taxpayer.

The continued justification of the $1 billion of taxpayer funds received by the ABC must rest on it providing a service that no one else can. This golden age of media diversity begs the question: what does the ABC provide that no one else can?

Children’s entertainment? Available cheaply online. International news? Easily accessible from more sources than ever before. Coverage of Australian politics and current affairs? Offered by a more diverse range of perspectives today than ever before. Rolling 24-hour news coverage? Sky News. Lists of Gough Whitlam’s most memorable quotes? That’s what BuzzFeed is for.

“The ABC is long overdue for a comprehensive inquiry into the scope — not just the efficiency — of its activities.”

Arguably the most unique offerings on the ABC are its rural and regional coverage and its emergency services broadcasting. But these are a tiny fraction of the ABC’s activities, and could be much more efficiently delivered by direct grants through a competitive tender process.

The ABC’s online services, on the other hand, clearly compete in a very well-serviced market. There’s no shortage of opinion online, and yet the ABC maintains The Drum to cater for this. The ABC’s online news is comprehensive, and also duplicates much of what’s on offer from established newspapers.

This is particularly important when the ongoing viability of newspapers depends upon their ability to charge — either through advertising or paywalls — for something the ABC provides at no cost. The ABC is certainly not responsible for all the woes of traditional media companies, but its competition online is not helping and will continue to threaten the business models of commercial news organisations.

Managing director Mark Scott justifies the ABC’s online activities by pointing out their charter requires it. But the ABC charter was only amended to specify its online scope in 2013, and the ABC’s aggressive push online long predates it. The truth is Scott and his board clearly see the ABC’s online activities as central to its ongoing relevance, and were already investing heavily in it absent any encouragement from government.

Scott’s recent speech at the University of Melbourne clearly outlines this philosophy. Scott has been running an impressive rear-guard action to defend the ABC’s continued generous taxpayer funding. In what was perhaps the most blatantly political speech by an ABC managing director, he directly contradicted Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s claim that savings can be made from the ABC budget without affecting programming. The speech was loaded with thinly veiled threats about the political consequences of a democratically elected government altering the ABC’s funding in any way.

This leaves the government with little choice but to press ahead with its proposed cuts. If Turnbull backs down in the face of Scott’s attempted intimidation, future ABC managing directors (and the heads of any government agency wishing to defend their turf) will understand that their political interventions will be rewarded.

But these cuts should just be the first step. The ABC is long overdue for a comprehensive inquiry into the scope — not just the efficiency — of its activities. Any fair-minded inquiry will demonstrate that much of what the ABC does today is already being done by others.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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