Why the IPA is wrong about the ABC

David Edmunds writes: Re. “The ABC Debate: we have Mamamia and Buzzfeed, we don’t need the ABC anymore” (Friday). James Paterson proves the need for the ABC in his second sentence arguing there is no need. He states: “If there ever was a persuasive case for a lavishly taxpayer-funded broadcaster in Australia, the digital age has fundamentally undermined it.” There are two points just in this sentence. Firstly, there are numerous studies to show that the ABC is not lavishly funded, but operates very efficiently. Secondly, the attempt so early in his article to inaccurately damn the ABC shows precisely why other sources of information whether in digital form or otherwise have not undermined the case for the ABC.

My experience, at least in the circles in which I mix, is that the recent digital arrivals such as Crikey and Guardian Australia in aggregate have replaced the reading of newspapers, which under the overwhelming dominance of Murdoch have become increasingly unreliable as a source of information. They have not actually impinged much on the ABC’s turf.

There is no substitute for the ABC’s national news radio broadcasts. Paterson mentions Sky News, which is of course TV only. The ABC is able to leverage the work of its reporters to deliver news on radio, TV and digitally, a feat not emulated by any other organisation. Australians will no doubt determine whether Sky, a limited pay-to-view service, is a substitute for the ubiquitous multi-platform ABC service.  I suspect most will decide that it is not.

There is no substitute for Radio National’s suite of current affairs, investigative journalism and subject-specific programs. This service is an extraordinary asset. The ABC maintains an extraordinary range of capability and reach, and the incremental cost of adding a children’s free-to-air service or classic FM music is not large. Paterson is wrong again in suggesting that there are alternatives to these offerings.

Paterson refers to a diverse range of perspectives, and no doubt this is true. But, there are many of us who do not want diversity in our news. The ABC is unique in Australia in going to great lengths to ensure that the broadcast news is accurate, balanced and without bias. Other sources of news are not required to do so. Some of these sources pretend that there is no bias, some freely admit to a particular perspective, and some simply incorporate the agenda of their advertisers into their news bulletins, for example, the free-to-air TV news broadcasts. Other ABC offerings, in particular Radio National, offer diversity, but this is clearly delineated from the news.

If the ABC is to maintain its role as a ubiquitous broadcaster it must occupy the digital space, as that is where much of its audience is. Paterson’s final point seems to be that as ABC Managing Director Mark Scott dared to challenge Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull: “This leaves the government with little choice but to press ahead with its proposed cuts.” That is, in Mr Paterson’s view, the ABC like most other sources of news must do the bidding of its funder. It is precisely because the ABC does not necessarily do what the funder wants that make it valuable.

It is very difficult to describe exactly what the ABC adds to Australia, but it does seem that the current opposition is largely because the ABC has been prepared to broadcast actual information that does not conform to the agenda of the current government. This government in common with a general trend in Anglo right-wing politics adheres to Karl Rove’s dictum: “We create our own reality.” This disparity between the worldview of the government and its running dogs and the ABC is at the heart of the defunding argument.

The ABC has, fortunately for our country, managed to annoy most governments. Long may that continue. Mr Paterson does not mention the explicit promise before the election that there would be no cuts to the ABC.

Guy Allen writes: The arguments against funding the ABC proposed by James Paterson are populist in some circles but lack anything resembling rigour. He begins by reassuring us that anyone can be a media player, thanks to mobile publishing technology. Yes, that’s true. Facebook and the like means we can all publish off-the-cuff. But there are deep differences between the roles of social noise or qualified reporting and opinion with the benefit of consideration and historical knowledge.

He then goes on to suggest that the ABC should not be competing with commercial publishers, who are finding the going particularly tough at the moment, with the argument that the additional channels offered by the digital space is an area the national broadcaster should avoid and is somehow leveraging to the common detriment. Rubbish. In its long history, the ABC has used the same platforms as the rest of the publishing industry. Nothing has changed. To suggest that its use of the digital space is somehow particularly evil is facile.

Good publishing costs money and commercial operators are at times scrambling to find a workable model. That has everything to do with rapidly changing information pipelines and priorities and little or nothing to do with whether a trusted public-funded publisher is good at its job.

Some panic-stricken commercial publishers have, weirdly, responded to their problems by cutting their ability to publish, when adjusting their business models would have been more rewarding. Others have done very nicely, despite the ABC. The idea that somehow the commercial publishing industry will be better off with a smaller and less able public entity — particularly one that’s built up trust over decades — is delusional.

In fact, since we’re using a commercial argument, retail experience says that when you have several players in a precinct, you potentially have a culture and opportunity for creating interest. If one or more major players go, the culture is in danger of withering on the vine.

When it comes to suggesting the ABC should be gutted, be careful of what you wish for. If a credible and talented player is cut down, it provides one more reason for the audience to ignore the others — and it won’t solve the fundamental problems with your business model.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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