I welcome Crikey’s series on the ABC — not just as a sign of public interest in the ABC, but of the widespread public support for it.

The consistent theme in public responses to the series accords with research the ABC has on public sentiment. Every year, the ABC asks Australians what they think of the ABC via Newspoll — the independent polling company whose findings influence everything from political leadership to elections.

When we ask the public what they think, 85% tell us they value the ABC.

They like the ABC. And they like what we’re doing. We also ask about specific elements of the charter that guides us each day. We ask how we’re performing at being innovative, balanced and even-handed, at encouraging Australian arts such as music and drama, being distinctively Australian and contributing to Australia’s national identity, at broadcasting programs that are different from commercial TV and radio and  — this is what makes the ABC unique — striking a balance between programs of wide appeal and those of special interest.

The ABC Act asks the ABC to be a comprehensive broadcaster. It is not asked to provide only the content that commercial media would reject. Wider audiences, smaller audiences — the ABC is here for all of us. There is nothing novel in this. The ABC has happily coexisted with commercial radio from the beginning. The same mixed model of public and commercial broadcasting was applied to television, and the public belief is that the ABC must also be in the digital space.

Overwhelmingly, public opinion of the ABC remains positive. Back in 1997, Bob Mansfield observed: “Most private companies would envy the passion and loyalty which characterises the relationship of the ABC with its audience”, and despite the tumultuous times for the ABC and every media organisation in the years since, it’s as true today as it was then. We see it expressed as well in the ABC’s status as one of the most enviable brands in the country — tried, trusted and true.

It’s not as if the public or governments have not had a chance to tell us what they think of or want from the ABC before. In just over 40 years, we’ve had at least 17 major reviews, beginning with the Whitlam government’s McKinsey Review back in 1973 all the way through to the three most recent ones in the last 10 years alone — the ABC Funding Adequacy and Efficiency Review commissioned in 2005 by Helen Coonan (still unpublished), Stephen Conroy’s review four years later, ABC and SBS: Towards a Digital Future, and then this year’s ABC and SBS Efficiency Study — known as the Lewis Review, also unpublished.

The central tenet of the charter review argument is that the ABC’s “incursions” into the online space (there’s been an ABC presence since 1995) are making it difficult for commercial media companies. The front-page story of last Friday’s Australian on the ABC’s use of search engine marketing (who would have thought!) is very much in that vein.

It is essentially a rehash of the same Murdoch line used by Rupert’s father, Sir Keith, opposing the ABC’s entry into radio in the 1930s. The consistency of the criticism is matched by the consistency of the ABC response: remaining focused on the audience, with a clear sense of what is happening around us. Australia has always had a mixed model of public and commercial media — it’s the best means we have to deliver the best media service to the Australian public — and we believe it should be maintained.

The challenge for commercial digital media is not in finding audiences and attention, but in finding a way to monetise them. Does anyone seriously believe that if the ABC were not in the online and mobile space that this challenge would miraculously disappear? If the ABC is such a problem, why have new online players like The Guardian and the Daily Mail sensed a market opportunity and set up Australian bases?

Our online forum, The Drum, is simply an extension of the ABC’s years of experience in talkback radio. The Drum is as much a place for conversation, for Australians to exchange ideas with one another, as it is for opinion pieces that stimulate that conversation and debate. These are all elements in the mix of public affairs content the ABC provides to enrich Australian civic life. It fits neatly within the ABC brief. Clearly, the public believe the ABC must also be in the digital space, as acknowledged by the ABC Act being changed in 2013 — with bipartisan support of Parliament — to formalise digital media as an ABC charter responsibility.

I feel the same way about Q&A and ABC News24. If we agree that information and debate make the democratic process more meaningful, then shouldn’t the ABC — as a public media organisation — be doing all it can to ensure that information and debate is available to every Australian, regardless of income, regardless of where they live, regardless of age?

The ABC is currently up against not just the challenge of arbitrary funding cuts and increasing well-resourced competitors, but also the far greater challenge faced by every media organisation in this turbulent era — how to reinvent itself to best serve future audiences and deliver value for money.

I am confident the ABC will emerge on the other side of this period of disruption still respected, still loved, still essential to Australian civic and cultural life. And still guided by that charter that has delivered so much to so many for so long.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey