Ask why we have an ABC, and there two ways of answering the question. One is historical — to do with the fact that nearly 82 years ago the government of the day decided that a national broadcaster was an important service.

In the 1920s a series of royal commissions wrestled with how Australia should cope with the extraordinary new world of broadcasting, with its potential to conquer distance and bind a nation.

One option was to create a federal government broadcasting monopoly. This was rejected in favor of creating a non-commercial national broadcaster to work side by side with commercial stations. It has proved a robust model.

The ABC was part of what journalist Paul Kelly has called the “Australian settlement” — a consensus that government should be involved directly in nation building. The Australian Broadcasting Commission, as it was until 1983, was of a piece with railway commissions, electricity commissions and hydro-electric commissions — all bodies charged with the health and prosperity of the nation.

But to stick with the historical rationale would be fatal to a healthy future for the ABC. It is notable that all those other commissions have faded away, been sold off or closed. The ABC has survived, and even in the current climate nobody is seriously talking about privatisation or closure.

And this, surely, is because the ABC — and media — is different. Information and broadcasting are industries like no other, both the product of and the stimulus for our sense of nationhood and our national self-knowledge.

As former managing director Brian Johns put it before the full impact of the internet was clear: “Information will be the hard currency of the 21st century, but broadcasting will be the social hinge of change.”

He was clearly right, if you understand the word “broadcasting” in the broadest sense. The ABC exists and survives because it is still essential to the continuing act of nation creation.

But this is not a complete answer to the question Eric Beecher asked in the article that launched this series: how we should determine what the ABC should do, and how it should spend our taxes.

In an ideal world, the ABC would tell us what it thinks in its strategic plan. In fact, like most such documents,  the plan is full of vague boosterism, and largely opaque. One notable feature is that the chairman and director place front and centre Parliament’s 2013 vote to modify the charter to confirm the ABC’s role in providing digital services.

That was a smart move. The charter change was slipped through by the then-minister of communications, Stephen Conroy, when the mainstream media was all in a lather over the Finkelstein Report and the following attempt to make membership of ethical self-regulation bodies mandatory for news media. Readers will remember the front-page headlines comparing Conroy to Stalin.

At any other time we can bet that the ABC charter change would have been the subject of a vehement campaign from those who would like to see the ABC confined to doing only what the market is not already providing.

The argument would have been that there was already plenty of information online, so the ABC should stick to terrestrial broadcasting — and thus be condemned to declining relevance.

Getting the charter change through while the attack dogs were distracted was one of the few adroit moves Conroy made. Now the licence to expand online is at the centre of the ABC’s strategic priorities.

“The reach, impact and personalisation of online and mobile services have deepened the ABC’s connections with Australians everywhere and of all ages,” says the strategic plan. And later: “Never in its proud 80-year history has the ABC been restricted to filling gaps left by other media organisations.”

So that’s clear. The ABC will continue to be parked on the front lawns of commercial operators. Always has been, probably always will be.

Since 2006, under the leadership of the current managing director, Mark Scott, the ABC has had seven comparatively fat years. As other contributors to this series have observed, funding increases have been won largely by Scott aligning some of the things the ABC does with other areas of government policy.

Under the Howard government, he stressed the importance of rural and regional services. Under both Howard and Labor, he made the ABC central to the need to get Australians to invest in digital television sets by launching digital-only channels such as ABC3 for kids.

Now, under Abbott, Scott has yet to find the right button to press.

Scott’s most recent pitch has been to sell the ABC as an essential part of the media ecosystem — one that innovates to the benefit of all others, including competitors. Meanwhile, he asserts: “There is no correlation globally between the strength and size of public broadcasting and the health of the newspaper industry.” The ABC, he has said, is a “safe bet” or a “safe harbour”  or “an important public insurance in these uncertain times in media”.

It is a place “where investment can continue to be made in content that the public greatly values, but which may not be able to drive a viable return to shareholders”.

None of this directly addresses Beecher’s call for a clearer set of priorities — a filter through which the ABC should run its future plans.

I would observe that not everything of value can be codified and measured. It’s great to see a debate about the ABC. I wish the ABC would foster such debates itself. But documents such as charters should point broad directions, rather than be prescriptive.

As well, an ABC that existed only to respond to what the commercials were not doing would be an ABC that was in fact determined by their agenda — and that would be a poorer thing, particularly since many of our commercial media organisations have not made particularly good decisions over the last few decades. The ABC must be more than their shadow.

The ABC needs to be able to plough its own course, aware of but not purely reactive to the commercial providers.

Like everyone else, I have gripes about decisions that have been made. I think the closure of the state-based 7.30 Report back in 1994 was a bad mistake, greatly impoverishing civic life in every city other than Sydney and Canberra. Since then the ABC has grown increasingly Sydney-centric — and I am not confident the management understands the impact of this.

Closing the remaining local 7.30 Reports would be another retrograde step — although their quality is mixed across the nation.

I would miss Lateline, but I also recognise that there is a trap in being too conservative. It may be that new formats could better fit the times and the purpose.

Why have an ABC? The big answer to the question is quite clear, I think. Because without it we would be less of a nation. Media remains an essential component of governance and social coherence. More than ever before, it is the hinge of change and a mechanism of civic society. We need public investment in this, as well as private activity. We need media that addresses its audience as citizens, not only as consumers.

What precisely should the ABC do? Absolutely, it should innovate. Media is changing so fast, and we need deep experimentation of the kind that is hard to accomplish in a sharemarket-driven company focused on quarterly returns. The taxpayer dollars that go to the ABC are an investment in the ability to experiment with new ways of connecting a population, and this will be essential to our future health. I’d like to see the ABC spend more on innovation, even recognising that experimentation brings with it the certainty of some failure.

Second, it should foster national identity and conversation, through drama, documentary and journalism. The recent Mental As campaign across all platforms and genres was an example of what can be done with a national media organisation that has reach and is freed from the need to make a profit. Why, as a nation, would we trash that capacity?

Lastly, while the ABC is not only a market failure media organisation, Scott is right when he says it represents an insurance policy at a time of change. This is most relevant to journalism. At a time of shrinking newsrooms, the ABC provides some assurance that we will still have reliable sources of information. I would add as a rider to that that this needs to be regional and state based, not only national.

Recent research in the USA has confirmed that in that country, the emerging areas of deficit in journalism are at community and state level — local professional accountability reporting. If we assume that Australia will display the same trends, than we can conclude that this is exactly the wrong time for the ABC to cut the state-based 7.30 Reports.

But all of this depends on money, and the ABC clearly has lean years ahead, unless its management can find the magic button that convinces its political masters to invest more.

Meanwhile, more changes are coming. Scott will depart as ABC managing director at the end of his current term. The ABC will increasingly have to find ways of funding online delivery of its content, where every extra audience member brings extra cost. And, one way or another, it will have to have more to do with SBS, which is a quite different culture driven in part by advertising.

There are huge challenges ahead. I hope that all sides recognise that the ABC represents an extraordinary national capacity and whatever the frustrations of the day, it would be a stupid country indeed that would allow that to be trashed.

*Margaret Simons is Director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne, which has recently received research funding from interests associated with Eric Beecher.  

Peter Fray

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