A bill being proposed by Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie that seeks to force the ABC to air more bulletins in regional areas sets a dangerous precedent of allowing political parties to dictate the content priorities of the public broadcaster, The Australia Institute says.

The left-wing think tank, in a submission to an inquiry on the bill, notes the Nationals’ rural constituents would be the key beneficiaries. TAI posits a future where a Labor government could mandate coverage of industrial issues, the Greens could require coverage of the environment, and the Motoring Enthusiast’s Party “could push for compulsory coverage of the Bathurst 1000 car race to be included in the Charter”. The submission states:

“While increasing regional content is a worthwhile goal, and one with popular support, a change to the Charter is not the best way to achieve this goal. The Charter must remain open to interpretation by the ABC Board and management. It is not the place to make specific programming decisions. Doing so would reduce the ability of the ABC to respond to the ever evolving media environment and place its future relevance and popularity at risk.”

McKenzie’s private member’s bill, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Rural and Regional Advocacy) Bill 2015aims to force the ABC to focus staff and resources on rural and regional Australia through a range of explicit requirements on rural staffing, corporate governance and programming. It also mandates the ABC must broadcast “at least 5 radio bulletins that consist solely or primarily of regional or local news” between 5am and 8pm, and to base two of its directors in rural and regional Australia.

The bill has been welcomed by many rural and regional councils, many of whom have written submissions in explicit support of McKenzie’s concerns and view the bill as a way to address what they see as a paucity of ABC rural programming. For example, Andrew Curnow, the Anglican Bishop of Bendigo, writes that the latest changes to regional programming “show very little indication that the senior management is in touch with the scattered and rural communities of Central and North Western Victoria”.

But national organisations have taken a rather more critical view of the proposals.

Viewer lobby group Friends of the ABC, which is always happy to protest against the ABC’s direction, states in its submission that it does “not agree with specific mandated targets, reports, number of regional programs to ensure rural and provincial quotas as we think that the issue is simply resolved by an improved Charter and by the requirement for the ABC Board and Management without Governmental interference to fulfil, in the interests of all Australians, what is actually set down in that Charter”.

Media union the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance wrote that the bill’s objectives “cannot be supported without the guarantee of additional protected funding”.

“It would be disingenuous to expect that an organisation can maintain all broadcast commitments when it is in the throes of extinguishing up to ten per cent of its employees.” Doing so, the union’s submission states, amounts to “operational favouritism”.

And anyway, the union continues, the crisis in rural media coverage is far greater than the ABC’s role, and is likely to be exacerbated by media regulation changes announced by the government last week. The union says that without safeguards, the media changes “further threaten local content and the diversity of opinion available to regional and rural residents”.

The ABC is currently in negotiations over its triennial funding round, the outcome of which will be announced in the budget. The organisation has requested around $30 million a year in specific funding tied to regional programming, which would go primarily towards employing 100 more journalists. At Senate estimates earlier this month, managing director Mark Scott told the committee that approving such funding was one of the few things the government could do to directly counter the crisis in regional media:

“I would have thought that if you are really interested in local voices, local communities and local news then you would support a proposition for the ABC to be able to put more people on the ground to provide local broadcasting and local content, because that is the one sure lever — the one sure bet — that the government has to make a change in this environment.”

But McKenzie was unimpressed by Scott’s argument, saying the ABC was favouring things like ABC News Breakfast over addressing market failures:

“I want to know why you do not prioritise. Instead of coming to government asking for additional funds, why not prioritise what you are already given?”

The ABC’s submission to the inquiry has yet to be released.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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