The current kerfuffle over a possible deal that would allow the ABC to sell access to some of its editorial content has disheartening historical antecedents.
The notion of Aunty trying to generate additional revenue from its huge daily output isn’t new. But the positions taken over the years by government, the commercial media and the ABC itself have been a study in how much our expectations of the national public broadcaster have been framed by circumstance.
At the national broadcaster’s foundation in the early 1930s, the federal government seemed to have an open mind as to whether its new Australian Broadcasting Commission should take advertising. Not surprisingly, the newspaper and radio station owners were strongly opposed. No parliamentarian was prepared to risk the barons’ wrath, so the ABC was legislated into being as a non-commercial broadcaster.
What had been an essentially political decision soon became an established ideological principle. The idea that true editorial independence could only be maintained if all programming excluded commercial influence or references was fundamental to the ABC’s philosophy and operations. That assumption was accepted both by the staff and their audiences — and it still is.
At times adherence to this principle reached bizarre levels, as when a packet of corn flakes on the kitchen table in a 1960s TV drama had to be turned away from the cameras lest the viewers see the evil brand name. (Echoes of this restriction survive. ABC sports reporters and commentators still have to invent awkward ways to avoid naming the commercial sponsors of major competitions and stadiums.)
But as a general rule, the diligent exclusion of the money-changers from the broadcasting temple has worked well. It underwrites much of the impressive public trust and support for the ABC, it and helps protect it from its enemies.
What is interesting, though, is that almost every breach of that principle has originated from within the organisation, and not as a response to external pressure.
The Dix Inquiry into the ABC, established by the Coalition government in 1979, supported a recommendation put to it by the ABC’s own commissioners and management that the broadcaster should be able to accept “corporate underwriting”.
To its credit, the Fraser government rejected that proposal but did legislate for a change in status from a commission to a corporation. Among other things, that allowed the ABC to borrow funds and to raise revenue from merchandising. Aunty was now a little bit pregnant.
When, in 1993, the expansionist Labor-appointed managing director, David Hill, bullied through his dream of Australia Television (a satellite-delivered TV version of Radio Australia), his speech at the launch function in Sydney included an announcement that the service would seek sponsorship income and include on-air commercial references. Jaws dropped.
There was similar consternation when Hill later confirmed that the ABC’s proposed entry into pay TV was conditional on it securing partnerships with commercial operators. Both ventures failed (Australia TV slowly; pay TV stillborn), and the champions of ABC editorial purity claimed another victory for the true believers.
Not for long. In 1999 Hill’s successor, Brian Johns, fumbled a secret deal in which he was trying to sell access to the ABC’s program content to Telstra (for what, even then, was recognised as a ludicrously small sum). The moral authority of Johns — who’d been seen as a stoic defender of the public broadcaster’s independence — was shattered and his term as MD not renewed.
So has Michelle Guthrie, the current corner-office occupant at Ultimo, learned from this sad history? Apparently not.
The digital media landscape of today is a far more complex battleground than traditional broadcast radio and television, but the temptations — and risks — are much the same.
The ABC produces reliable, diverse streams of high-value content that is attractive to advertisers. Brokers — such as the syndicater NewsMaven with whom the ABC is currently talking — can promise solid revenues from on-selling access to this material (while also making a healthy profit for themselves).
But the unstated danger, and it is a huge threat, is that once our national broadcaster locks itself into such a deal then the tail could soon start wagging the digital dog.
As the ultimate clients, advertisers always have two principal concerns: maximise the audience and protect the brand. It would not be long before the ABC found itself under pressure to deliver populist news and programming that attracted more eyeballs. That’s the inescapable fate of any content producer who crosses the commercial Rubicon.
Worse would be the pressure to compromise editorial independence when — inevitably — one of Aunty’s current affairs teams uncovers a story that might embarrass an advertiser.
A fight between Four Corners and the ABC commercial division would not be pretty viewing.