The ABC’s output will almost certainly be privatised, if the conservative and corporate media have their way. But what would be left behind, if Australian stories were to be shifted from the public sphere into privately owned spaces?
The continuing attacks on the ABC pose an existential threat to the organisation’s ability to operate as an effective voice as part of a diverse ecosystem, leaving an exclusively private media where the Australian cultural voice will be cloistered behind paywalls.
It’s easy to dismiss the attacks as political theatre. And ABC supporters have long been inclined to cry “wolf!” at the yapping of a chihuahua. However, the Liberal Party’s Federal Council resolution this past weekend is the final data point we need to grasp that the game has changed.
It follows, in chronological order, the $30 million Foxtel gift to effectively undertake public broadcasting responsibilities; the so-called competitive neutrality review; the steady drum-beat of formalised attacks and complaints from the very ministers charged with protecting the ABC; and the three-year budgetary funding freeze.
As Trump’s supporters say, all of this should be taken seriously, if not literally. There’s no apparent business model that would sustain a privately owned ABC or SBS. But that’s not the plan.
Destruction of the ABC is in the commercial interests of the traditional media companies.
We’ve got decades of history to warn us about this. When the political interests of governments and the commercial interests of media align, watch out! So, don’t listen to what government ministers are saying. Watch what they’re doing.
The ABC’s major product is “trust”. In the mass media space, it’s a product where it (and SBS) have a near monopoly. Compare the Edelman trust barometer showing 31% of Australians trust mass media with the Essential Research polling showing that 53% trust the ABC.
The strength of the “trust” brand has long frustrated conservatives. Back in 1996, then Howard adviser Grahame Morris described the ABC as “our enemies talking to our friends”. The hard men and women of the Liberal Party right have long been using the Senate estimates process to bloody the ABC’s collective nose.
In part, they’ve been feeding red meat to their activist base and in part bullying the ABC to ensure it sticks to its cautious restraint, at least when it comes to political reporting. It’s the same game that Trump plays with “fake news” — get in first and discredit the media’s reporting in the eyes of your supporters through lies and gaslighting.
But now, in Australia, the game has gone from political theatre to fundamental threat.
Now that advertising no longer appears to be a viable business model for mass media, the media corporations are chasing reader revenues. But with the ABC pumping out trusted news, information and drama on multiple platforms for free, there’s a real cap on the ability of traditional media to corral the information market, the way they could with advertising.
The private exploitation of news and information demands the ABC be hamstrung. That’s what that familiar oxymoron “competitive neutrality” means — that the ABC not be able to compete where the commercial media are trying to make their dollars.
Once this meant: stay away from advertising (which actually suited both supporters and critics of public broadcasting). Now, it means: leave the mass audience to commercial media so they can charge for what the ABC and SBS would otherwise provide for free.
That’s why it’s critical that the ABC “trust” brand be dirtied up with incessant attacks from the minister responsible (See: “The ABC is biased and can’t be trusted!”). That’s why Foxtel has to be funded to perform public broadcasting duties. (See: “We don’t need the ABC!”) And it’s why funding has to be cut so the ABC just can’t do its job any more. (See: “They’re just hopeless!”)
This privatisation of news and entertainment will certainly leave a media that is less informative, less diverse and less, well, Australian. But how important is that compared to the survival of commercial media?