This piece is part of a Crikey Deep Dive series: “What is the ABC For?”. We’re trying to unravel and distill some of the crucial questions the ABC should be asking itself in this post-Guthrie/Milne era.
The ABC’s recent turmoil has, unsurprisingly, renewed calls for its charter to be revised. But there are huge questions remaining about how that should be done and whether it would just add to the ABC’s woes.
The charter — written into the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act — is the legal framework under which the public broadcaster operates, including its purpose and role. It’s treated as the ABC’s sacred text, and it informs its budget, staffing and content decisions.
But the relatively short section in the legislation is light on some of the details of most recent concern, including content quotas, political interference and its importance to regional and remote Australia. Getting all sides of politics to agree on any changes to the charter is probably a pipe dream, but we talked to some keen ABC-watchers about what (if anything) they thought should be done.
Should the charter be revised?
Former ABC staff-elected director Quentin Dempster is among many to think that the charter (last revised in 1973) should be rewritten. “It is time that the ABC’s charter was re-written to spell out more prescriptively what a taxpayer-funded public ‘cybercaster’ should be doing to exploit the digital revolution and add greater value for the benefit of national cohesion and creativity,” he tells Crikey.
“The ABC and SBS have been destabilised, right at the moment when our Australian media and content industry needs a bulwark against global disruption.”
Others, though, including the ABC supporters group ABC Friends, believe that another review would just add to the ABC’s woes. President Margaret Reynolds says focus should instead be on the current government understanding the role of a public broadcaster (and what is already in the charter).
“There is a strange misunderstanding that the ABC is a government entity and certain government members behave as if the ABC is an arm of government to simply broadcast government propaganda,” she tells Crikey. “Any review would simply lead to further undermining of the ABC’s independence.”
Content quotas (of varying types) are frequently offered as a suggestion of what the ABC needs going forward.
Dempster, for instance, would like to see more focus outside the ABC’s Ultimo headquarters. “As a consequence of defunding, the ABC and SBS are now Sydney-centric. In a country with a rapidly growing migrant population this is unhealthy,” he says. “A re-written ABC Charter would prescribe that in addition to ‘inform, educate and entertain’, the institution is to enhance program production creativity across the states and territories.”
Screen Producers Australia CEO Matthew Deaner says a local content quota (with some of that from the independent sector) should be written into the charter, backed up by adequate funding. “The ABC’s budgets are still constrained, leading to continued acquisition of cheaper foreign programming, particularly from the UK.”
“The ABC needs to be more well known for Australian content than for Peppa Pig, and Lord Stephen Fry … The ABC has never been more important as a provider of original Australian content, as commercial domestic broadcaster investment in Australian content declines and streaming services usher in a flood of foreign programming.”
ABC News and Current Affairs director Peter Manning thinks the ABC’s role in Australia’s cultural life should also be acknowledged in the charter. “The ABC’s commitment to the performing arts needs to be made more central,” he tells Crikey.
The CPSU’s ABC section secretary Sinddy Ealy agrees: “The ABC’s role promoting the cultural life of Australia needs to be strengthened and given greater prominence. The role of the ABC is not just news, but promoting the arts, philosophy, religion, literature, history, natural history and science; to encourage our curiosity and intellect and enrich our cultural life.”
The allocation of funding to the ABC has been used by successive governments as a threat to hold over the organisation. Dempster proposes a five-year funding agreement with regular reviews to take the ABC out of the three-year election cycle, while Deaner also suggests writing in terms of trade that would allow the ABC to work with the independent screen sector to produce local content.
Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has also supported fixed funding for the ABC: “Funding should be locked in and protected from political interference, so the next government that promises no cuts to the ABC has no choice but to keep that promise.”
Of course, this is the topic du jour for the ABC. Manning says the ABC’s highest and most important function was providing quality content, and called on the board in the same section to maintain the broadcaster’s independence.
“[The charter] needs to state unequivocally that the ABC, in whatever form it delivers its content, will remain in the public sector as an independent content provider funded by government in the public interest.”
While Ealy thinks a review under the Coalition is a bad idea, if the charter were to be updated, “it should contain a short statement about the ABC independence — indeed it is the ABC’s independence that underpins its social contract with us and distinguishes it from state media propaganda”.
Another thing missing from the charter is clear direction on the ABC’s role in a digital age.
“Although the ABC (and SBS) were making great strides to devise content for digital distribution, multi-channelling in TV and iView, (SBS On Demand) a hostile government has defunded them, radically constraining their capacity to provide distinctive content,” Dempster says.
Manning agrees, telling Crikey the charter should acknowledge the”new world of a myriad of delivery platforms for its content.”
But Canadian media analyst and expert on public broadcasting Ken Goldstein isn’t so sure that’s the best answer. “Updating the charter simply to recognise that new technology has arrived since the last update is, at best, a half-measure,” he tells Crikey.
“Too often, institutions like the ABC or CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) are set up to ‘solve’ whatever ‘problem’ was perceived at the time, and they then try to pretend that the same form of intervention will always keep working, regardless of how the marketplace changes, without analysis of how other forms of intervention might be more effective as media technology evolves.”
What do you think? Send your comments and responses to [email protected]