Messages from a save the ABC rally in 2014. (Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

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 has never been more important in its 90 year history. The slow death of the traditional commercial media that we’re now so familiar with means we’re now ever more reliant on the public broadcasters for quality journalism, as funding for that dries up and commercial outlets lose their appetite for risk. Serious current affairs has almost entirely vanished from commercial television; round after round of redundancies have taken hundreds of journalists out of Fairfax and News Corp papers. Quality journalism is crucial to a functioning democracy, and bit by bit the burden of providing that has shifted toward the ABC, first in regional communities, and increasingly in national affairs.

This shift hasn’t been accompanied by additional funding — the ABC has had to sack hundreds of its own staff in order to meet huge funding cuts by the current government over the last five years. And while its role has grown more crucial, it has grown more contested as well, with its dying commercial rivals lashing out at any competition it provides and the Coalition abandoning its support for public broadcasting in favour of, within the Liberal Party, a policy of privatisation and a practice of funding cuts and incessant war.

There’s another reason why the ABC is more important now than ever. In a period of deep disillusion with the political process, fierce resentment toward big business, anger at the major churches for their cover-up of mass pedophilia and general distrust in the media, the ABC remains, unusually, a trusted institution. In Essential Research’s most recent trust in media polling, the ABC TV news — as it always has — is the most trusted source for Australians, with 62% having a lot or some trust in it; 61% have some or a lot of trust in SBS TV news, and 57% have some or a lot of trust in ABC radio news. The best commercial outlets could achieve is 48% for commercial TV news. The public broadcasters are thus the only source of news and current affairs in the country that have the trust of the majority of the population, despite the relentless demonisation of the ABC as a fount of doctrinaire socialism by the Coalition and News Corp.

As important as trust, the ABC is also the one media outlet that is commonly used in a media landscape that is fragmenting ever more rapidly. Just 10% of Australians say they don’t use ABC TV news and current affairs. No other media outlet can claim to reach 90% of Australians, who like other media consumers elsewhere, now have the power to control which outlets they access their news from. The ABC is the one media outlet outside the self-constructed echo chamber of many news consumers, accessed by nearly everyone, contributing to a shared understanding of the world and shared facts, even if their meaning is strongly contested.

This was not the world in which the ABC was established, or within which it operated, for most of its history. Australia, and Australia’s media landscape, has changed radically, but the ABC remains the product of an early-80s charter that has been updated on occasion since then, sometimes usefully, sometimes not (who can forget Richard Alston’s ridiculous “datacasting”). The role of the ABC, and how it performs that role, is thus an appropriate subject for debate, and one Crikey has invited several commentators to address. As Simon Cowan notes in his piece, the history of the ABC — founded in the pre-TV era — isn’t necessarily the best guide to what it should be doing now, and a requirement to deliver comprehensive programming may no longer be appropriate at a time when commercial broadcasters are facing existential threats.

Plainly, there are tasks that all will agree the ABC should perform, such as regional programming and high-quality news and current affairs. But beyond that lies disputed territory — and weaving those roles into a coherent charter and organisational philosophy capable of withstanding poor boards and poor managing directors is another challenge in itself. The ABC Act, and the charter within it, has served Australia well for 35 years, but we need to discuss whether it’s fit for purpose for the 2020s and beyond.

Peter Fray

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