Screenshots of the ABC mobile app from 2016.

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.

It is something of an article of faith on the right of politics that the greatest problem with the ABC is its bias against the right of politics generally, and the conservative wing of the right in particular. Yet there is a risk that this unrelenting focus on the issue of minimisation of conservative ideas has allowed a potentially larger issue to escape debate.

There has been enormous change in the media environment in recent years. The ABC has both influenced the nature of this change, and been changed by it. In particular, the decentralisation, divisiveness and digitisation of news, politics and current affairs have changed the nature and importance of public broadcasting.

Whether there is equality of representation of various ideas on the ABC is in a sense a static question in this dynamically changing environment.

Of course the ABC has developed its own culture: it prefers focusing on social issues to economic ones, and when it does consider economic issues, it is broadly sceptical of markets and credulous of government intervention. Yet these attitudes are common across many publicly-funded institutions and bodies.

Indeed, while many people believe government institutions are motivated by high-minded principles compared to the supposedly profit-obsessed private sector, the economic theory of public choice cites numerous examples of public servants and government bodies acting just as self-interestedly as the private sector.

In many ways, what presents as ABC bias is simply the broad scepticism of private institutions and private means that is inherent in so many publicly-funded institutions and bodies. Specifically, it is the belief that government action ensures an independence the market cannot provide.

While it would be better if the public sector was more centrist or pluralist in its views, this market scepticism seems to be the reality. The extent to which this constitutes bias can be debated. However, it should be conceded that at least the ABC is aware of the need to present as unbiased.

No such restriction or understanding seem to apply to the ABC’s impact and influence on the viability of private media organisations — especially the extent to which the ABC might overwhelm the plurality that would otherwise be generated by the market. And it is this overwhelming influence that large public institutions have on markets that is important.

If we were to start from scratch, what would we task a public broadcaster with doing? The job description of the ABC was first written when there was no internet or television, and commercial broadcasters were very limited, both in number and scope.

So what should the role of a public broadcaster be in the 21st century? Should the ABC still be tasked with the requirement to “provide … comprehensive broadcasting services” as currently expressed under its charter.

This has been interpreted as providing a multitude of services broadcasts and options on radio, on television and online — effectively a license to compete with commercial services, notwithstanding any obligations around competitive neutrality.

Indeed, there is little doubt that the ABCs aggressive expansion into online content contributed to commercial alternatives leaving the market; especially Politifact Australia which competed with ABC’s Fact Check, and The Punch opinion site that competed with ABC’s The Drum online opinion section (itself now gone). No question the presence of the ABC had an influence on the merger of Nine and Fairfax.

The media market is challenged all over the world, but arguably the challenges in Australia are exacerbated by the sheer size and breadth of the public broadcaster.

It is hard to imagine government being ignorant of the impact on the market that would arise from the establishment of a broad remit, public broadcaster today.

The ABC does play valuable roles that should be enshrined in its charter. Comprehensive coverage and analysis of news and current affairs — especially issues affecting rural and regional Australia — is crucial and arguably non-commercial.

However, there is a risk that the increasing focus on digital services, and its corresponding demand on resources, could come at the cost of regional broadcasting, which has to service low audience numbers at high costs.

Another area where the ABC could play a role is supporting homegrown comedy. This would allow local content requirements to be removed from private broadcasters, and while it not end Australian content on these platforms, it would make clear the cost of supporting programs that are not commercially viable.

The alternative is clear: unrestrained growth at the ABC creates market pressures that risk the continuing diminution of commercial broadcasting. Plus, a media market monopolised by a government broadcaster makes perceptions of bias, or indeed actual bias, that much worse.

Rather than letting it dominate the media, it may be better to limit the ABC to the core roles it is best placed to provide.

Simon Cowan is research director at the Centre for Independent Studies, whose executive director hosts a show on ABC Radio National.

Peter Fray

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