Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


The ABC is not a business

  • 21 November 2014

It is a topic of grim amusement. Public broadcasters are always deemed the opponents of government, or the supporters of a faction reviled by popular opinion. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has insisted that the ABC is 'unpatriotic'. Popular opinion is fickle. The broadcasters, given the enshrined balance in their charters, remain.

Because the public purse is open to the public broadcaster, there is always a temptation to use budgetary accountability, and transparency, as a neat cover for cleansing corporatisation. Throwing the public broadcaster to the corporate wolves is tempting for those who see little difference between the objectives of Murdoch and the ABC. Both want audiences and both need money.

While the ABC and SBS need to exist within some corporate structure, they do not inhabit the same philosophical territory as Sky News or Channel 7. The ABC, for instance, has a charter, obliging it to 'take account of the broadcasting services provided by commercial and community sectors'. It is meant to be different. There is no advertising, and content is a priority.

This confusion of aims tends to leak into ministerial portfolios, notably those where the logic of company budgets displaces the necessity of public awareness. Communications minister Malcolm Turnbull, who does not suffer fools gladly, was given to using the corporate cook book in addressing his audience in Adelaide on Thursday. His slash and burn technique risks hollowing out the content that is the essence of the ABC and SBS. 

Turnbull made official what was already suspected. The fantasy of the 'budget emergency' has become a real wedding to a trimming of public broadcasting costs, suggesting that a fundamentalism of numbers somehow translates into an improvement in services. (Turnbull uses the term 'budget repair strategy'). Some $308 million will be cut over the course of five years. The ABC is bound to suffer more because of its commitment not to take advertising. Its $254 million cut is likely to lead to the loss of 500 jobs.

SBS, having already gone to the dark side of commercial advertising, will no doubt cut more actual broadcasting time in favour of advertising. They are slated for a $25.2 million cut. 

The reference point of Turnbull’s strategy is the Lewis efficiency report, which sought an 'ideal cost-base'. He insists that the ABC need not cut programs – to do so would be 'cowardly'. Bravely, they need merely shoot the employees – in the employment sense. As with any