The ABC is not a business


Malcolm Turnbull at the ABC

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 such investigations, there are superficially sound points to the reforming strategy. Transparency is encouraged. An independent financial officer reporting to the board is suggested. There is talk about adopting 'modern corporate practices'. 

There is also a good deal of smoke and dusting. We are told that Abbott’s promise not to cut the ABC budget was never going to exclude a review of operational finances.  It is not a cut, as long as it slashes what Turnbull deems irrelevant. Balanced budgets do not deliver educated audiences.

He therefore sees costing matters in rarefied terms, rather similarly to the way former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher saw an economy. The balanced budget begins at home, before the till of the small business operator, with ledgers and accounts. Get rid of the poor cooks, the shoddy cleaners, the 'back door' operations, which give the impression that the ABC and SBS are running workers’ collectives. 

Use such weasel words as modernisation – a process which the ABC has been doing rather well in terms of its digital delivery – and increase the tasks per human unit. (Important to note here: the human unit is reduced per amount of work produced.) Corporations do that, but a public corporation, which does not insist on rewarding the shareholder with dividends, is something else.

Such problems are based on false assessments. The idea of ratings mashed up with a public broadcasting body is a meeting of hostile creatures, but the current government insists they have a role to play. As Eureka Street suggested last year, 'the ABC might do well to withdraw from participation in audience ratings surveys in favour of juries committed to fostering diversity’. If popularity was a test, we would all be undertaking studies in MBA courses and watching the latest commercial flick. 

Turnbull is absolutely right to insist that the ABC should not be a familial worker collective dedicated to one side of the critic’s fence. The public interest is broad, embracing the compliant and the contrarian. But in the same breath, he also reminds us that there is statutory independence in the ABC, only to then lean on that very independence by brandishing an emptying purse fed by corporate credos. He disingenuously acknowledges the problems a public broadcaster has. Will you be relevant if Sophocles is broadcast in the original Greek? But the other question needs to be asked: if not the public broadcaster, then who? 

Turnbull can’t have it both ways, insisting on editorial freedom and selection, while slashing the monetary basis of the operation. To save a budget’s false financing outlook by bedding the corporate mammon is not a solution if one is dealing with a public corporation with a remit for programming beyond the Murdoch dirt file. But Turnbull, judging from the latest chapter, would wish it was so. 

Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, public broadcasting, ABC, SBS, Malcolm Turnbull, Lewis Report, Murdoch, media



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Existing comments

Turnbull as Minister responsible for the ABC has to ensure it operates under the same fiscal constraints as any other federal department. The broadcaster is fundamentally hostile to the Coalition government and so in breach of its charter to be balanced. Neither Turnbull or the PM have interfered and left it to the Board to ensure this occurs. So far no result so what has to be done will be.

Andre Lewis | 20 November 2014  

There are no shortage of people who have no problem wasting taxpayer's money, the ABC should be privatised!

Worker | 20 November 2014  

"Slash and burn technique". "Slashing the monetary basis of the operation". Around 5% off a budget of over $1bn?

Oh please! | 20 November 2014  

An ABC Tragic all my life; now over 60 and perhaps because of my listening bias always a believer in the possible myth that like our constabulary Aunty has long been a career choice/employer of we Micks. Be interesting to see the stats. Complex issue this one and absolutely worthy of much community debate which seems to be lumbering towards maturity as this century progresses. Our simple equitable answers hold all the keys to this debate. Objective reflection and respectful listening should lead to an even more Independent; including efficient National Broadcasting Sector. Sleeves up and skates on one and all!

Ingrid Clark | 21 November 2014  

Andre, are you able to provide further and better particulars regarding alleged "fundamental" hostility of the ABC towards the Coalition government?

John Kennedy | 21 November 2014  

I often wonder how many people, critical of the ABC, actually ever listen to/watch ABC radio or television. If they did they would be impressed by the broad scope of programs offered, the range of views expressed by both comperes and guests, and the political spectrum of guests who have their say on the ABC - including Coalition Cabinet ministers. Charges of hostility to the Coalition government and wastage of taxpayers' money are easy accusations, but evidence to support either charge is never presented.

Ian Fraser | 21 November 2014  

No matter what other aspects of his animus against the ABC, Andre Lewis needs to be corrected: the ABC is NOT a federal department. And his assertion the the ABC is "fundamentally hostile" to the Coalition government; Bob Hawke used to complain about hostiilty toward his government, too. Mr Lewis's case it challenged by the very strong Liberal Party associations in Mark Scott's lineage. I have done many ABC broadcasts over the years and I did not gain much sense of the political affiliations of most of the people with whom I've worked. The vast bulk of the output of the ABC -- good or bad -- is apolitical. Mr Lewis seems to have confused scrutiny (irrespective of whether it might sometimes be a little unmannerly) with bias. He is mistaken.

Dr John CARMODY | 21 November 2014  

Why do we need fiscal constraints? Because this government intends to make big cuts to the tax paid by the rich. The the need for the fiscal constraints will be obvious. Stealing from the "common wealth" to ensure the increased wealth of the wealthy.

Janet | 21 November 2014  

"Fantasy of budget emergency"-Elections in mind it would seem natural for this Government to ignore fundamental budgetary problems facing Australia. It takes courage to be a prudent financial manager!!

Brian | 21 November 2014  

Without a public broadcaster, what would we be left with? That is the question for which the ABC and SBS are, at present, the answer. As we all suffer from the mistakes we make, governments included, independent commentators will always seem to be enemies of the state. They are easy targets. The government, being most unwilling (unable?) to change tack when a better course of action is proposed, seek to stifle commentary by starving it and forcing corporate practices on it. "Integrity flies out the window when money comes in at the door".

Peter Horan | 21 November 2014  

That people seriously can't pick up the political leanings of eg Philip Adams, Jon Faine, Fran Kelly, Heather Ewart, Waleed Aly, Barrie Cassidy (former speechwriter to Hawke), former 7.30 Report compere Kerry O'Brien ("It's a win for the ABC er, ALP" (former speechwriter for Gough Whitlam), Virginia Trioli (notoriously caught pulling faces re. Barnaby Joyce) etc etc (dozens more) is a wonder to behold. I gave up listening to and watching the ABC years ago, sick of the stacking and blatantly green left agenda of shows like QandA and the careful choice of interviewees so that everyone agrees with everyone else from a green left point of view.

HH | 21 November 2014  

Commercialism in any Government owned enterprise is like salt in food, a little is good but too much destroys the organisation completely. Both ALP & Libs have been hell bent on destroying Government Owned Enterprises and will not be satisfied till they have no more to sell. What is needed is a return to the Third Way. Support for both the free market but with a absolute undertaking to intervene in the market if the market does not deliver. The ALP has been a nest of left wing zealots for years. Intervention is needed but not destruction. Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson | 21 November 2014  

It seems those who don't recognise the hostility toward the Govt, have not watched many current affairs programs. ABC has many other worthwhile programs but much of its public commentary is to ridicule or focus on anything that will discredit the Abbott Govt. This cut of 5% is hardly unreasonable and should remind them to be a public broadcaster for ALL sides of politics - not just one of them.

Jackie | 21 November 2014  

It is ironic that the ABC's current critics conveniently forget that the ABC news entities relentlessly pursued the former Labor Government over its leadership problems and its myriad other woes. As they did of the Liberals in Opposition then too. As they have with every other government's and opposition's shortcomings in recent memory, Labor or Liberal. Any objective look at the ABC must conclude that it is remarkably even-handed in its coverage of most political issues. But then objectivity has nothing to do with this argument. The supreme irony of these people wanting to close down free and objective reporting is that they want to do it "in the name of free speech". It all says infintely more about them than it ever could about the ABC.

Paul | 21 November 2014  

Quoth: "Popular opinion is fickle" - then why has the ABC made itself so prone to this criticism by pandering to what it alleges is "popular" opinion? Climate Change; same-sex marriage. All shovelled down our gullet with nary a thought that to be open to the other side of the question is not to be a denier, a bigot or a homophobe. Excise the newscaf department and perhaps question a bit more rigorously some of the drama and entertainment choices (the hamster wheel and Chris Kenny??), and no one would really have a problem with the ABC. Blind freddy though could tell you that the personal prejudices of many news journalists and presenters are barely concealed, and even lately somewhat brazenly shown. Fair enough, they may be media talent that can't be dispensed with but why not actively balance these personalities with ones from the other side of politics, then the charter will be fulfilled and no one feel dudded of their money. Seems it's "our ABC" is an ironic tag line to a large portion of the population and an assumed birthright to a small coterie of inner city dwellers at present. Management has been appallingly weak.

Tom White | 21 November 2014  

99% of Australian journalists (including broadcasters) vote Labor. Their prize 'to die for', is a job with the ABC. For those who 'don't make it', they have to cut their Labor cloth to suit their 'big business employers'. Suck it up or wear it guys!

claude rigney | 22 November 2014  

Ian Fraser wonders why little evidence is ever presented about ABC bias, The answer is because there is precious little to present. The ABC has never been a pro-Government body because that is not what the public broadcaster should be. It may not be perfect but it's as good as any institution can be in its even-handedness and has persisted in reporting stories Governments don't like regardless of who is in power. It's critics often do themselves no credit in the way they agonise over the reporting of stories they don't like. For example, there was the hand-wringing about ABC bias over the refugee-burnt-hands episode. The heavy lifting on that story was done by The Guardian and the Fairfax Indonesia correspondent, Michael Bachelard. All the ABC did was report the story. Many months later there has not been a credible rebuttal to the first-hand reporting of the incident by Bachelard and the authorities refuse to investigate his claims. It increasingly appears to have been a classic case of fake outrage to accompany the beating of a 'patriotic' drum.

paulb | 22 November 2014  

What magisterial certainty, Claude

David Timbs | 23 November 2014  

There is a Budget problem and it is not just now - it lies ahead. Have a look at the deficit and the Forward Estimates. Much of the public sector is being subject to cuts. All my listening and most of my watching is ABC/SBS, but I see no reason why ABC/SBS should be a sacred cow and be exempt from such cuts. Whether in the private sector or public sector, reviews of funding occur from time to time. I have little doubt the ABC/SBS can absorb these without any loss in quality.

Bill Frilay | 23 November 2014  

Excellent comments, Tom White & Claude Rigney.

HH | 24 November 2014  

Let me just record here the dreadful vandalisation of ABC Classic FM national radio. This brilliant, unique classical music radio service to an estimated 750,000Australians especially people over 50 and including people living across regional areas - and totally apolitical - is now being gutted. No more free national broadcasts of country concerts like Huntington Music Fesrival. No more FM Jazztrack. Halving of direct broadcasts of Australian live classical concerts. Music - like education, health,news and current affairs - will soon be just for the rich living in big cities. What vandals these people are!. Turnbull is as bad as Abbott. Had he any decency he would have resigned over these ABC cuts. They strike at the heart of our culture. First the ABC. Then, the Ooera companies. then, the symphony orchestras and music schools. Abbott and Turnbull are starting down the road of turning Australiai into a musical desert.

Tony Kevin | 24 November 2014  

I have sympathy with part of Tony Kevin's post. It is a shame to see that the ABC will no longer be broadcasting the events that he lists. However, I would not immediately lay the blame at Abbott and Turnbull's door. The ABC is meant to go into areas where the commercial media won't because it is not financially viable. Country music festivals, second level football competitions, or state based current affair shows are areas where the ABC could step into the gap. However, Mark Scott has decided to cut funding to these whilst driving the ABC into the already well-serviced and highly competitive digital media. He even spent money so that Google searches would highlight ABC websites over commercial rivals. Mark Scott needs to get the ABC got back to its original charter, to wit (i) being representative of all Australians' opinions, and (ii) going where the commercial stations won't.

John Ryan | 25 November 2014  

The current budget cuts to the ABC are nothing more than a continuation of neoliberal economic policies which have been prevalent in Australia for the last 30 odd years and were initiated by the Fraser government in the late 1970's. These neoliberal policies were developed by economists such as Milton Friedman and made popular by the conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher in England and Ronald Reagan in America. ABC budgetary cuts over this time have resulted in a very poor and superficial coverage of current affairs, politics, the arts, sport, social issues, history, philosophy and local drama by the mainstream ABC. Radio National and ABC FM are the only stations to maintain high standards of broadcasting, but Radio National has been 'dumbed down' in the last few years with the employment of presenters such as Fran Kelly's Morning program, Natasha Mitchell's Life Matters program, Waleed Ali's Drivetime program, Michael Cathcart's Arts/Books program, Cameron Wilson's Bush Telegraph pogram and Robbie Buck's Music program. The ABC has developed a similar culture of the commercial radio and TV stations with a strong focus content being trivial and celebrity nonsense. As Paul Keating predicted, Australia has become a 'banana republic' with very little local content and the importation of news and current affairs programs from various foreign agencies such as the German 'Deutsche Welle', the Qatari 'Aljazeera', the Chinese 'China Central', the American 'PBS Newhour', 'Democracy Now' and the 'NPR Radio', the English 'BBC World' and the Japanese 'NHK'..

Mark Doyle | 25 November 2014  

Mark Scott has carefully selected the cuts - which he had planned for months - to do the most harm to rural people and those who enjoy programs such as Classic FM. It is not a result of 5% cut - it is selective and playing politics. A total mismanagement of taxpayer dollars. Their salaries should take a hit along with the massive PPLS that is available to all public servants including ABC staff

Jackie | 26 November 2014  

The ABC is not a business but it should be every Australian's business. The fact is most Australians don't listen to or watch the ABC. If a TV is playing in a club or a radio is playing on a work site it is very very rarely tuned into the ABC unless it be the ABC's peerless coverage of a Test match. No sign of bias there. We are all barracking for Team Australia. I suppose it is because the ABC encourages more exposure in depth of political, economic, social and cultural issues that politicians and their parties examine in great detail what the ABC does in these areas. Over any considerable period I have found that progressive and conservative views get a pretty fair airing. I do admit that the Coalition does lend itself to be easily satirised as does the Catholic church, to which I belong. The Libs and the Nationals don't take kindly to satire. Neither do many church hierarchs. Presumably because the aim of satire is to puncture pomposity. Funding of the ABC is not going to be resolved by good accounting and productivity alone. A sense of humour is desperately needed.

Uncle Pat | 26 November 2014  

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