Narrow-casting from the fringes


2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

The Australian, November 25, 2014


AS the Friends of the ABC are quickly discovering, a share of public outrage is every bit as hard to come by these days as a share of the taxpayer’s dollar.

The government announces the biggest cuts to the ABC for 18 years and what is digital denunciator GetUp carrying on about? Climate change, coal-seam gas, and the Manus and Nauru detention camps, that’s what. It takes metres of scrolling to reach a polite invitation to sign a petition to save the ABC.

On Insiders on Sunday, Barrie Cassidy found himself out on a limb for once, arguing that changes in the media landscape meant that the ABC should spend more money, not less. There was no support from The Australian’s Nikki Savva or The West Australian’s Andrew Probyn.

“A 5 per cent saving is nothing compared to what we’ve gone through and other media companies have gone through,” said Probyn.

It is hard to believe that the ABC did not know what was coming. After all, cutting the ABC’s pocket money is what incoming Coalition governments do. The only surprise this time is that the corporation escaped so lightly.

Malcolm Fraser’s government sliced off 13 per cent in real terms in just two years. John Howard pulled back 10 per cent in three. Even Bob Hawke managed to cut the budget by 7 per cent in real terms. By comparison, Malcolm Turnbull’s 5 per cent across five years is barely a flesh wound.

Fraser had intended to go further in 1976 by implementing the structural reforms recommended in the Green report. The Friends of the ABC went berserk, staging rowdy demonstrations outside parliament together with assorted Maoists, gay liberationists, international socialists, feminists, anarchists and anti-imperialists. ABC staff went on strike, blacking out screens for 24 hours.

Fraser’s nerve crumbled and by Christmas he had hoisted the white flag. ABC chairman Henry Bland, appointed as Fraser’s hatchet man, resigned in disgust.

Turnbull’s knife, on the other hand, is meeting little resistance. Sure, the Friends of the ABC packed their picnic baskets and vacuum flasks and took to the streets on the weekend, but it all seemed a little flat, as if they were going through the motions just for old time’s sake.

Australia circa 2014 is a very different place. The imperative of fiscal restraint and the tough environment for commercial media has weakened the ABC’s bargaining position.

It is hard to find anyone in the private sector prepared to defend the ABC’s corner, apart from the soft-headed leader writers at The Sydney Morning Herald. On Saturday they wrote: “The Herald also rejects that the ABC is a bloated organisation let off lightly in successive rounds of public service cutbacks.” Really? The ABC’s fund­ing base increased by 10 per cent in real terms since 2008 while Fairfax Media has had to pare to the bone, then keep cutting.

The lukewarm defence of the ABC reflects something more than intra-media schadenfreude, however. Deep down, affection for public broadcasting is waning. It is as if the ABC has drifted apart from the nation it serves, no longer seeing itself (if indeed it ever did) at the centre of public life, an institution that serves to define Australian identity or a force for unity.

The technological landscape has changed remarkably since the Howard government chopped into the ABC’s budget in 1996.

The internet was in its infancy. The ­notion that it might be ­possible one day to watch television on a computer, much less on a mobile phone, would have seemed fanciful.

In 1996 seven out of 10 Australians watched ABC TV at least once in any given week. This week barely four out of 10 will bother tuning in to the flagship channel, according to the broadcaster’s 2013-14 annual report, which shows that even when the other ABC channels are included, the reach of ABC TV is declining.

Three out of four metropolitan radio listeners find something better to listen to than ABC Local Radio, News Radio, Radio National, Triple J or Classic FM. As for the ABC’s digital websites into which the corporation has invested much money and hope, the cold hard fact of the matter is that 75 per cent of Australians never log into them at all.

For much of the time the majority of Australians are blithely disengaged from the ABC and, with the diversity of content and the manner of its delivery expanding all the time, it seems unlikely that Aunty (as we once called it) will ever be close to our hearts again.

That does not mean, however, that the case for public investment in broadcasting is any less strong than it was 20 years ago. Far from it; the polarisation of politics and culture make the ABC’s mission to “stand solid and serene in the middle of our national life”, as former chairman Richard Boyer once put it, even more important.

If ever there were a place where, say, Andrew Bolt and David Marr should be able to meet to debate the issues of the day it should surely be on the publicly funded ground of the ABC. Indeed, for 10 years from 2001 to 2011 Bolt was a regular guest onInsiders, where he would regularly encounter Marr and other proud defenders of progressivism with entertaining results.

That Bolt eventually split from the program to host his own on Channel 10 was a reflection of an increasing intolerance towards views that went against conventional wisdom. When contributors of the calibre of Janet Albrechtsen and Miranda Devine are forced off the flagship political debating forum, Q&A, however, the ABC should recognise it is in trouble.

When its critics talk about an ABC position on climate change, asylum-seekers or the Catholic Church, where is the defence? Why don’t we hear the chairman or the managing director’s passionate defence of the ABC’s neutrality and its overriding commitment to plurality?

Defending public broadcasting in this multi-channel, narrow-casting era will be increasingly difficult unless the ABC is committed to occupy the centre.