The ABC: Public broadcasting without public purpose


Published in The Australian, December 3, 2013

ABORIGINAL and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the ABC’s latest annual report contains material that may cause offence.

On page 231, for instance, we learn that ABC1 broadcast, between 6am and midnight, six hours of indigenous television. That is six hours for the entire year, or six minutes and 55 seconds a week, and two minutes and 18 seconds of that was repeats.

Indigenous issues may be covered incidentally in categories such as drama, sport or current affairs, but since indigenous programming is listed as a genre in its own right, the lack of commitment in this area reflects the ABC’s confusion about its public purpose.

The annual report makes a great deal of the corporation’s new Indigenous Employment Strategy. It boasts that there are 70 indigenous staff members, which means there are just 38 to find to complete the 2 per cent quota.

It could of course meet the target by sacking a couple of thousand non-indigenous employees, which in many ways sounds preferable, starting perhaps with the head of indigenous content who appears to have little to do.

Alternatively, they could reduce the entire staff to 50 and employ Stan Grant, who in any given week produces 25 minutes more indigenous television than ABC1.

Grant’s weekly show, Awaken, is broadcast by National Indigenous Television, a network that does more than merely tick the box.

It actually puts indigenous Australians on the box, just as the ABC would if it was fulfilling its statutory obligation to “reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community”.

The ABC’s charter runs to a mere 500 words but, even so, the corporation has enormous trouble sticking to it.

The ABC is required “to encourage and promote the musical, dramatic and other performing arts” yet its flagship television service broadcasts less than one and a quarter hours of first-run Australian arts and culture a week.

It is expected to “contribute to a sense of national identity”, yet the number of Australian programs on ABC1 is pitiful.

In an average hour of prime time viewing last year, 32 minutes and 15 seconds was imported material and two-thirds of that had been broadcast before.

There were 22 minutes and 22 seconds of first-run Australian television but 14 minutes of it was news and current affairs.

A typical hour contained two minutes and 16 seconds of Australian arts and culture; six minutes and 15 seconds of documentaries and factual programs; two minutes and 12 seconds of Australian drama; three minutes and 15 seconds of entertainment and 28 seconds of religion and ethics. Oh, and four and a half seconds of indigenous programming.

The ABC will tell you it is a question of money, yet in 1998, with a smaller budget and 500 fewer staff, ABC TV broadcast 10 per cent more Australian content and fewer repeats.

On ABC’s Canadian equivalent, CBC, 82 per cent of programs were locally produced last year, and yet Canada spends less on public broadcasting per head of population than we do.

Not surprisingly, ABC audiences have fallen over the past 15 years.

In 1998, ABC TV’s weekly reach was more than 70 per cent; today ABC1’s weekly reach is less than 45 per cent.

The ABC’s excuse is that there is more competition. Another way of looking at it is that many of the television services we once relied on the ABC to provide are now provided by the private sector.

With the proliferation of media, public sector broadcasters around the world are struggling to define their public purpose.

When airtime was scarce, it seemed reasonable for governments to ration it. State-funded broadcasters were there to ensure the public interest was served.

In an era of media abundance, however, it is less clear what public broadcasters are supposed to do.

The debate is particularly lively in Britain where the BBC’s Royal Charter is up for renewal in 2016, and public faith in the corporation is wavering.

British viewers are obliged to pay a licence fee each year – currently Pound145.50 or $260 – and naturally they are keen to get value for money.

Yet the BBC is no longer the dominant broadcaster. Subscriptions paid to the private-sector BSkyB network now exceed the BBC’s entire budget. Naturally, many viewers are asking why they are paying twice.

The BBC still produces some remarkably good television, much of it starring Stephen Fry, which the ABC buys to pad out its schedule.

Not for much longer, however. The BBC has recently decided to cut out the middleman and sell its programs direct to subscribers in Australia through its iPlayer app.

The ABC, the principal re-broadcaster of BBC programs, is in trouble. It is not after all immune from the structural challenges faced by the rest of the media industry.

The case for a major review of public broadcasting is overwhelming and it will be surprising if the Abbott government does not announce one in its first term.

It is abundantly clear that the ABC lacks a clear sense of public purpose. Its decision to become a player in the Edward Snowden intelligence leak scandal rather than merely report an unfolding story demonstrates its internal confusion.

Since the ABC appears intent on making the case for its own abolition, the government must save it from itself.

Ultimately, it must strengthen the ABC’s charter to remove any ambiguity about what the broadcaster is supposed to do.

The BBC’s charter runs to 29 pages. It begins: “The BBC exists to serve the public interest.”

It stipulates that the BBC’s main activity “should be the promotion of its Public Purposes”.

The BBC’s Public Purposes include “sustaining citizenship and civil society; promoting education and learning; stimulating creativity and cultural excellence; representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities”.

Those who drafted the ABC’s charter must have assumed that these things were too obvious to spell out.

Apparently they are not. At the very least, parliament should amend section 6 of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act to ensure that they are.