Phillip Adams accompanied me on my travels through Iran. Mark Colvin at times too, but he couldn’t compete with Adams’s mellifluous company on the long intercity bus rides. A frequent Radio National listener and podcast addict, the week before I travelled to Iran I’d furiously downloaded scores of RN podcasts. On a wonderful but occasionally lonely journey, they were a constant source of intellectual and emotional comfort.
To most Australians, the ABC represents a level of comfort and safety and trust. This makes it an outstanding commercial prospect that can only be improved by adherence to the ultimate force of the market: pleasing the customer. The argument of ABC abolitionists has taken the wrong tangent, conflating the ABC’s content with the question of its existence. They are or ought to be entirely separate discussions. There is something amusing in the idea of conservatives baying for the rapid abolition of an institution, and progressives standing staunchly against progress. But the recent media wars have been little more than a new front for the Right and Left to continue their battle. The turgid culture wars are imitating the revival of the gender wars, with even less at stake. While privatisation is a noble cause, those leading the charge, such as Chris Kenny, are consumed by their perceptions of bias.
Both critics of the ABC and the ABC itself are often guilty of the same crime: creating space and then filling it. The abolitionists have engineered an issue for only the hyper-engaged, as much to fill column inches and airtime as to advance commercial and ideological interests. The ABC has deviated from its mandate in entering the opinion-driven news market with the Drum website and the ABC News 24 channel.
The ABC’s curious entry into this market is fundamentally wasteful and unnecessary. Its strength is that it broadcasts more educational and intellectual content than many of its commercial rivals. Many abolitionists taint their argument with anti-intellectualism, while ignoring the polls which consistently show the ABC as the most trusted news source in the country.
Sure, the ABC is home to some overt lefties such as Adams. But it’s difficult to argue there is a systematic institutional bias within it. Instead, Cassandra Wilkinson has noted a skew toward urbane, middle-class issues, which tend be social rather than economic. Columbia University sociologist Herbert Gans calls this the journalist’s ‘paraideology’ and notes ‘the news is not so much conservative or liberal as it is reformist’.
Detractors obsess over perceived left-wing or reformist bias. But it is infantalising to suggest that consumers cannot listen to a programme and make their own judgments on moral and political values without the host’s views staining their own. Indeed, it is intellectual atrophy only to consume media akin to one’s ideological views and interests. The dialectic, we must remember, entails forming an opinion after looking at opposing views. Do these detractors lack security in their convictions?
But if the foot soldiers in this ideological warfare cannot be convinced of the lack of institutional bias at the ABC, they should at least appreciate the importance of gaining an intimate knowledge of the views of their opponents. And in this, belief in public ownership of the ABC is, of course, paramount.
The Prime Minister and government’s recent attacks on the ABC have been at best menacing — preparing the ABC and SBS for cost cutting — and at worst promote an air of sedition. A media organisation’s funding, board appointment and legislation at the mercy of a displeased government is a form of censorship, and should have civil libertarians marching in the streets for its independence, which can only be achieved through privatisation.
In an incisive article last year, the American columnist David Brooks described the role of government as ‘keeping the peace and promoting justice and creating a background setting for mobility, but it doesn’t deliver meaning.’ We need from government real infrastructure for a functioning society, not the conveyance and interpretation of information. It is an absurd notion that we even have a Communications Minister, let alone one of continuing prominence in public debate. Locke’s famous maxim is not ‘life, liberty, public broadcasting’. While an unfettered press is essential to democracy, access to media is not a human right (although the UN has recently declared that access to the internet is!) Emergency broadcasting during fires and other natural disasters is no doubt invaluable, but a service that can be tendered to other broadcasting organisations.
There was no doubt a time when the ABC was a necessity, particularly for those in remote areas. But globalisation and the internet have made the need for a publically owned broadcaster redundant. Information is no longer distributed or consumed based on location, but rather on the needs and desires of individuals.
A selective embrace of globalisation sees supporters tethered to the nonsensical notion that a bureaucrat inspired by a charter can deliver better content to Greek Australians than the Greek media itself. It is similarly absurd that an organisation’s raison d’être should be to adhere to its charter, rather than to please its consumers. It is unfair to competitors, at a time of unprecedented strain on resources and profits, to have to compete with a monolith unconstrained by the same forces. The ABC broadcasts high-quality content that should not be given away free. Its existence jeapordises the recently acquired diversity of media landscape by not competing on the same level as its competitors.
There is little competition in the ABC’s core market of high quality news and current affairs, because it is able to operate at an unfair advantage without commercial constraints. As anyone with even a basic understanding of economics knows, competition will ultimately deliver a better product — stronger public debate — for consumers. And as is the habit of bureaucratic institutions, the ABC has become bloated. It’s become a factory for the celebretisation of journalists, creating roles for stenographers such as Latika Bourke to transcribe political minutiae to a small, hyper-engaged audience.
Some lament the declining media quality in Australia, which is code for a perceived conspiracy of a Murdoch oligarchy. But the increasing presence of commercial and not-for-profit media in recent times is impossible to ignore. The media market simply has not failed. The Guardian, Daily Mail and Saturday Paper are all launching in Australia (or are in the process of doing so), ready to pluck their piece of the Fairfax carcass.
It is unfortunate that the debate on the ABC has skewed to a binary argument between those who despise it and believe it should be privatised and those who unreservedly adore it. Critics of the ABC need to respect the value of the broadcaster, and the affection for it from the Australian public. Friends of the ABC ought to get with the times.
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