The Australian Broadcasting Corporation is a $1.04 billion piece of public policy and we treat it as exactly that: a government intervention into the market for news, entertainment and communications. Policy interventions are financially costly. Policy interventions are also costly in a non-monetary sense. They can have unintended or counterproductive consequences. They can crowd out non-government activity, stifle entrepreneurship or technological innovation, distort the marketplace, systemically favour particular political interests and ideologies, and create fiefdoms of unaccountable bureaucrats.
The ABC was established in a moment of history significantly unlike our own, facing a cultural and political environment greatly different to our own, with technological and economic challenges completely opposite to those we now face. Over the course of eight decades the ABC has embedded itself in the Australian political system and public consciousness. But the original rationales for the ABC have long since expired. Technology has made the concerns of Australian policy makers in the 1930s – or even the 1990s, when the ABC was last subjected to a major review – redundant or anachronistic. Economic justifications for a state-owned media broadcaster simply do not fit the modern media landscape.
The arguments for public broadcasting in the twenty-first century are simply not compelling. It is certainly the case that the ABC has bound within it an enormous amount of cultural capital as a consequence of its eighty years of pre-eminence in the Australian media industry. But that should not be confused with either a claim that a publicly-funded broadcaster was necessary to build that cultural capital or that Australian culture would suffer in a world where the ABC had been reformed or privatised.
The ABC is an Australian ‘icon’ in the same sense that the Commonwealth Bank was an icon before its privatisation, and in the same anachronistic sense that Qantas, the ‘national carrier’, is imagined to be an essential part of the Australian psyche. We can celebrate the achievements of the ABC, its cultural significance, and its role in Australian history. But that should not prevent us from looking sceptically – as we should with all costly government interventions into the economy and society – at whether the ABC remains good public policy. Does it have a good reason to exist, now?
That question invites us to speculate as to the rationale for the ABC. The ABC itself denies that it is a market failure broadcaster, while the notion of it being independent is difficult to pin down. Independent of whom? It is publicly funded and its management are required to appear before parliament and answer questions posed by politicians. True, the ABC is independent of the demands of commercial reality, but it is not independent of its political paymaster. Of course that undermines the argument that the ABC is a bulwark of democracy. A free press may well be a necessary condition of democracy but that does not necessarily imply that the government should subsidise the press. To the contrary, many non-democratic nations have maintained very high levels of government ownership and subsidy in the media. A further argument undermining the ABC’s claim relates to the large and obvious political bias in its reporting and news coverage. A 2013 survey revealed that ABC journalists are almost five times more likely to be Greens voters than the average voter and twice more likely to vote Greens than the average journalist.
Other arguments for the ABC include quality programming, Australian content, and rural subsidy. What constitutes ‘quality’, however, is a value judgement. Australian content and rural subsidy can be provided for much less than $1 billion per annum. That is the challenge; the ABC is a massive government program with no clear objectives and no clear accountability.
Few Australians would realise that the ABC charter does not include the word ‘fair’ nor does it include the word ‘balanced’. The charter is at best only a loose guide to what the ABC does. Nor is it any constraint on ABC operations. While the charter is spelled out in legislation, section 6(4) explicitly states that ‘Nothing in this section shall be taken to impose on the Corporation a duty that is enforceable by proceedings in a court.’ Additionally, there is nothing in the charter that could be described as an enforcement mechanism, nor any penalties detailed for potential breaches. The charter is in law – insofar as it exists on the statute books – but it is not law that the ABC has to abide by.
What should be done about the ABC? It is certainly the case that doing nothing and muddling through is very much underrated as a government policy. Yet lower-cost alternative public policies are available and clear savings can be made. One possibility would be to refine the charter. In the first instance, the ABC could be redesignated to be a market-failure broadcaster. Alternatively, it could be required to be self-funding, i.e. commercialised. Here the ABC could be required to finance its activities through advertising revenue and then pay dividends to the government. A further option would be to reform the governance of the ABC.
Then there is privatisation. The ABC could be sold off to a single bidder or consortium. Or it could be listed on the stock exchange. Our preferred option would be for shares in the ABC to be given away, either to all Australians or to existing and previous staff. The staff are the best people to realise the value of the ABC – and they would pay for their shares over time through the capital gains tax as they sold their shares.
In this sense the privatisation of the ABC would proceed much like higher education is currently funded. ABC employees would receive their shares at zero-price and only pay for them when they disposed of the shares and only then if the shares had increased in value. The proceeds of the privatisation would be realised over time and would not constitute a ‘sugar-hit’ to the budget. Nor can the privatisation be characterised as a stunt to balance the Budget in the short term. Rather, it is a program to establish a newly-private ABC on a firm footing, vesting it with a cohort of new owners who have the most interest in making it a commercial success.
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