Michelle Guthrie: “ABC is a priceless asset”

  • Michelle Guthrie rejects calls to privatise ABC
  • ABC contributes $1B to Australian economy
  • 4000 employees, sustains a further  2,500 full-time jobs
  • 92% of budget will be spent on making content this financial year
  • 12 million Australians will watch ABC TV this week
  • 82% of Australians look to ABC as their trusted source of information

ABC Managing Director Michelle Guthrie has defended the broadcaster under attack saying the organisation contributes $1B to the Australian economy.

Speaking at the Melbourne Press Club today, the managing director said, “How do you put a price on the value of the ABC? In pursuit of that answer, the ABC has commissioned Deloitte Access Economics to do some research. Their report is still being compiled and will be released next month. The early findings are interesting.

“They show that the ABC contributed more than $1 billion to the Australian economy in the last financial year – on a par with the public investment in the organisation. Far from being a drain on the public purse, the audience, community and economic value stemming from ABC activity is a real and tangible benefit.”

Deloitte calculates that the ABC is helping to sustain 2,500 full-time equivalent jobs beyond its own 4000 employees., broken down as more than 500 additional jobs in production companies, over 400 jobs elsewhere in the broadcast sector, and close to 300 jobs in the professional services.

Guthrie also noted commercial networks already battling global companies such as Google, Netflix & Facebook, did not want a new competitor in the space.

“I think the public regards the ABC as a priceless asset, more valuable now than ever in its history. I can appreciate that the ABC would fetch a high price in a commercial market. But does the public want a new media organisation that compromises quality and innovation for profit? Does the commercial sector want a new advertising behemoth in its midst? I think not,” she said.

Her defense comes at a time after $83m budget cuts and rank-and-file Liberal Party members called on the government to sell off the public broadcaster. The latter idea was quashed by Treasurer Scott Morrison.

Guthrie said it was not ABC’s place to play the role of a market failure operator.

“There really is no excuse for getting that wrong. If you take the time to read our Charter – and it’s not long – it’s there in black and white. As the independent national public broadcaster, our purpose is to provide a balance 7 between broadcasting programs of wide appeal as well as specialised interest.

“It means we are here to broadcast the New Year’s Eve fireworks as we do every year, bringing together nearly 4 million Australian viewers. But we are also here to deliver award-winning children’s content, as well as ABC Jazz, Classic FM and much more.

“It’s a balance between the two that we navigate with care and always with the needs of our audiences in mind. This is what public broadcasting is all about. It’s not about profits, or even ratings necessarily, but about providing the distinctive programs that Australians young and old, left and right, rich and poor, in Bourke and in Brisbane, both want and need.”

Guthrie defended the ABC as the only Australia-wide platform for our national conversations, culture and stories when Australia content would become even more essential against global media giants.

“It isn’t by luck that this exists. It is thanks to the collective vision of Australians nearly 86 years ago. They decided to create a public broadcast service to operate alongside the commercial media, increasing the diversity available for everyone. So much has changed about our world since then, but the basic premise for the ABC remains the same.,” she said.

“And the facts show Australians overwhelmingly value the outcome of this foresight: 82% of Australians look to the ABC as their trusted source of information; 78% cite the ABC as an important contributor to our national identity; and critically, 77% of Australians think a healthy ABC is essential for Australia’s future. That regard is a precious commodity at a time when trust in our institutions is so rare.”

Next week ABC will make its submission to the Government’s competitive neutrality inquiry, which also includes SBS.

Her full speech is below:

“Value, Investment and Return: Why the ABC and public broadcasting is vital to the community”

Thank you for the opportunity to speak here today. The work of the Melbourne Press Club, the platform and support you provide for the discussion of ideas, issues and the craft of journalism are invaluable.

Last year, I attended the opening of the NSW Chapter of the Australian Media Hall of Fame, a fantastic initiative by this forum to bring to a broader stage the great traditions of journalism and the women and men who, as journalists and storytellers, have left their mark on the fabric of Australia.

I’ll demonstrate just a touch of ABC bias here. I was thrilled at the roll call of our journalists who were among those honoured that night: Mark Colvin, Ian Carroll, Caroline Jones, Alan McGilvray, Chris Masters, and Kerry O’Brien.

These are hallowed names, as recognisable as ABC brands as our famous lissajous logo. They, and others acknowledged by the Club, have made an indelible contribution to our collective understanding of Australia and the world.

We know and applaud their attributes and achievements: their deep knowledge of audiences and the issues that are relevant to the lives of the community; their relentless drive to ensure that the institutions and processes which are the foundations of our democratic system work to the benefit of that community; their determination to provide a voice for the powerless, the weak and the intimidated; their ability to shine the light on malfeasance and corruption.

What I also admire about them is their ability to get to the nub of an issue, to focus on its true implications and to frame it in terms that are easily understood by all Australians.

In a complex world it is too easy for the powerful to do their work in dark corners: to cynically use so-called narrowcasting messages that have a direct appeal to certain targeted audiences, while conveying an entirely different message to others; to rely on rhetoric that doesn’t match actions.

Good journalists call that out. Today, I want to channel some of that skill and emphasise some real facts in what has become an increasingly febrile debate over the value and future of the ABC.

This is a debate that affects real people. I talk here of my very valuable colleagues, who have displayed enormous resolve, dedication and commitment over the past few years in the face of continued criticism. But I refer also to the people of Australia, who regard the ABC as one of the great national institutions and who deeply resent it being used as a punching bag by narrow political, commercial or ideological interests.

I am proud of the ABC. I am proud of the work we do, the privileged position we hold in Australian history and our way of life; and of the value we bring, not only to audiences, but to the wider citizenry.

My aim in this speech is to demonstrate that value and to dismantle some of the arguments that are being used by critics to attack the national public broadcaster.

The anti-ABC case has been crystallised in two recent developments – the launch of a tome by two people associated with the IPA calling for the sale of the national broadcaster, and last weekend’s policy motion at the Liberal Party federal council meeting in Sydney demanding the “privatisation” of the ABC.

The premise behind the policy motion, as stated by its advocates is that there is no redeemable value in the public investment in the ABC; that the commercial media sector would benefit from a so-called level playing field and that the nation as a whole would be better off; that the market, in the end, will provide.

Those very same arguments are being used to propel the competitive neutrality and efficiency reviews that have been imposed on the public broadcasters. So, it would be negligent of me to ignore the policy motion, even if others are keen to downplay it.

The argument seems to carry a misplaced notion of both privatisation and conservatism. But, more importantly it completely ignores the public value of the ABC, both in direct dollar terms but also as far as the wider public good remit.

What price do you put on public trust in an independent, commercial-free news organisation at a time of fragmentation and disruption? As the Prime Minister himself noted at the Liberal Party council meeting, it is difficult to establish the facts in a disputed media landscape full of echo chambers and “fake news” outlets.

What price do you put on an ABC devoted to serving the nation – across its vast expanse and through a myriad of services, with quality and distinctiveness as a hallmark? This, at a time when the pressures of the new landscape are forcing our commercial colleagues into a relentless focus on their profitability.

What price do you put on an almost 86-year history of service that has the ABC as one of the most respected and trusted institutions in the country? An institution that provides valuable diversity to the media sector and, through its innovation, one that has driven many of the platforms and services that we know and take for granted?

Just last week, we marked iview’s 10th birthday. For years, the ABC stood alone in committing to a catch-up service, acknowledging that online presented a new way, free of schedules, for audiences to capture and watch programs. The ABC has pioneered the use of websites to complement broadcasting in its commitment to podcasting and its use of apps and social media.

I think the public regards the ABC as a priceless asset, more valuable now than ever in its history.

I can appreciate that the ABC would fetch a high price in a commercial market. But does the public want a new media organisation that compromises quality and innovation for profit? Does the commercial sector want a new advertising behemoth in its midst? I think not.

For those who prefer an abacus-type approach to this debate, I have some fresh information. How do you put a price on the value of the ABC? In pursuit of that answer, the ABC has commissioned Deloitte Access Economics to do some research. Their report is still being compiled and will be released next month. The early findings are interesting. They show that the ABC contributed more than $1 billion to the Australian economy in the last financial year – on a par with the public investment in the organisation. Far from being a drain on the public purse, the audience, community and economic value stemming from ABC activity is a real and tangible benefit.

Of that $1 billion, more than a third is economic support for the broader media ecosystem. Far from being Ultimo-centric, the ABC is boosting activity across the country. Recent examples include the filming of Mystery Road in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia, and the production of Rosehaven outside Hobart.

Deloitte calculates that the ABC is helping to sustain more than 6000 full- time equivalent jobs across the economy. It means that for every 3 full-time equivalent jobs created by the ABC, there are another 2 supported in our supply chain – local artists, writers, technicians, transport workers and many more. In hard figures, the research shows that the ABC helps to sustain 2,500 full-time equivalent jobs in addition to the 4000 women and men who are directly employed by the public broadcaster.

When broken down this equates to more than 500 additional jobs in production companies, over 400 jobs elsewhere in the broadcast sector, and close to 300 full-time equivalent jobs in the professional services.

Amidst the debate over the ABC’s purpose and its funding we should all remember that there are 2,500 jobs outside public broadcasting at risk in any move to curtail our remit and activities.

The related argument is that the $1 billion is not well spent, that the ABC must be forced to “live with its means”. Again, let’s go to the facts. Transmission costs to deliver the benefits of public broadcasting to all Australians are fixed and expensive. The actual amount that we have to spend on content is well below that $1 billion figure. The ABC’s per capita funding has halved in real terms in 30 years. And technological change is demanding ongoing investment to meet rapidly changing audience needs.

This financial year, 92% of the ABC’s budget will be spent on making content, supporting content makers and distribution. This is a result that we are very proud of and I suspect many of our commercial counterparts would aspire to.

It is the direct result of strategic management and the paring back of non- content related support costs. Thirty years ago, the ABC had five platforms and 6,000 people working around the country. Today, Your ABC has two-thirds the number of people operating six times the number of platforms and services with half the real per capita funding.

ABC News Channel, iview, triple j Unearthed and Double J are just some of the services created from an ongoing drive to identify production and back office efficiencies and to pour that money back into content, rewarding our audiences. It was the strategy we employed so effectively last year, generating efficiencies that financed our content innovation fund and regional investment.

I am concerned by the accusation that this latest 1 per cent efficiency dividend can easily be accommodated by the ABC. It ignores the accumulation of efficiency takes by Canberra over the past four years and the fact that these efficiencies rob the ABC of its ability to finance new content and innovation. This whittling away of our funding represents a real opportunity cost and, in the end, serves only to punish those audiences.

There are two other fallacies that need to be addressed. The first is that the ABC should be stripped back to servicing gaps in the media market, basically becoming a market failure operator. The second is that the ABC serves only sectional interests.

Every day I’m reminded how important the ABC is to all Australians. Some commentators and politicians like to pigeonhole our audience as being of a particular political bent or social strata.

In the two years since I’ve been in this role, I have been constantly reminded how wrong that is. Of course, there are the undisputed figures: the 12 million Australians who will watch ABC TV this week; the nearly 5 million who will listen to ABC Radio; the 13 million ABC podcast downloads that now happen every month.

If all those listeners and viewers were on the one side of politics, there wouldn’t be much politicking left to do.

I note also the findings of the recent Reuters Digital News Report. Australia may have an increasingly polarised media sector, but ABC Television attracts viewers from across the political spectrum for its news coverage.

This is buttressed by my own experiences. Last week, as I was collecting lost luggage at the airport, the very helpful man behind the counter began by telling me how much he loves the ABC. “I watch ABC News all the time,” he said.

And there is June, in her mid-70s, who lives on the NSW mid-north coast. She recently wrote to tell us that our gripping Mystery Road mini-series has seen her do an iview binge-watch for the very first time. The first of many binges I hope, June.

It confirms for me what an important role the ABC plays for Australians no matter their age, where they live or what they do. It’s a strong ongoing endorsement of the quality and diversity of the programs that we create. And it shows that we are fulfilling our purpose, which is definitely not to play the role of a market failure operator.

There really is no excuse for getting that wrong. If you take the time to read our Charter – and it’s not long – it’s there in black and white. As the independent national public broadcaster, our purpose is to provide a balance between broadcasting programs of wide appeal as well as specialised interest.

It means we are here to broadcast the New Year’s Eve fireworks as we do every year, bringing together nearly 4 million Australian viewers. But we are also here to deliver award-winning children’s content, as well as ABC Jazz, Classic FM and much more.

It’s a balance between the two that we navigate with care and always with the needs of our audiences in mind.

This is what public broadcasting is all about. It’s not about profits, or even ratings necessarily, but about providing the distinctive programs that Australians young and old, left and right, rich and poor, in Bourke and in Brisbane, both want and need.

Given what is happening on the global stage, that commitment is now more important than ever. In the US last week, the courts approved what’s been called the mega-merger between Time-Warner and AT&T.

The new company will be worth an estimated 143 billion dollars and will have a vast content library that it will own and distribute. In fact, every one of the 5 largest global media organisations are pursuing mergers in order to build scale for survival.

In the face of such consolidation, in all likelihood over a short space of time there may be just a handful of international media giants– yes, I’m including FAANGS (being Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google) in that group – that will be based in the US and will create and distribute the vast majority of the world’s content, both news and entertainment.

What does this mean in Australia? It means original Australian content and Australian voices will be more valuable than ever. It also means that the pressure on our domestic commercial media counterparts is only going to increase.

Two years ago, Facebook and Google were already collecting 40 per cent of Australian advertising dollars. Those dollars would previously have gone to the traditional television, radio and print media operators. The figure will only have increased since then.

This and the increasing competition for content from the global players, each with a production budget in the billions, is driving the free-to-airs to adopt play-safe strategies – trying to secure big audiences around tentpole events in news, reality and sports.

Amid all of this upheaval, Australia has a strong, independent public broadcaster driven by women and men who create original, distinctive and high quality Australian content every day, all over the country.

It’s an organisation that contributes as much as $1 billion annually to Australia’s creative and broader industries; that directly employs 4000 Australians and helps to sustain jobs for 2,500 more; that provides the only Australia-wide platform for our national conversations, culture and stories.

It isn’t by luck that this exists. It is thanks to the collective vision of Australians nearly 86 years ago. They decided to create a public broadcast service to operate alongside the commercial media, increasing the diversity available for everyone. So much has changed about our world since then, but the basic premise for the ABC remains the same.

And the facts show Australians overwhelmingly value the outcome of this foresight: 82% of Australians look to the ABC as their trusted source of information; 78% cite the ABC as an important contributor to our national identity; and critically, 77% of Australians think a healthy ABC is essential for Australia’s future.

That regard is a precious commodity at a time when trust in our institutions is so rare.

Next week we will make our submission to the Government’s competitive neutrality inquiry looking at the role of the ABC and the SBS and how we operate alongside our commercial counterparts. I’m confident we are operating in accordance with our Charter and the principles of competitive neutrality as they apply to public service broadcasting. We are a distinct and important part of Australia’s modern media ecosystem. I’m proud of our contribution and of the women and men who create it.

As the charter requires, we take into account the services commercial broadcasters provide. We invest in material that is distinctive and original and which is of both wide appeal and specialised interest. And, alongside Nine, Ten, Seven and Foxtel, we provide an independent alternative.

I was one of the 800,000 viewers who chose to watch Mystery Road a few Sunday nights ago instead of an interview with Barnaby Joyce. Who knew Australians would choose a well-scripted and produced drama over the kitchen-sink exploits of a politician? Well-told local drama remains a priority for the ABC and clearly provided a welcome option for many Australians that evening.

Before finishing, I’d like to describe another recent program that I think epitomises the value of what the ABC provides. Over three nights last month, the second series of Stargazing Live brought together 2.6 million viewers and 46,000 amateur astronomers. In the process, we broke a Guinness World Record and discovered a new supernova that may help to recalibrate the age of the universe.

All over the country, Australians gathered in their backyards, school playgrounds and local parks to gaze together at the moon for 10 minutes. In Wudinna, South Australia, more than half the town’s population took part.

Tens of thousands of Australians were introduced to new astronomical knowledge. For many, it has changed the way they look at the stars forever. And with the recent launch of the new Australian space agency, there’s a possibility that perhaps, more than one of our future homegrown astronauts were taking part somewhere.

Who else but the ABC would even attempt such a broadcast?

As a nation, we could choose not to have the ABC; or we could hobble it so that it becomes the market failure organisation it was never intended to be. Inherent in the drive against the independent public broadcaster, is a belief that it can be pushed and prodded into different shapes to suit the prevailing climate. It can’t. Nor should it be.

The ABC’s great value is its ability to call on its composite strengths to service the nation. History elsewhere has shown that if you start tampering with the formula, you risk destroying it. And, as I hope I’ve demonstrated today, the nation would suffer as a consequence.

Each of the ABC journalists celebrated by the MPC’s Media Hall of Fame at last year’s ceremony, had made important contributions to our national conversations. It would be a step back, especially in these turbulent times, if future journalists found it more difficult to make such important contributions.

Thank you.

23 Comments:

  1. A large part of this problem wouldn’t exist if there was even a small attempt at political balance,the last few years has seemingly seen Aunty evolve into the Media arm of the left.While I totally agree Gay rights,New World order politics, climate change and the relentless violence against Women agendas have a place….you will never see or hear a balanced argument on the ABC

      • Sorry David I agree with most of what you say and you run the best Tele blog on the net but must disagree on this one Q&A only has token references to conservative ideology, loaded audiences and barely give lip service to any opinions other than what the host dictates

  2. There are some people who begrudge paying “4cents-a-day” to the ABC but never realise that they pay 46c a day to the commercial channels ($4B/24m/365) and another 46c per day to Google and Facebook ($3B/24m/365 + $1B/24m/365). So it’s best to keep quiet about the 6c/day we each pay our Federal Pollies ($510m/24m/365).
    You may be able to avoid some Govt taxes but you’ll never escape the “Advertising” tax.

    • The actual quote is “4 cents a day in 1987 dollar terms” the same as the average price for a house in Sydney is $145,000 “in 1987 dollar terms”. Do the math – the real 2018 cost of the ABC is a lot more than that!!!

  3. Not that this is mentioned anywhere, but I’m wondering how many would actually scream if the government brought back a television and radio licence in this country to assist in diversity of programming on all free to air channels.

    • It’s actually a very interesting and valid point. In her speech in February whinging about the ABC’s paltry budget (from where the misleading line about “4 cents a day” came from), ABC CFO Louise Higgins makes comparison between the budget of the BBC compared with the ABC, but fails to mention the fact that the BBC is supported by licence fees while the ABC is not. Maybe there should be more debate on this. The current UK licence fee is around $270 per household per year, which, if applied in Australia, would result in around $2billion.

  4. Some would say it’s rather disingenuous for Guthrie to be making grand speeches at this late hour. She herself has instigated and overseen the most savage cuts in the ABC’s history, slashing news and current affairs on both ABC radio and TV by more than 50% (PM and The World Today cut in half, Lateline gone, 7.30 reduced, etc). And her response to the continued attacks on the organisation over the past months has been, at various times, lame, resigned, evasive and non-existent. Only now that so much damage has been done does she make a big song and dance about it all at the National Press Club. I’m unimpressed, going on suspicious.

    • What’s most disingenuous is this line “… the ABC is boosting activity across the country. Recent examples include the filming of Mystery Road in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia, and the production of Rosehaven outside Hobart.” Failing to mention that all the cast and crew came from Sydney and Melbourne; all the writing and pre-production was done in Sydney and Melbourne; all the editing and post-production was done in Sydney and Melbourne and all the decision-making on the programs was made in Ultimo.

          • The problem with generalisations is it overlooks cast and crew that are local. It also extends to other ABC productions such as Pine Gap, Blue Water Empire and The Heights. But for the sake of the argument it’s not correct about Mystery Road & Rosehaven.

          • OK, let’s change it to “… other than a few minor local positions, all the major cast and crew came from Sydney and Melbourne …” BTW, it’s nothing new. Back when the ABC was producing “The New Inventors” in Adelaide to pretend that they were doing things outside Sydney and Melbourne, the biggest beneficiary was the hotel where the Sydney-based talent and crew were staying!!

  5. Ill say I am not a fan of Guthrie her changes to programming so far have been less than impressive but I am of the ABC .This govt and the right wing extremists commentators constant daily attacks on our ABC will cost the liberals the next election. Majority of Australians are fed up with ABC bashing .its relentless .the so called bias is BS its only in the figment of right wing extremist commentators imaginations.they all want Rupert Murdoch to own and dominate the media landscape in this country the only buyer for the ABC so they can brainwash us with their stupid ideology .the reality is less and less Aussies are watching tV so it’s not that influential anymore .the liberals are living in the Stone Age .they are clueless to where most Aussies get their news and it ain’t tV .so get over the ABc bashing Libs .

  6. It’s funny how Guthrie, like her predecessor, refers to the ABC in this speech as a “news organisation” and then goes on to refer to the Charter without actually quoting from it. There’s a reason for that – other than a minor reference to content transmitted “to countries outside Australia”, news is not actually a prerequisite of the Charter at all. She then goes on to point out all the “material” broadcast on the ABC that is not news as a reason to maintain it, without pointing out that all of the programs she refers to are produced by outside companies because the majority of the ABC’s own staff are journalists and associated people engaged only in news programs. So how many of the 82% watch/listen to these non-news programs and how many watch/listen to news? Maybe if this information was made available together with the budget allocated to these differing areas we might get…

  7. “I think the public regards the ABC as a priceless asset” – Michelle Guthrie. That’s the problem, everyone working at the ABC thinks that! They need to stop believing that and start showing that.

    I would like to see Priceless Drama, Priceless Entertainment, Priceless News Coverage.

    It’s a simple promise, a simple brand. If you think the ABC is Priceless to the public, then start delivering on that promise. Show us what priceless looks like.

  8. Damn right it is! The Liberals need to back off. Writing letters, cutting funding, demanding retractions, constantly criticising and now proposing privatisation. People aren’t stupid. They know when politicians complain about media coverage usually it’s the politicians that are the problem.

  9. The ABC has made itself dependent over the years and as a consequence has lost relevance with an increasing number of viewers who look for short attention span entertainment elsewhere. Having an organisation that relies on tax payer funding can make it bloated and inefficient where staff adopt a Government bureaucratic attitude to running a broadcasting service mostly geared to sustain further funding.The BBC have also had its ups and downs and although it benefits from TV license imposts it also makes a diversity of produced commercial product and sports, the ABC only dabbles with this diversity.

  10. I don’t believe the ABC would attract a high price on the commercial market, since broadcast media audiences are rapidly declining in favour of on demand options.

    I agree that the industry wouldn’t want another advertising competitor, but let’s be honest, it’s probably news corp that would buy it and it already owns MCN, the company that runs ads on Foxtel and 10 (and yes that sales agreement has been reaffirmed since the CBS deal) so simply providing more eyeballs/ears across all the ABC assets (iview, TV, radio, online news, abc radio app, etc) would result in more revenue for them.

    Anyway I’m dead against this for a number of reasons and hope it never happens.

  11. daveinprogress

    I’m glad of this headline and hope that she is a woman of her word and doesn’t rip the guts out of our ABC. I’m not convinced based on what I’ve seen so far under her leadership.

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