ABC Chairman: “If not the ABC, then who?”

Increasing US-ownership of Australian commercial media and a shrinking newspaper market underline the need for strong public broadcasting in Australia, says ABC Chairman Justine Milne.

Foxtel owned by the Australian arm of News Corp. in New York and CBS-owned Channel TEN, indicative of increasing overseas ownership, would only commercialise local content about the arts, sciences, religion or music, if produced at all.

Speaking at an American Chamber of Commerce lunch in Sydney yesterday, Milne reiterated the need for public broadcasters, at a time when there have been calls to privatise the ABC.

“If not the ABC, then who else will provide Australians with services no matter where they live? If not us, who else will define Australian culture in a world of global platforms and content? Who else will provide an independent and trusted voice in a world of contested facts, or promote democratic debate about matters of public importance, or drive accountability through investigative journalism, or underpin a healthy and strong creative sector for all Australians?” he asked.

“The point is this. The need for a successful public broadcaster must be acknowledged today, just as it was first recognised when the ABC was established in 1932, and again in 1956 when the ABC broadcast television for the first time, and again this century when the Government wrote digital services into our charter.

“To paraphrase the European Commissioner for Human Rights: “you can’t have a healthy democracy without a healthy public broadcaster.”

He also spoke to criticism of the ABC, acknowledging “we are sometimes wrong” but denied bias is entrenched inside the broadcaster, with 81% of Australians trusting ABC and defended the shift to digital, which has come under fire from other media players.

“Let’s be clear: if the ABC were barred from serving audiences on digital platforms, it would wither away and cease to exist. Linear broadcast audiences are in steady decline because Australians, just like people everywhere else on the planet, value the convenience of consuming their favourite content whenever, wherever and however they like,” he said.

Full speech:

“An ABC Fit for the Future”

I’d like to thank AmCham and its CEO, April Palmerlee, together with our hosts PwC and its media industry leader, Megan Brownlow, for inviting me here to talk about one of my favourite subjects.

The role of public service broadcasting and its future have always aroused great passion among Australians: a passion which, in itself, is evidence that democratic debate is alive and well.

Each of us has ideas about how the ABC could be improved – from politicians to their constituents, from police officers to journalists, from your cousin to my sister. We are all engaged in the debate because we know that our taxes keep the ABC in business, so it’s no surprise that so many Australians offer opinions, both brickbats and bouquets.

Let me assure you, by the way, that those brickbats are taken seriously, because we can and do make mistakes. At this moment, for example, there are more than 60 ABC microphones open all around the country. Four television networks and 10 radio networks are broadcasting 24/7. And online articles are published every minute or so. Given that volume, unsurprisingly we are sometimes wrong, and some of those brickbats turn out to be well-founded complaints. Irrespective of that, I can assure you that our 4,000 people are dedicated to telling the truth and providing accurate and impartial content. And for the vast majority of the time they are spectacularly successful.

But the biggest question facing the ABC is not whether one journalist or another makes a mistake today. Nor, frankly, is it even a question of bias. The vast majority of Australians – some 80 per cent – think the ABC is not biased. Nonetheless I have come to discover that complaints come equally from men and women, from Catholics and Protestants, and from places as far apart as Port Douglas and Port Lincoln. Labor supporters are outraged that we are ‘captive to the right’, and Liberals complain we are a ‘hotbed of communism’. Situation normal.

The bigger question facing the ABC, which was, in a way, the one prompted by our critics, is this: how can Australia have a public broadcasting system that is fit for purpose, as efficient as possible, and just as valuable to our children as it has been to us?

The debate about public broadcasting, by the way, is not confined to Australia. In recent years the same discussion has played out in different ways in Greece, Hungary, Austria, Japan, even Britain. And the debate is not new, especially here in Australia.

Back to the future

Allow me to rewind back to 1934. Just months after the ABC was created, the proper role of public broadcasting was first debated when Sir Keith Murdoch bitterly opposed the Corporation’s right to broadcast an air race held to celebrate Melbourne’s centenary.

Two years later, he again challenged the ABC, this time over its bid to develop an independent news service. Smith’s Weekly, a tabloid newspaper founded by a group including the Packer dynasty, wrote in 1936:

“If the national stations are able to broadcast news without restriction it will be a sorry state of affairs for the daily newspapers. [They] may find themselves brought early to their repentance for their folly in not again taking the opportunity of hamstringing the ABC.”

Relations became so strained that, by 1939, commercial media had banned the ABC’s first political correspondent from even attending press conferences. Prime Minister Menzies was obliged to speak separately to the ABC’s press gallery journalist.

In the 1950s, as debate flared about whether Australia really needed television, there was again lobbying against the ABC. In the shadow of the Cold War, some warned darkly about the menace of establishing a state-controlled television service, and they came perilously close to achieving their aim. The constant refrain from commercial rivals was that the ABC competed ‘improperly’ with private enterprise.

Despite howls of protest for more than 80 years, and despite the participation of public broadcasters in radio and television markets, Australia did develop a diverse media sector which has served our nation extremely well. In fact, in the process, we developed one of – if not the most – diverse, peaceful and best-functioning democracies in the world, in no small part due to the fourth estate.

Yet the sniping of commercial foes and partisans has continued to this very day. Only now, one of the key debates is about whether the ABC should have a role in the digital age. In a familiar echo of the past, commercial interests, supported by some on the political fringe, lobby for the ABC to vacate digital platforms.

You can hear their arguments: “I run an excellent media business which employs hundreds of Australians. We provide excellent journalism which is under enormous pressure from the Internet. Why should public money be used for a media service that duplicates what we already do?”

Of course, when you unpack this argument – even a little – it is revealed as simplistic, facile and entirely self-serving. Throughout the Western world, governments have recognised the public benefit in hybrid public-private models for infrastructure and service delivery, whether you think about education, health, airports, roads, public transport or many more examples.

Technology change and diversity

So, allow me to turn to one of the key challenges facing Australians: how to maintain diversity of voice in a media landscape that is rapidly consolidating.

It is now widely recognised that giant companies like Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google – known collectively by some as the ‘FAANGs’ – have fundamentally transformed the media landscape around the globe.

Facebook and Google alone capture two-thirds of the digital ad market in Australia. Amazon has become a trillion-dollar company. And Netflix’s annual spend on content is now three times that of all Australia’s commercial, public and pay television businesses combined.

By contrast, audiences and revenues for incumbent commercial media organisations are tumbling, and ownership is consolidating, especially Down Under. Our three pay television operators have become one, owned by the Australian arm of News Corporation in New York. Channel Ten is now in US hands too. And since 2003, the number of owners of Australian newspapers has halved.

In television and radio, some 70 per cent of the market is now owned by just four organisations. And in print, 90 per cent is owned by three organisations. These figures will worsen if speculation is correct and Fairfax merges with another incumbent, or regional television businesses merge with their capital-city partners.

By diluting ownership restrictions and boosting commercial incumbents with progressive licence-fee cuts, over time, governments of both persuasions have dealt with the onslaught of the FAANGs by enabling further consolidation. Many would argue they had little choice.

Whatever your view on the business or political logic of this, the effect has been to hand control over many Australian media voices to businesses in the US – while substantially diluting the diversity of voices that remain.

Those who would cripple or even abolish the ABC would clearly exacerbate that consolidation, leading to further homogeneity of voices. That may mean that pretty soon our kids only see American stories and perspectives to mould their morals, culture and behavior as adults. And those same kids would need to give up any aspiration to work in a healthy domestic production sector.

The importance of trust

Australians clearly value a diverse media ecosystem, but within the sector, it turns out they value the ABC above all others. In fact, according to multiple independent surveys, 81 per cent say they trust the ABC: a figure that is 20 percentage points higher than commercial media, and more than double the level of trust in Facebook.

The reason for this is obvious to me. Around the world, trust in all kinds of institutions is under challenge. Partisanship is on the rise, debate is becoming polarised, and even reported facts cannot always be trusted.

By contrast, trust is what we do at the ABC. We don’t push a proprietor’s line. We don’t take sides. Neither the managing director nor I can direct our journalists to say one thing or another, and most importantly, neither can any political interest. And it is this slavish endeavour to be accurate, truthful and impartial which entirely distinguishes the ABC from commercial media.

This is well understood by Australians, and it is the chief reason why they trust us so much. It’s also why, as citizens, most Australians are content to pay a few cents a day for public service broadcasting that gives them facts, content and analysis that is not conditioned by the interests of proprietors, sponsors or politicians.

Contribution to Australia

The ABC does many other things commercial media does not, including making programs about science, education, classical music, art, religion and ethics – not to mention Triple J, which is by far the most popular youth music station in Australia, breaking new bands regularly, and supporting the live music industry.

In doing all this, the ABC can produce content that commercial media would judge as too bold or uncommercial. Which commercial network in the 1970s, for example, would have devised a comedy about an obese cross-dressing trucker called ‘Aunty Jack’, as the ABC did. Which commercial network forty years ago appointed women such as Margaret Throsby and Caroline Jones to host national television news and current affairs programs? Which commercial networks dared to define our culture with characters like Norman Gunston, or broach taboos with productions like Brides of Christ or Mother and Son? And which commercial network would produce Redfern Now or You Can’t Ask That?

If not the ABC, then who else will provide Australians with services no matter where they live? If not us, who else will define Australian culture in a world of global platforms and content? Who else will provide an independent and trusted voice in a world of contested facts, or promote democratic debate about matters of public importance, or drive accountability through investigative journalism, or underpin a healthy and strong creative sector for all Australians?

The point is this. The need for a successful public broadcaster must be acknowledged today, just as it was first recognised when the ABC was established in 1932, and again in 1956 when the ABC broadcast television for the first time, and again this century when the Government wrote digital services into our charter.

To paraphrase the European Commissioner for Human Rights: “you can’t have a healthy democracy without a healthy public broadcaster.”

A digital ABC

Allow me to finish by outlining the necessity of investing in the ABC’s digital future.

In an echo of the past, some rivals today advocate that the ABC Act should be amended to ban us from digital and restrict us to linear radio and television, broadcast technologies that matured 50 years ago.

Let’s be clear: if the ABC were barred from serving audiences on digital platforms, it would wither away and cease to exist. Linear broadcast audiences are in steady decline because Australians, just like people everywhere else on the planet, value the convenience of consuming their favourite content whenever, wherever and however they like.

Convenience is the very definition of the Internet, and it’s why Internet users have exploded from 20 million in 1995 to more than four billion today. It’s also why 84 percent of Australian phones are smart, why our homes have an average of six connected devices, why most households now use a tablet, and why nearly a third already have a television connected to the Internet. In fact, only a few weeks ago, US citizens for the first time spent more time on the Internet than on television. The crossover point has been reached, so modernising the ABC has become a matter of urgency.

The migration to digital platforms will only accelerate. Already, few millennials use broadcast products, and many homes no longer bother with television antennas. Within a generation, a majority of Australians will no longer use broadcast platforms at all.

That means that at least some of the spectrum currently used to broadcast television will soon be available to the government to be auctioned to other users, like telcos, who will use it to connect people and things, raising billions of dollars for government along the way. There are sound arguments for investing just a small part of that future windfall in modern digital media platforms for the public.

This would mean that, when the day finally arrives and linear platforms are switched off for good, Australians would be assured of reliable access to high quality public broadcasting content and platforms.

It would provide Australians with greatly enhanced digital services that, for instance, know what ABC shows you like, how you like to watch, and where in a program you finished watching last time.

Investing to make our public broadcaster future-ready would have other substantial public benefits. Imagine, for instance, if a single platform could provide all Australians with all the digitised assets of the ABC, and the National Film and Sound Archive, the Australian War Memorial, the National Library of Australia, or state orchestras. This would have significant implications for future education and the digital economy.

An ABC for the future

So today Australia must decide whether it wants an ABC in the future.

Perhaps we should leave the commercial media to entertain our toddlers, educate our students, define Australian culture, unite a nation, and serve regional audiences. Some would argue an enlightened private sector dominated by owners in the United States will find a way of marrying commercial and Australian national interest, and produce local content about the arts, sciences, religion or music. What could possibly go wrong?

Australia has reached another decision point in respect of public broadcasting just like those of the past. The first was whether to establish an ABC, then whether to equip it to deliver a news service independent of the commercial media barons, then once again whether to invest in a public television service. And now, as we enter a digital age, Australia must decide whether it wants an ABC fit for the future, and if so, what investments the nation is willing to make to achieve that.

Today, in a world of global platforms and content, it has never been more important for Australia to retain its identity. And in a world of contested views and facts, it has never been more important to provide an independent and trusted voice, to promote informed democratic debate, and to drive public accountability through investments in investigative journalism.

Our mission at the ABC is to deliver on those possibilities for the benefit of all Australians.

Thank you. 

11 Comments:

  1. I think it’s great they way all the Right-wing IPA’s talking points have been able to get out and about in public comments like the ones here. They’ve been locked away alone in their dark cupboard for so long they’d lost touch with the real world…

    Personally though, I think it’s strange that people focus on the 0.3% of annual Federal expenditure that represents the ABC & SBS – and not, say, the 1.5% of the Federal budget that is given away as business fuel subsidies, or the 2.4% that goes to support private schools…

  2. When one talks about the ABC and bias/what should be shown etc, one needs to be clear about the two “arms” of the ABC. In terms of the current affairs and news side, I believe they try hard to be even-handed but unfortunately on some issues they allow their presenters to give biased opinion unchallenged. There is a definitely leaning toward so-called progressive issues, which I would like to see reined in.

    However, the other “arm” – general shows, comedy, drama, documentaries, in these the ABC is essential to Australian culture. For example, “Back in Time for Dinner” would never have been made by a commercial channel, or “War on Waste” for that matter, and these are the shows that we must have the ABC for. You can add in many other great shows.

  3. Why do we need so many ABC /SBS channels that are so niche?

    This is tax payers money funding garbage like Viceland, Food Network, 2 kids channels plus all of the radio stations.

    • It’s niche because the ABC always takes things from the point of ‘they know what’s best’ …popularity or audience appetite are rarely accounted for, the point of difference to not being commercial. This shortsighted is an easy way of deciding on the direction of the content. Success in effect is only being scored on whether the content makers thought it was good, because after all they know best.

      Think of all the ABC comedy you’ve watched where you’ve felt, “Oh that was a smart joke, should I laugh now”… rather than just been laughing already!

      Critics similarly back the ABC for the same self-righteous reasons, oh that’s smart, that’s clever etc. etc. often failing to comment on how smart, engaging, clever commercial reality TV can actually be, for example in casting diversity and dealing with cultural differences in the most palatable of ways, rather than forcing…

    • You might have a point about niche stations, however I think you would find disagreement about which channels are expendable. The ABC are the absolute leaders of children’s tv, so much so that the commercial channels have just about capitulated in that area. The Food Network is one of the most watched channels in our house, so there might be some argument about that. I agree about Viceland, it should be turned into a dedicated sport channel.

  4. Distance has always been an issue for Australia, distance makes providing any service much more expensive especially for those living in remote areas that is why we have the ABC, it should have the capacity to broadcast across the country funded by the tax payers. The evolving streaming services is changing the broadcast landscape for the future and the ABC needs to invest more in that tech to make better use of smart devices and expanding mobile networks, the ABC needs to be technologically relevant for future generations and less concerned about it’s political status.

  5. Ah so funny, Milne says “Four television networks and 10 radio networks are broadcasting 24/7.” – except they’re not, ABC ME only broadcasts for eighteen hours a day and ABC Kids/Comedy take a two-hour break in the early hours. Small point, yes, but if the chairman can’t even get that right, what hope does he have controlling the ABC? This is also symptomatic of the ABC’s problem, from the lowliest newsroom “storyteller” to whoever writes the chairman’s speeches – too lazy to properly check basic facts.

  6. Harshreality

    Want a better ABC? Fire the whole board.

    To arrogantly claim that all your staff are impartial is nonsense not even their enemies/competitors such as the Murdoch press would make such a stupid comment about their workforce.

    Then you have the ABC board member attacking CBS/TEN who have taken the network further to the left but obviously not far enough for some.

    As for new versus old media the ABC needs to rationalize the balance instead of forever complaining they never receive enough tax payer money. If online is the future then cut the amount of radio stations you broadcast or reduce the amount of digital channels you are currently operating and funnel it into online instead.

    • So you’re saying that the ABC should purge itself of its mostly Liberal Party-appointed board, that the Murdoch press doesn’t even pretend to be unbiased, and that the ABC should free themselves of their Government-mandated requirements in favour of doing the very thing that Murdoch/News Ltd are lobbying to prevent them from doing?

      ABC supporters everywhere thank you 😉

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.