The ABCs of protecting the Public Interest

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Managing Director Mark Scott’s recent announcement that the ABC was to introduce new editorial guidelines has predictably polarised media commentators, highlighting the divide between critics and supporters of our public broadcaster more starkly than ever before. Coming hard on the heels of the frenzied response to Helen Coonan’s relaxation of media ownership laws, that saw Australia’s most powerful moguls wheeling and dealing their way to even greater fortunes at the expense of diversity in the public sphere, Scott’s announcement is a worrying sign for the future of our fourth estate.

Despite Head of Television Kim Dalton’s protestations to the contrary, it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that Wednesday’s decision to axe the popular satirical comedy The Glass House is, like the abandonment of Chris Masters’ Jonestown, an example of ABC Management’s growing tendency to perform the ‘pre-emptive buckle’ in the face of the ferocious hostility displayed by some in the current Federal Government. After a string of capitulations to neo-liberal culture warriors, the argument that the decision to get rid of a program — that has regularly drawn the ire of those in charge of the ABC’s purse strings, and doubtless caused more than a few headaches for management — is not influenced by political pressure is simply not credible any more.

If Scott and Dalton believe this action will get the Government’s ABC-attackers, such as Senators Michael Ronaldson, Santo Santori and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, and their supporters among the commentariat to back off, they’re sorely mistaken. As veteran ABC and Fairfax journalist, and former Media Watch host, David Marr recognised:

‘…this is a framework for addressing critics from a range of pressure groups…..[but] it’s not going to silence the critics. Anybody who believes this new and complicated framework is going to silence the critics is deluded.’

Only a week later, Marr’s analysis was proved correct. Following a call for even further ‘reform’ from Institute of Public Affairs Fellow Jason Briant, arch ABC-critic Gerard Henderson lamented that Scott’s speech to Henderson’s own Sydney Institute contained ‘one weakness’: the acknowledgement that Labor Governments have traditionally been as critical of the ABC as the current conservative mob. The problem, according to Henderson, is not criticism of power per se, but ‘…that both parties believe that they are criticised on the public broadcaster from a left-wing perspective.’

What exactly does that mean, and is it, as Henderson and his ilk constantly claim, evidence of bias within the ABC? It’s difficult to engage in this debate with critics who hide behind the ‘left versus right’ labels, refusing to explain what they mean by these terms and why the left wing perspective is the wrong one from which to criticise authority.

In fact, it is the job of any public broadcaster to question governments, and others in positions of power, from a public interest perspective — one that places a premium on the rights of citizens, the pursuit of truth and the responsibility of those in power to those they serve. If this is seen as ‘left-wing’, then we can only assume that a ‘right-wing’ perspective is one concerned with self-interest and the right to operate free from scrutiny.

Marr made this point during a panel discussion to discuss the awarding of the 2004 George Munster Award for Independent Journalism to that bastion of media scrutiny, and arguably the ABC production most hated amongst the broadcaster’s critics, Media Watch. Responding directly to the accusation that the program, and many ABC news and current affairs offerings, were unfairly balanced to the left, Marr acknowledged that journalists were required to be ‘sceptical of authority …And that is kind of a soft leftie kind of culture.’

Of course, ABC critics from the self-proclaimed ‘right’ saw this statement as yet further evidence of unmitigated bias, but they have so far failed to provide a convincing argument as to how weakening the ABC’s culture of vigorous inquiry and scrutiny of power serves the public interest. Indeed, the objections to such scrutiny inherent in virtually every complaint about ‘left wing bias’ on the ABC reveal among the critics a mind-set that believes that power, once granted by a democratic vote, is somehow not beholden to the greater public that it serves, or at least not legitimately subject to public scrutiny.

The Howard Government has gone to great lengths to ensure that the greatest advocates of this view are now firmly entrenched on the ABC Board. As ALP Communications Spokesman Stephen Conroy noted when the new editorial guidelines were announced, the ABC’s direction is now being set by a ‘tiny minority of ideological zealots on its board who really don’t believe in public broadcasting‘ (my italics).

The Centre for Policy Development identified this threat earlier this year, when we discussed the role of public broadcasting within democratic societies. We carried a link to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and World Radio and Television Council’s statement on the principles and purposes of public broadcasting, which clearly defined it as follows:

‘Neither commercial nor State-controlled, public broadcasting’s only raison d’etre is public service. It is the public’s broadcasting organization; it speaks to everyone as a citizen. Public broadcasters encourage access to and participation in public life. They develop knowledge, broaden horizons and enable people to better understand themselves by better understanding the world and others.’

When it comes down to it, the most vociferous, neo-liberal critics of the ABC, including some now on its board, simply do not believe in ‘the public’, nor, by extension, in the public’s broadcaster. They denigrate the ABC as a ‘collectivist’ organization, relying on the implied threat of totalitarian left-wing ideologies that are so readily called to mind by that word. But as Martin Flanagan pointed out in The Age, ‘a nation is a collective’. The public interest is not the same as the government interest, which is why it is the job of the public broadcaster to question governments, and others in positions of power, from a public interest perspective. As long as Australia’s right wing stands for self-interest and non-accountability, the public’s broadcaster must continue to question from ‘the left’, which places a premium on public interest and the responsibility of those in power to those they serve.

As the Centre for Policy Development approaches the release of our own media policy paper, it’s timely to consider what policy measures might be put in place to ensure that our ABC remains in service of the Australian public, rather than the Government, or any influential, vested interests.

The first, and most obvious, measure would be to introduce something similar to the UK’s system of arm’s length appointments to all public bodies. Commonly known as the Nolan Rules, this system was introduced in Britain in 1995 by the Conservative Government under Prime Minister John Major, following the recommendations of the Government-established ‘ Committee on Standards in Public Life‘. The Committee, chaired by Lord Michael Nolan, identified ‘Seven Principles of Public Life’ (selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership), and seven ‘rules’ for appointments to public office: ministerial responsibility, merit, independent scrutiny, equal opportunities, probity, openness and transparency, and proportionality.

Intended to restore public trust in the appointment process, the recommendations resulted in the introduction of the post of Commissioner for Public Appointments (CPA), which is independent of both the Government and the Civil Service. The CPA regulates all ministerial appointments to the boards of public bodies, operating according to a Code of Practice. The Code mandates the involvement of an Independent Assessor in the selection process for every Ministerial appointment, and clearly sets out the steps by which ministers can ensure they have established selection procedures that are fair and transparent, and which result in the best candidates being appointed in the public interest.

The introduction of this system has gone a long way to restoring the British public’s faith in, and trust of, the BBC. Currently, the ALP’s policy position on the ABC includes a pledge to introduce a similar system in Australia. While this position is yet to be fleshed out with any detail, and is not an official ALP policy, Senator Conroy has indicated that the position will be developed into a full policy prior to the next federal election.

The Centre for Policy Development will, in its own media policy, elucidate ways in which such a system might be developed in Australia, and outline the clear benefits to Australia that it would produce.

The other tried and tested way of removing public broadcasting from egregious government interference is to diminish the control the incumbent government has over ABC funding by removing it from the general stream of taxation revenue and reinstating the television licence fee. SBS’s recent move to interrupt programming with advertisements was virtually inevitable, given the increasing costs of competing in the modern media marketplace, and the ever-shrinking amount of money provided to public broadcasters by Australia’s federal government. Only by securing ongoing funding direct from the public to the public broadcasting sector, bypassing government coffers completely, can we ensure that future funding of the ABC and SBS are not held ransom to political demands and influence.

The licence fee was removed by Gough Whitlam, who recognised an inherent inequity in a flat fee charged to all households, regardless of income. However, an unintended consequence of this move has been creeping political interference, through the withholding of essential money and the conditional provision of new funding.

The Centre for Policy Development is exploring the idea of establishing a ‘Public Broadcasting Levy’ to resolve this problem. Much in the way the Medicare Levy is charged as a flat percentage of individual income, so a Public Broadcasting Levy would ensure that the new ‘licence fee’ was introduced on an equitable basis.

There is historical resistance to the idea of a licence fee in Australia, but it’s hard to see what other mechanism could be put in place to ensure public funding of the ABC (and SBS) while removing the power of the government of the day to use every triennial funding agreement to impose its political will on the public broadcaster. The gap between Australia’s rich and poor audiences is already growing at an alarming rate: those who can afford to pay up to $110 per month can access the full range of pay television, have access to digital broadcast, hard drive recorders and multi-channelling. The rest of Australia does not and — given the recalcitrance of the government’s recently introduced media legislation — won’t have for some years.

Against this background, a vigorously independent and well-funded public broadcaster could go a long way towards filling the gap. The imposition of a Public Broadcasting Levy on an individual or family income is likely to be less burdensome than the costs of private pay-television take-up, and has the added bonus of ensuring a truly independent media voice that would act solely in the public interest.

Just what such a levy might look like — at what rate it would need to be applied, and how it might be collected — will be explored in the upcoming the Centre for Policy Development Media Policy paper.