Australia’s public broadcasters | DISCUSSION PAPER

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CONTENTS

I. Introduction

II. Protecting the public interest by safeguarding independence
- Removing board appointments from direct government control
- Diminishing direct government control over PBS funding

III. Spending public money efficiently and accountably: without reducing quality or stifling innovation
- Reducing administrative overheads
- Combating managerialism
- Audience Consultation
- Youth and Generational change
- Drama
- History
- Documentary
- Digital TV

IV. New ways of looking at public broadcasting
- An agent of understanding
- A place where we are treated as citizens, not consumers
- R&D for Australia’s cultural economy

V. Main recommendations


 

I. INTRODUCTION

The existence of an independent, taxpayer-funded public broadcaster is based on the need for media that has a legislated responsibility to:

  • Put the interests of ‘the public’ above those of advertisers, governments, or any one particular community;
  • Accurately reflect the diversity of its audience, providing space for Australians in their myriad differences to find what they have in common by talking to and learning about each other.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) put it this way:

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.

Those who argue against the need for the ABC and SBS tend to rely on one of three arguments:

  • The rise of new media means that the public interest will be served without the need for public broadcasting;
  • It is unfair to tax those who don’t make use of public broadcasting in order to provide it to those who do;
  • The profit motive makes commercial broadcasters more responsive than public broadcasters to what ‘ordinary people’ want;

These arguments are actually variations on the one idea: the notion that markets are better than governments at serving the public interest, and that most public services should therefore be privatised or corporatised, with subsidies to be paid individually if at all. This idea is familiar to anyone with a passing interest in public policy, as it runs through current government thinking on everything from health to education.

Interestingly, this idea is rarely trotted out in public debates over the role of our public broadcasters. For example, few of the many right-wing commentators who enthusiastically accuse the ABC of left-wing bias go so far as to argue for its privatisation. This may be a consequence of its popularity — or it may be the result of the obvious need for a media outlet which can counterbalance the power of the handful of players in our highly concentrated commercial media sector. Many Liberal party and national party supporters clearly treasure the ABC, and this has stymied an all-out free market approach. The Prime Minister cynically alluded to the politics of his Government’s dealings with the ABC when he described the National Broadcaster as ‘our enemies talking to our friends’.

The legitimacy of any government-funded public service is based on its capacity to provide ‘public goods’ or meet public needs which will not be met by either unfettered markets or disconnected individuals acting alone. Commercial media outlets have many strengths, but they cannot be relied on to prioritise the public interest over the interests of advertisers, media owners and managers; to provide critical coverage of companies with which they have business relationships; or to reflect the diversity of their audiences in their programming. Community & ‘independent’ media are growing in reach, quality and importance, but they often struggle to produce in-depth, accessible, accurate content based on original research and primary sources; and to reach audiences beyond their own geographical community or community of interest.

As with all public services, public broadcasters face the challenge of reconciling equally legitimate but competing goals. Public broadcasters need to cater to citizens both as individuals and as members of multiple, overlapping communities — including our national community. They need to reflect and cater to the diversity of their audiences while also providing a platform for shared conversations. They need to ensure that public money is spent efficiently and accountably, without reducing quality or stifling innovation in cultural production. Above all, they need 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.

The following sections outline some possible reforms which could better equip Australia’s public broadcasters to meet these goals. This is by no means intended to be a comprehensive list, but rather a starting point for the development of more detailed proposals. We would welcome your comments.

II. PROTECTING THE PUBLIC INTEREST BY SAFEGUARDING INDEPENDENCE

A decade of attacks and funding cuts, followed by appointments to the ABC Board of some of Australia’s most trenchant critics of public broadcasting, such as Keith Windschuttle and Janet Albrechtsen, all point to a government determined to use its senate power to bring the ABC under its control. Despite the comparative lack of attention given to developments at SBS over the past decade, its board has also been stacked with political appointments that reflect the current federal government’s own worldview. This in turn impedes the ability of the ABC and SBS to fulfil their public interest obligations.

Removing board appointments from direct government control

The first and most obvious way to address this would be to remove appointments to all public sector boards, including the public broadcasters, from partisan political influence, and place them at arm’s length from direct government control. This is best achieved through the adoption of a system similar to that introduced by John Major’s Conservative Government in the UK in 1995.

Commonly known as the Nolan Rules, this system was introduced following the recommendations of the Government-established ‘Committee on Standards in Public Life’ (http://www.archive.official-documents.co.uk/document/parlment/nolan/nolan.htm ). 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.

In Australia, the push for a similar process of reform has just begun. Emeritus Professor Meredith Edwards, of the University of Canberra, recently released her report, Appointments to Public Sector Boards in Australia: A comparative assessment, which is part of a major project entitled Corporate Governance in the Public Sector: An Evaluation of its Tensions, Gaps and Potential. According to its authors, the project ‘will provide the first comprehensive theoretical and empirical work on corporate governance in the Commonwealth public sector.’

Edwards’ report offers three models for reform of public appointments, ranging from a minimal to a radical overhaul of our current system. We favour the second of these models, that of ‘moderate’ reform, which adheres to current parliamentary protocol and retains some measure of ministerial oversight, while opening the process to greater public scrutiny and ensuring the involvement of an independent, impartial authority.

Currently, the ALP’s policy position on the ABC includes a pledge to introduce a lesser version of this process. Known as the Better ABC Board process, and announced in April 2003 by then leader Simon Crean and communications spokesman Lindsay Tanner, the policy, excerpted below, addresses issues of political bias and influence, but retains a level of ministerial involvement that, as the Corporate Governance report and the UK’s experience of the Nolan Rules show, is unnecessary and arguably detrimental to the ultimate goal of achieving independence from government:

‘The process of Labor’s Better ABC Board policy is as follows:

1. The Department of Communications (DCITA), under Ministerial direction, and after wide public consultation, will draw up detailed selection criteria for prospective ABC board members. The criteria will reflect the criteria in the ABC Act. The selection criteria will be made widely available and published on the Communications Department website and the ABC’s corporate website.

2. Any board vacancies will be advertised nationally and will list basic selection criteria, along with the web address for the detailed selection criteria.

3. An ABC Board Selection Panel will be constituted. This panel will consist of the Secretary of DCITA; the head of the Broadcasting and Intellectual Property Division, DCITA; the Merit Protection Commissioner from the Australian Public Service Commission; and an independent eminent person, appointed by the Minister but independent of the Minister, Government and the ABC. The Panel will select a shortlist of at least three candidates, on the basis of merit and their ability to successfully match the selection criteria. All applications will be confidential unless applicants themselves wish to make their applications public.

4. The Minister will then be presented with the shortlist of candidates. Applicant’s names will continue to remain confidential, unless the applicant chooses to publicly announce their candidacy. The Minister will then proceed to appoint a new Board member as required under the existing Act. If the Minister does not appoint a short listed candidate he or she will have to table a formal statement of the reasons for departing from the shortlist to the Parliament.’

The ALP’s current shadow Minister for Communications, Senator Stephen Conroy, has indicated that the position will be developed into a full policy prior to the next federal election. Hopefully the ALP’s current position can be influenced, through consultation and advocacy, towards the more comprehensive approach embodied in Professor Edwards’ work and our own policy suggestions.

Diminishing direct government control over PBS funding

The other tried and tested way of removing public broadcasting from egregious government interference is to diminish the government’s control over funding for public broadcasting 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 abolished 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 threatened or actual budget cuts and the conditional provision of new funding.

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. The rest of Australia cannot and, given the recalcitrance of Coonan’s recently introduced media legislation, will not 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.

Much in the way the Medicare Levy is charged at a flat 1.5% of individual income, so a Public Broadcasting Levy, rather than a flat fee charged per household or per television, would ensure that the new ‘licence fee’ was introduced on an equitable basis.

The level at which the Public Broadcasting Levy would be charged would be determined by assessing current funding against real operational costs, and establishing a per income rate tethered to inflation, the GDP, or average earnings.

Proceeds from the Public Broadcasting Levy would be split between the ABC and SBS, with the percentage for each network determined by measuring audience reach and offsetting any actual and expected advertising revenue to SBS against the potential income from the levy.

III. SPENDING PUBLIC MONEY EFFICIENTLY AND ACCOUNTABLY – WITHOUT REDUCING QUALITY OR STIFLING INNOVATION

Reducing administrative overheads

While removing funding and governance from the direct influence of political forces will greatly strengthen the ABC and SBS, attention must also be given to problems of inefficiency and obstructive levels of bureaucracy within both organizations.

Australia is a nation of around 20 million people and yet supports two entirely separate public broadcasting networks, neither of which is sufficiently funded to meet its charter obligations nor, in the case of SBS, to achieve an audience reach that justifies its title as a ‘national’ public broadcaster.

For more than 20 years — indeed, for most of SBS’s lifespan – there have been forces from both sides of politics determined to amalgamate the ABC and SBS, along the lines of the UK’s successful BBC 1 & 2 model. The Hawke Government, in particular, pursued this idea vigorously, and almost succeeded in absorbing the five year old SBS into the ABC in the mid-1980s, before a concerted and passionate campaign by Australia’s non-English speaking communities overturned the decision at the eleventh hour.

Some of the arguments made so forcefully by Hawke Government figures such as Communications Minister Michael Duffy in favour of amalgamation remain convincing from an economic perspective, but the wider cultural implications for what would, effectively, be the abolition of SBS are almost immeasurable.

While there is some evidence to show that the existence of SBS has excused the ABC and commercial networks from developing programs that reflect the reality of Australia’s culturally diverse population, the contribution made to Australian culture and society by SBS far outweighs such problems. SBS is amongst the most highly awarded public broadcasting organizations in the world, and provides an impressive range of programming on a relatively miniscule budget. Furthermore, its role as a public broadcaster with a specific cultural policy mandate makes it unique, and ensures that public interest remains at the centre of the network’s charter, despite the creeping influence of commercial pressures via its limited advertising revenue. SBS has also been willing, through its highly successful commissioning arm, SBS Independent, to commission and screen risky and innovative drama and documentary programs that the ABC has been increasingly reluctant to invest in.

The semi-commercial nature of SBS makes a straightforward amalgamation with the ABC difficult, if not impossible under current legislation. Certainly, programming on SBS Television has, particularly over the last 15 years, moved away from non-English language programs and international film and towards an image more closely aligned to that of the ABC, which, it could reasonably be argued, reflects more than ever the BBC 1 & 2 model. But the abandonment of the multicultural television project, after almost three decades of significant success and contribution to contemporary national identity, would be a retrograde step at a time when the rest of the world’s media is pursuing more diversity, rather than less.

We believe that the distinct and independent on-screen presence of SBS Television must be maintained, and that the experience of Australia’s multilingual journalists and expertise of program makers skilled in the representation of Australia’s cultural diversity should be cherished and developed into the future.

There are, however, significant and obvious savings to be made by consolidating some of the ‘back room’ and administrative operations of the two public broadcasters, along the BBC model. While separate boards and senior management, especially in program making and production, must be retained, many other administrative and middle management roles, and technical functions such as transmission services, could be shared across the two networks, at a considerable saving to public funds. Currently, each organization has its own Human Resources and Policy divisions, which would benefit from amalgamation through opportunities to share or transfer talented staff, and to bring policy development for public broadcasting under one division. This would not only ensure a coordinated approach to the development of public broadcasting policy, but would ensure that policies and programming focused on the representation of Australia’s culturally diverse society were given a renewed priority within the ABC and, by extension, throughout the national broadcasting landscape. This would begin the process of ‘de-ghettoising’ the representation of cultural diversity from its home on SBS Television and force the ABC and commercial networks to engage with the reality of 21st century Australia.

Combating managerialism

Many structural problems at both the ABC and SBS stem from the cult of managerialism. This is a kind of public privatisation that combines internalised market forces and cost savings with an authoritarian structure that gives all power to the ‘bean counters’, reduces the role of creative producers, and dilutes the onus for innovation.

The Report of the Australian National Audit Office, Corporate Governance in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, prepared under Jonathan Shier’s regime, identified a problem of managers working up to the apex of the corporate pyramid, rather than down to stakeholders. Most senior managers, relatively new to the ABC, were ignorant ‘of specific features of the Commonwealth’s accountability framework and [did] not perceive any major role for themselves [in public accountability] outside their line responsibilities to the Managing Director’.

For example, in television, many programs are apparently ‘green-lighted’ because they appeal to the tastes of the Director of Television or other internal bureaucrats, rather than due to a clear response to audience demand or Charter obligations.

Managerialism at both the ABC and SBS has reduced the creative freedom on the workshop floor that leads to experimentation, innovation and risk.

At a time when public broadcasting funding is shrinking, an increasing proportion of that funding is squandered on more bureaucracy. This situation will continue unless managerial hierarchies are flattened and creative decision-making devolved.

One solution would be a model in which department heads and executive producers commissioned programs for dedicated timeslots. Such creative staff are willing and able to take calculated risks that often produce the kind of programming that goes on to inform the work of the commercial sector and to become the benchmarks of new and innovative Australian production. This model was prevalent at the ABC until the early ’90s. Many of the great shows of the 70s and 80s stood on the shoulders of risky ventures that initially failed, and could only be undertaken by the public broadcasting sector.

Audience Consultation

The ANAO report of 2002 recommended that the ABC introduce an audience appreciation unit similar to that in operation in the BBC, in order to escape the crude commercial ratings system that fails to take account of true audience diversity. The next stage in such a system is to develop a process of real consultation and genuine interactivity between program makers and audiences using new digital technology. Such dialogue could help to break down distinctions between producers and consumers, and enable audiences to assist in shaping programs.

Youth and Generational change

While ABC TV’s share of viewers 55 and over and children has increased since 1990, its share of viewers 18 to 39 has declined by 13%. All the evidence shows young people are watching less and less free to air TV that looks to common denominators. As noted by the auditor, the ‘loyal’ ABC viewer is making way for the discriminating conditional viewer, who makes an individual choice from the array of media options at their disposal – the internet, books, videos, games, pay TV, radio, cinema, mobiles, chat lines, magazines, and commercial TV – on the basis of personal interests and passions. Media that seek to treat the under 40s as one group, to attract them on the basis of what they are assumed to have in common, will have no audience. Public broadcasting can, and should, lead the way in exploring new approaches to media production and distribution for the future.

Drama

Australian television drama needs to move out of the narrow pool of TV drama writers it uses, and try employing novelists and other types of Australian writers to produce scripts, as has been done so successfully in the UK. Moreover, the ABC and even SBS must move beyond the Palm Beach/Balmain/Bondi triangle of established, older television writers and find young writers and directors from a variety of regions, class and ethnic backgrounds as does the decentralised BBC.

As Australian TV drama is a bit of a closed club compared to the publicly funded film industry, which is porous to new talent, a reformed ABC or SBS board might explore ways of bringing the two together, in made for TV films for example. There needs to be much more synergy between the Australian cinema and the public TV stations, and young film directors should be commissioned by our public broadcasters to produce innovative, multi-platform programming, thereby widening the talent pool, broadening perspectives and providing opportunities for career development and cross-pollination between industries. Both ABC and SBS should be given first right to bid for Australian TV rights for publicly funded Australian feature films, as a condition of those films receiving Commonwealth assistance.

History

Historians have Australian stories begging to be told. We need more historical drama like Timeless Land and True Believers. Nineteenth century Australian history and literature is a mine of great stories and characters, yet most historical programming on the ABC and SBS comes from the UK and USA. Where, for example, is SBS’s long-promised series First Nations, the story of Australia prior to white settlement?

Documentary

Under the last Labor Government, the ABC had a documentary department that made outstanding historical and social documentary on a par with the British and American imports that now grace our screens. Carefully researched and fearless documentaries of the calibre of Cop It Sweet and Nobody’s Children made both Labor and Liberal governments squirm in the late 80s and early 90s.

The funding squeeze since 1996 has led to most documentaries being outsourced to the independent sector or Film Australia. When the internal documentary department was absorbed into ABC Factual, the ABC lost a centre of excellence and the public a critical window on the nation.

Carefully researched and intelligent essay-style documentary costs money but it also requires ideas and aesthetic innovation. Documentary in Australia could be revitalized by the establishment within the ABC and SBS of centres of excellence based on subject areas such as history, society, the arts and science that attract some of the best minds and film makers in the country. These centers would both produce in-house and commission externally and partner with ABC and SBS radio and have relationships with other public cultural institutions. One way to get funding and ideas for documentary is by encouraging ongoing partnerships with other public creative bodies such as the Australia Council, Australian and state film bodies, museums, art galleries and universities.

Digital TV

A federal government serious about entrepreneurship should remove any remaining fetters on digital multi-channelling that impede the ABC and SBS. Government should provide seed funding for new digital TV initiatives like the revamped ABC digital network.

IV. NEW WAYS OF LOOKING AT PUBLIC BROADCASTING

An agent of understanding

Early BBC historian Paddy Scannell has argued that the BBC created the first approximation of a national culture in the UK, and this idea has since informed the study of public broadcasting as a nation-building institution. More recently Georgina Born’s anthropological work on the BBC has supported Scannell’s interpretation, showing that the public sphere, the community space or ‘virtual village square’, created by public broadcasting is an essential component of modern Western democracy.

In his discussion of this ‘public service idea’ in All our futures: The changing role and purpose of the BBC, published in 1993, media academic Stuart Hall acknowledged that the responsibilities of this mode of broadcasting have altered in the face of modern pressures and the changing forces of media production and consumption:

‘[Public broadcasting's] broadly defined ‘educative’ function is to produce a new, more plural, diverse, culturally differentiated conception of ‘the nation’ by representing its diversities: to find modes of address which do not rest on the old sacred sources of cultural authority or reproduce the old cultural hierarchies.’

In order for public broadcasters to meet the twin challenges presented by new media technologies and increased cultural and social diversity, they must operate innovatively and independently within the parameters of Hall’s new ‘educative’ function. A national public broadcaster’s obligation, as traditionally understood, is to the expression of a cohesive national identity, but this obligation needs to be re-imagined for a modern, multicultural and evolving Australia. Through an increased commitment to creative narrowcasting, Australian public broadcasting can provide the space in which a diversity of voices can challenge, negotiate and reinvent the parameters of national identity. Rather than presenting an authoritative idea or set of beliefs about the nation in the hope of reaching the largest possible audience for the greatest possible time, public broadcasters can develop programming and policies which enable them to reach out to Australian citizens as members of multiple, overlapping communities.

Public broadcasters are uniquely placed to address concerns that narrowcasting will undermine democracy or lead to a ‘nation of tribes’, by pursuing creative ways of linking local, regional, state and national coverage, and by connecting its special interest programs to programs that provide space for dialogue between conflicting views.

A place where we are treated as citizens rather than consumers

As market forces gradually encroach upon our public and personal lives, the few remaining public spaces become increasingly precious. In the interests of pluralism and democracy the ABC and SBS should service Australians as citizens rather than as consumers. Given that there is already a commercial media sector the choice of advertising-free media is treasured as an alternative. Having paid once for our public broadcasters through public funding, there are no good reasons that we should then have to pay for that media a second time through an unauthorised tax on our eyeballs in the form of advertising.

There is much evidence to suggest that the introduction of advertising to SBS had a significant impact on content. Non-English language programming is now almost completely absent from the SBS prime time schedule, and the network has made a concerted effort to attract larger audiences in order to increase its share of the advertising market. In February this year, SBS Manager of Communications Strategy and Planning, Hugh James, announced a change in SBS advertising policy to allow the broadcast of advertisements previously considered to be at odds with the network’s public service charter. In June, new Managing Director Shaun Brown announced that the SBS Board had determined a new interpretation of the SBS Act which redefined the notion of a natural break that would allow the insertion of advertising during programs, rather than between them, thus abandoning a 15 year commitment to the principles of public broadcasting even under the semi-commercial nature of the act as introduced in 1991.

If the recommendation for a public broadcasting levy is introduced it should coincide with the reversal of the June decision. Advertising on the ABC should continue to be prohibited in line with the existing Act.

R&D for Australia’s cultural economy

Our public broadcasters generate information and cultural capital which can and should feed into other public services (like our education system); as well as our cultural industries (including commercial media). Public broadcasting should be seen as an investment in research and development for Australia’s cultural economy — the fruits of which should be made as accessible as possible. This would involve making as much as possible of the ABC’s and SBS’ intellectually property publicly available (including research, interview transcripts, original footage, FOI requests, etc). Taxpayers should not have to pay for the same information twice.

V. MAIN RECOMMENDATIONS

  • That board governance of public broadcasters is removed from the direct control of the Government of the day via a transparent, public-interest centred process of appointments to the boards of the ABC and SBS;
  • That legislation to enable community elections of Advisory Councils for both ABC and SBS be introduced;
  • That direct control of public broadcasting funding be removed from the government of the day via a levy system;
  • That editorial independence and diversity be ensured by distributing editorial authority through Commissioning Editors and Executive Producers rather than vesting such power in the role of Managing Director as Editor in Chief;
  • That legislation to elect one producer and one consumer director to public broadcasting boards be introduced;
  • That equity, transparency and accountability in commissioning programs and awarding public money and contracts to producers from the independent and private sectors, be enshrined in public broadcasting charters;
  • That programs of national significance that are not tackled by the commercial sector be prioritised by public broadcasters via the establishment of in-house centres of excellence in specific subject areas;
  • That an accurate reflection of Australia’s diversity (ethnic, age, geographical, socio-economic, cultural, and political) be ensured in staffing, commissioning and programming;
  • That narrow-casting for diverse interests be given equal weight to the pursuit of mass audiences; this should coincide with attempts to increase dialogue between as well as within communities of interest;
  • That the current reliance on inappropriate commercial ratings be replaced by the measurement of performance against charter requirements via the use of appropriate qualitative and quantitative research to determine commissioning and programming requirements;
  • That opportunities for wider cooperation and collaboration with the Australian media and creative community be created, via increased co-productions and staff exchange;
  • That greater efficiencies by achieved by the reduction of administrative overheads and the prioritising of program creation, purchase and transmission;
  • That audiences be enabled to be active producers of media rather than mere passive consumers, by harnessing the interactive qualities of digital production and other new media technologies.

Some of the ideas on the ABC in this paper were developed by the Centre for Policy Development fellow Tony Moore in a number of published works, drawing on his experience as an ABC National Advisory Council member and as a staff documentary maker.