What makes a public — not ‘national commercial’ — broadcaster

If there was any doubt that the Federal Government is gearing up for a gloves-off assault on the ABC, Communications Minister Helen Coonan’s announcement today of a “board restructure” should put it to rest. Following a fortnight of speculation about everything from the introduction of advertising to the replacement of Donald McDonald as Chairman of the board, today’s revelation that the position of staff-elected board member is to be abolished points pretty clearly to a government determined, after a decade of subversive attacks and funding cuts, to use its senate power to bring the ABC under its control.

Prime Minister John Howard swiftly put the kybosh on the advertising debate last week and, rising to the defence of his good friend McDonald, asserted his own belief in “…the ABC as an Australian institution”, and “…in a public media to balance the commercial media”. These words, while welcomed by defenders of the ABC, belie the actions of Howard’s government during its decade in power, and the developments of the last fortnight have upped the ante considerably in its ongoing assault on the independence of the ABC.

Thanks to Sean Leahy.

To start with Coonan’s discussion paper on media “reforms”, both the ABC and SBS are described in the document as “national”, rather than public, broadcasters. Both Australia’s public broadcasters are apparently being redefined to erode any notion of the public interest. Supplanting “public” with “national” softens the concept of public sector broadcasting (PSB) to remove from its definition the necessity of public funding, thereby opening the door to commercial funding. Whatever such a national broadcaster might be, it won’t be our ABC.

The extraordinary, and anonymous, attack on ABC Chairman Donald McDonald in last week’s Bulletin also reveals the extent of the hostility within Coalition ranks to the public service role of the ABC. Howard, as evidenced by his professed commitment to “public media”, is not the leader of this particularly nasty gang. As one anonymous Liberal claimed in The Bulletin, “As far as the Liberals go, the major cultural war of the last 20 years has been against the left of the ABC. And John Howard has failed to fight it”. The forces arrayed against the ABC are described in the piece as “senior liberals” and “reliable government sources”, who confirm that Prime Minister-in-waiting Peter Costello’s relationship with McDonald is “icy at best” and that the ABC can expect no increase in funding from his forthcoming 11th federal budget. The public funding of the ABC beyond the Howard era looks, therefore, to be far from assured.

Interestingly, the government repeatedly compares the structure of the ABC to that of its younger, and significantly poorer, cousin, SBS, when justifying its ideological changes. In defending today’s “board restructure”, Coonan’s media release points out that the existence of a staff-elected member on the ABC board is “[U]nlike the other national broadcaster – …SBS”. Proponents of the introduction of advertising similarly argue that SBS, which has carried limited and conditional sponsorship and advertising in one form or another since 1989, has benefited from its part-commercialisation, and that no discernable change is evident on screen.

Both these arguments are contentious. SBS, ironically, is protected from egregious government interference by its low ratings and limited market penetration. With a decidedly “AB” demographic audience ( identified by advertisers as the highest income earners and cultural consumers in society, and thus the most desirable target market, but notoriously difficult to reach as they rarely watch commercial TV) and reputation as a high-quality network with an international, rather than parochial, perspective, SBS is often excused the kind of “elite” programming that is so often cited by ideological opponents of the ABC as evidence of its left-wing bias. But 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 mono-cultural, market-driven ideology of the current federal government. Ask any rank-and-file SBS staff member if they’d like a staff-elected representative on the board, and you’d be sure to get an enthusiastic “yes” in response.

There is also 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. New SBS Manager of Communications Strategy and Planning, Hugh James, recently 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 May 2001, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), with the World Radio and Television Council released a statement on the principles and purposes of public broadcasting (link here – pdf ) , which clearly defined the characteristics of public broadcasting that make it a necessary component of a healthy democratic society:

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.

Seen in this light, the revelations of the last fortnight, all of which point to increased government control of the ABC, should concern all Australian citizens. Without a robust and independent public — not “national commercial” — broadcaster, our access to impartial information, rather than government spin, and culturally relevant content, rather than populist programming, will be greatly reduced.

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