From culture war to cultural democracy: it’s your ABC

Many supporters of the ABC felt relieved when a hostile conservative government was replaced by a social democratic one which claims to be friendly.
Since the election, some have called for Howard Government appointees to resign from the board and
for the ABC to be properly funded. The change of government, however, is no guarantee that money will pour into Aunty’s coffers and a left-wing ABC Board will arise from the ashes of the culture wars.

Perhaps we need to be more creative in what we wish for. Obsessing about individuals and their bias is not the best way to stop the board from being a political plaything, and it is not the solution to the ABC’s governance problems. A progressive response should reject score settling, and instead ask how to enhance public participation in the ABC.

The ABC is grappling with how to transform itself from a paternalistic public broadcaster catering to a
loyal if passive audience to a multi-channel narrow-caster, engaging diverse and conditional audiences that have an expectation that they will participate, or at least be consulted, in content creation. While many innovators within the ABC are rising to this challenge, the wider public debate has been a sterile contest between those neo-liberals who loath a state broadcaster which they imagine to be a nest of radicals, and those social democrats and old-style conservatives who uncritically love an ‘Aunty’ that is no more. Unfortunately, long opposition to the Howard Government’s savage funding cuts, bullying of
staff and stacking of the Board have led to a negative siege mentality that stops people who value the ABC from doing some hard thinking about how public broadcasting needs to change to remain relevant to emerging audiences with different, and in many ways more exacting, expectations of media.

I suggest that the ABC needs radical change, and I offer up a plan for creating a non-partisan and fairer system for selecting the board.

Cultural warriors such as Keith Windschuttle or Janet Albrechtsen are no more likely to resign with the change of government than Labor appointees were when the Coalition was elected. Attention should instead be directed to Labor’s election pledge to surrender the government’s right to make appointments and adopt the ‘arm’s length’ Nolan Rules, recently confirmed by Senator Conroy, used for choosing members of public boards in Britain.

Under the Nolan Rules, vacancies are advertised and a selection panel independent of the Minister draws up a short-list based on merit from which the Government must choose. This will mean a vast
improvement to the quality of all public boards to which it is extended, as mates, dates, assorted party hacks and ideological axe grinders make way for the qualified or those with deep community connections. In the interests of transparency we can only hope this meritocratic innovation is adopted by state governments, beginning with board appointments in patronage-crippled NSW. With regard to the ABC, Rudd Labor also promised to restore the staff-elected director to the board. A board member who knows something about broadcasting will be a welcome addition and this concession to workplace democracy can only improve governance and espirit de corps.

But as part of the ALP’s promise to ‘further increase the transparency and democratic accountability of
the ABC’, why not extend the principle of election further, and allow the election of one or two non-party community representatives, and a representative from the cottage industry of independent producers who provide so much of the ABC’s content? Many Labor insiders, accustomed to the predictability of party pre-selections, are opposed to election of boards, arguing that democratic control is already exerted by parliament, or that people will vote for celebrity lightweights. Due to a century of grounding in
producer value and worker’s rights, the ALP culture is comfortable with workplace democracy, but still suspicious of calls for consumer democracy. However I’m convinced strong candidates will get up and that the debates surrounding election to the Board will increase the relevance of the ABC to a changing
community and enhance the public’s sense of ownership. Election will ensure some ideas entrepreneurs and mavericks who may be knocked back by the Nolan process get to make their case.

Crucially, the Rudd Government is entitled by precedent to dissolve the current Board and
inaugurate a new one in a clean sweep as part of its promised reform of the selection process.
The passing of legislation mandating the Nolan Rules for the appointment of directors, in combination with election of one or more positions, will be on a par with the reforms introduced by Hawke in 1983 in response to the Dix Report, at which time the old Commission was dissolved and the new Corporation’s Board took over. This is preferable to the dysfunction of a Board divided between political appointments and those selected by fairer means. In this way the terms of the last of the old style political appointments can end early with minimal acrimony.

But reforming the Board by itself is insufficient. Few realise that the ABC Advisory Council, the official
mechanism by which the community communicates directly with the ABC hierarchy, is appointed by the Board. I was a member of the then ‘National’ Advisory Council in the mid 1980s, appointed on the basis of an interview with Board Directors Veronica Brady and Neville Bonner at a time when the ABC encouraged public activism by the NAC via community forums and research. But we have not heard much from the Advisory Council during the past decade of turmoil. The AC is unlikely to be a conduit for independent or dissenting advice unless it is elected or chosen under the Nolan Rules. It is also a cause of
concern that the once vocal state-based Advisory Councils were abolished in 1989 ahead of the centralisation of production and commissioning in Sydney, that began with the demise of the state-based 7.30 Reports. These valuable state community forums should be re-established as part of the Rudd Government’s overhaul of the Board.

Representative structures only go so far towards democratising the ABC. In 2002 the Australian
National Audit Office (ANAO) investigation found the ABC wanting in the area of qualitative audience research. The Auditor felt that reliance on the commercial ratings system was inappropriate for measuring how successfully the ABC was meeting its charter requirements. Unfortunately, the ABC persists in over-reliance on OzTam or Nielsen ratings and still favours executive hunches over audience consultation, as the recent debacle about its watermark logo demonstrated.

But audiences have nevertheless impressed themselves on their ABC via ABC Online.

The new Innovation division and forward-looking producers have taken advantage of the interactivity of the new medium, and viewers and listeners are now contributing ideas and comments through the ABC’s forums and blogs. Just as listeners have done with radio talkback, audiences are becoming part of online content, contributing passionate and informed discussion alongside program makers and their ‘talent’.
New media has also liberated the ABC from the tyranny of the ratings, allowing audience numbers and use patterns to be measured via pod and vod cast downloads (17 million in 2007, with even more ‘hits’). Lo and behold, as well as the favourite The Chaser, Radio National programs are actually popular, not
just in Australia but internationally. With the move into digital multi-channels I predict ABC Online will enable audiences to shape content still further, commenting on pilot programs and even offering up their own programs for comment, You Tube style, as children already do on the just-launched Rollermache site.

Where the ANAO lamented a tendency for Shier-era bureaucrats to manage up the pyramid, to the Managing Director, the ABC’s digital initiatives are orientating program makers in the other direction, towards their diverse audiences. This is a democratic and creative trend collapsing the barriers between consumers and producers, and it should be a priority for resourcing by the Rudd government which has pledged to ensure that the ABC is ‘able to exploit the potential of new technology’. Senator Conroy said in February that the ABC and SBS would be exempt from the one-off 2% efficiency cut intended for all Federal government agencies. This is good news, but will the ABC get a funding increase from the Rudd
Government in the next budget? The ALP went to the election only promising ‘adequate’ funding of the ABC, and an increase seems unlikely in the coming belt-tightening budget, despite community expectations to the contrary. However, a targeted grant to assist the ABC to continue its ground breaking
initiatives in digital narrowcasting would be money well spent by a government interested in innovation and ‘democratic accountability’.

Through his Australia 2020 Summit, Kevin Rudd has signalled that the Government is open to new ideas and solutions, rather than the ideological orthodoxies that have dominated the agendas of right and left
for the past decade. Applying this type of thinking, progressives should move beyond the culture wars and the funding fetish, and towards bigger ideas about a culturally democratic ABC.