You have to wonder why Malcolm Turnbull would sacrifice a Sunday morning to fend off false accusations on Insiders.
“You,” fumed Barrie Cassidy, “are the first communications minister, I think, in the ABC’s history to send government officials into the ABC.” Not quite. Cassidy appears to have forgotten the Curtin and Chifley governments’ standing committee on broadcasting — the “stand-over committee” — which prompted a ban on the broadcast of barrier positions in horse races and radio talks on venereal disease.
The government’s prerogative to overrule the ABC’s editorial decisions was removed from legislation in 1983. Since then, the ABC effectively has become a foreign country, outside the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth of Australia, save for the approval of its sizeable stipend. It enjoys power without responsibility which, as British Conservative politician Stanley Baldwin once remarked, was “the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”.
So what, if anything, can a level-headed government do to ensure its annual billion-dollar investment is well spent? Should it try to wrest control of the state-owned station from the barmy bohemians who occupy it? Or should it just boycott their shows?
Would the appointment of a managing director with spine prevent, for example, the bussing of terrorist sympathisers from Parramatta to broadcast live to the nation? Not a hope if history is any guide. Malcolm Fraser went to war with the ABC in his first year of government but had run up the white flag by Christmas.
Bob Hawke settled for an uneasy truce. John Howard stacked the board with decent chaps who found themselves powerless to influence the corporation in any significant way whatsoever.
The iron law of culturally autonomous government-funded bodies is that they are far easier to set up than to close down. In broadcasting policy, as in fiscal management, there are salient lessons from Greece. Two years ago, when the Greek government tried to abolish the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation, the luvvies simply refused to budge. They continued broadcasting via the internet, satellite and illegally commandeered transmitters.
In April the incoming leftist government declared the “Grexit” from public broadcasting a mistake and voted to reinstate it.
If abolition is not an option, the Abbott government must look to reform. The Lewis review, commissioned by Turnbull, made a modest start by identifying $90 million in capital savings and $37m in annual running costs.
It is one thing, however, to ask how the ABC could waste less of our money. The harder question is why it is spending our money at all. Before deciding if the ABC and SBS are properly discharging their duties, we need to agree what those duties are. As Lewis noted, the organisations’ charters are couched in generalities, making it “difficult for the broadcasters to decide what their priorities are when allocating resources between alternative competing activities”. Should the ABC spend our money on politics or Peppa Pig? Should it be promoting farming or its Facebook page? In the absence of clear guidance in its outdated charter, it’s left to the managing director to decide.
Digital disruption has rewritten the rules, yet the ABC is bound by a charter drawn for an analog world. The ABC Act was last revised by the Hawke government in 1983, informed by the Dix report commissioned by Fraser.
Alex Dix’s report was delivered six years before house-brick mobile phones and eight years before the first internet service. Viewers in most capital cities had a choice of four television channels at best; a quarter of households had no FM radio; the picture on one in 10 television sets was still black and white.
The Dix report identified the ABC’s biggest technological challenge as the introduction of videotape, a process delayed by a demarcation dispute between engineers and news cameramen. When a story broke, undeveloped film was driven back to the studio, run through a chemical bath, dried, hand-cut and loaded into a telecine machine. Yet the legislation needed to allow this hybrid broadcasting system, declared Dix’s engineering consultant Alan Morrison, was beyond the scope of the report.
Even in those primitive days, the ABC was uncertain what it had been put on earth to do. Dix describes it as “slow-moving, overgrown, complacent, and uncertain of the direction in which it is leading, despite the efforts of many talented and dedicated people who work for it”.
If the corporation struggled to find its niche against just three local competitors, it is hardly surprising that it struggles against hundreds, including the best from the US and Europe. When better-managed bodies struggle with digital disruption, it is hardly surprising if the ABC is confused.
Boycotting Q&A will not fix the ABC, nor will more harrumphing in the Coalition. The ABC’s challenges demand tough decisions that are far too important to outsource to management. A fresh inquiry conducted with the rigour of the Dix report is long overdue. It will pave the way for a revision of the ABC’s charter to determine what public purpose — if any — the station should serve.