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A new kind of interference in the future of the national broadcaster

By Brian Johns - posted Monday, 30 April 2001

p>Our broadcasting system is unique – and I use that word in its strictest sense. In no other country have the national and commercial broadcasters grown up together. Overall our system has delivered us the best broadcasting in the world.

Australia's broadcasting system, however, is under threat. The ABC is most vulnerable. Ironically, this is happening at a time when it is at its strongest in the public appeal of its programs and its community support.

The ABC has its failures and failings, but it is loved and appreciated almost everywhere it seems, but in Canberra's corridors of power. It is not enough to put this aberration down to the usual adversarial relationship between government, indeed politicians, and the media.


It seems to me that intense government dissatisfaction with the ABC has a base in an unease with courses of Australian intellectual life more widely flowing than politics. Hence the reaction that ABC attention to ecological issues, race and gender, and social justice amount to "the ABC running its own agenda".

The litany of complaint makes it highly unlikely that the Government will be of a mind to deal constructively with the ABC's future.

So far, public concern has focussed mainly on the adequacy of funding and whether the ABC will be able to remain committed to quality Australian programming, especially independent, searching, and relevant news and current affairs.

As important as this debate is, it essentially has been about preserving the ABC as we know it: the much-loved public institution with an established place in our hearts and minds over decades.

Rightly, the debate has gone to issues of government interference and corporate governance by the Board as the custodians of the ABC’s independence and charter. Those championing the ABC have been spurred by the fact that its independent voice is crucial in a situation in which that ABC voice is now the only media alternative in most of Australia.

I want to suggest that the threat to the ABC has moved to a new order beyond those sadly familiar issues. Now the ABC's very place in Australian broadcasting is threatened.


The ABC is being starved of funds at the same time as it is expected to move into the new, exciting era of digital broadcasting which will be the gateway to the information economy. This combination is a fatal cocktail.

And what is happening to the ABC should not be seen in isolation. It has to be looked at in relation to the new broadcasting environment and the emerging information economies.

Taken together, these links provide a measure of the true extent of the damage being wrought by the failure to conceive an overall policy framework and a Board ill-equipped to recognise the challenges and responsibilities it holds for ALL Australians.

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This is an edited version of a speech given at Mayne Hall, University of Queensland on Thursday 29 March, 2001. Click here to read the full transcript.

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About the Author

Brian Johns is an Adjunct Professor to the School of Media and Journalism at Queensland University of Technology. He was managing director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation from 1995 to 2000. He is Chair of On Line Opinion's Editorial Advisory Board.

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