The Coalition parties latest failed attempt to bring the ABC to heel with Liberal Senator Andrew Bragg’s proposed Senate committee inquiry into the ABC’s complaint review process, was both unnecessary and questionable.
It was unnecessary because as Senator Bragg would know, there was already a review underway. Although appointed by the ABC the review’s members have considerable merit. Professor John McMillan AO is a former federal and state ombudsman and noted for his independence. The other member, Jim Carroll although having been an SBS news director also had commercial network experience. Moreover, since the Senate inquiry was announced the ABC has clarified that the public will be allowed to participate in the review.
The proposed Senate inquiry was questionable because it indicated a lack of trust by the Coalition parties in the ABC’s process. After all, Senate inquiries are hardly independent given they are increasingly partisan, biased and non-expert and their recommendations rarely implemented. Indeed, the Senate review appeared to be more motivated for reasons of political grandstanding and career advancement than to tackle issues of accountability while ignoring other more important ones.
Some of those bigger issues include whether the ABC as presently configured, really works anymore given the rapidly expanding digital platform, Australia’s changing demographics and cultural diversity, and different emerging settlement patterns.
Tackling these broader issues have been missing under the successive Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments. Labor too, has hardly been forthcoming with any viable suggestions.
The last full, open, public review of the ABC was the 1979 Dix Committee of Review that reported in 1981. It made worthwhile recommendations to improve efficiencies, but by that time it was too late for the Fraser Government to do much about the ABC.
Recent suggestions from think tanks such as the Institute of Public Affairs to privatise the ABC are hardly practical. The necessary legislation would never pass the Senate, and ignores the ABC’s considerable support, its innovative programs, its reach into regional Australia – and commercial media’s limited offerings.
Also worries about ABC bias affecting younger voters are exaggerated and misplaced. Except for Triple J, few tune into the ABC’s current affairs programs, listen to Radio National or bother to watch ‘Insiders’. Those shows are for the few politically engaged.
Perhaps critics, including Senator Bragg, should take heed of Glyn Davis’ suggestions in his 1988 book, ‘Breaking up the ABC’. He proposed ‘deconstructing’ the ABC into autonomous units to serve specific functions and to cater for distinct audiences. These bodies would have clearer missions, be more focussed and responsive to their audiences, and with different boards, be more accountable for delivering particular products. Public participation through subscription could also be more easily facilitated.
Such a change would require a less monolithic bureaucratic structure and head office. As Davis said, all this could happen “without creating additional administration or financial problems” and the “the mechanics of implementation are not daunting”.
Keeping a public broadcaster is necessary for a wide variety of reasons including the need for independent news reporting, ensuring quality programs are available as distinct from just the most popular, and current concerns about private sector media conglomerates.
The challenge is making the ABC more diverse, more organisationally flexible, and responsive not to political demands, but to public interests.
All political parties whinge about the ABC especially when they are in office. Attempts to address concerns about the ABC with letters of complaint from communication ministers, changing the ABC board, imposing budget cuts or appointing partisan parliamentary inquiries ignore the more fundamental challenges facing our national public broadcaster which governments need to address.
To fix the ABC requires a clear articulation of principles and desired outcomes and then a long-term strategy to build support for change that is acceptable. Since the Coalition has been in office since 2013 it has singularly failed to do any of this and the attempted Senate inquiry was another misplaced initiative. It was politically inept provoking understandable adverse reactions from the ABC Board that ensured it gained little Senate support. Worse, it further soured relations between the ABC and the current government on the eve of an election.