In 2020, what is the point of public broadcasting?
What essential role in the Australian media environment do organisations like the ABC and SBS still play that requires their $1.3 billion annual funding from the Australian taxpayer?
The ABC (the Australian Broadcasting Corporation) was founded in radio’s early days in the 1920s as the Australian Broadcasting Company, initially a Government-licensed consortium of private entertainment and content providers operating under a two-tiered licensing system.
The “A” system derived its funds primarily from the licence fees levied on the purchasers of radio receivers, with an emphasis on building the radio wave infrastructure into regional and remote areas, whilst the “B” system relied on privateers and their capacity to establish viable enterprises using the new technology.
During the Great Depression, however, the venture struggled with the “Company” subsequently acquired by the Government and relaunched as the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1932, re-aligning itself to the United Kingdom’s BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) model.
The ABC moved into television in the 1950s and in 2020 are a media behemoth with nearly 5000 employees, dozens of radio and television stations around Australia producing news, current affairs, drama, documentaries, websites, and a prosperous commercialisation arm with funding of more than $1 billion per year from the Federal Government.
The Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) was launched as “Channel 0/28” in 1980 as a means of offering non-English drama, movies, current affairs, and news for the increasingly-large proportion of Australians who came from non-English speaking backgrounds.
As with most efforts at government-intervention in the market-place, it proved comically ill-targeted, most of its audience from its first days were wealthy middle-class Australians from English-speaking backgrounds.
SBS now operates five TV channels (SBS, SBS Viceland, SBS World Movies, SBS Food and NITV) and eight radio networks in all capital cities and to regional Australia with more than 1000 employees with annual funding of about $280 million per year.
The rationale for Australian-wide public broadcasters like the ABC and SBS were both well-supported at the time of their establishment in the 1920s and 1980s on the grounds that no-one else could possibly provide the valuable service they do for the Australian taxpayer. Only a government-run network could afford to establish quality broadcasting in rural areas during the Great Depression, and there was little commercial market for non-English films and television shows in 1980s Australia.
In the internet age however where people can subscribe and view media from all around the world from their televisions and with new streaming services offering more and varied content on an almost daily basis, this is not the case now.
While consistent surveys show that the ABC and SBS are the most-trusted media organisations in Australia, that is because, critics say, it is easy to trust something you never use.
Surveys have consistently found that both the ABC and SBS are overwhelmingly-supported by by people of the A-B economic demographic (professional middle class and upper middle class) and mostly-older viewers and listeners.
Also, the Institute of Public Affairs, a conservative think-tank often critical of the ABC, recently-released a survey funding that only 32 per cent of respondents felt the ABC “represents the views of ordinary Australians.”
Critics therefore says that public broadcasting is a form of middle-class welfare, and why should the masses of other taxpayers fund a public broadcaster while they, through advertising on commercial television and radio, pay for their own shows and radio broadcasts?
Media companies like News Corporation, also argue, why should their commercial ventures be under-cut by a free rival service funded by the taxpayer?
And there is also the eternal issue of bias at the ABC and SBS; the back-and-forth of allegations of chronic and structural media prejudice from the ABC and SBS against conservative causes, politicians, and groups in society such as Christians that is a continuing issue in Australian public life.
This normally starts with the ABC or SBS broadcasting a discussion program like Q&A or The Drum with a seemingly-heavy reliance on left-of-centre participants, a conservative politician or public figure points to this seeming bias, the ABC blankly denies any such bias, and points to its unrivalled reputation for fairness, and so it goes, on and on, and on…
But a larger and more direct question should possibly be, what moral, ethical, and practical justification is there for governments to be funding broadcasting anyway?
Both the ABC and SBS point to a number of rationales for their continued existence as recipients of Government largesse.
One is the so-called “market-failure” argument. That is, no commercial broadcaster will provide critically-acclaimed and expensive current affairs shows like Australian Story, Four Corners, or Go Back to Where you Came From for a limited but loyal audience as the ABC and SBS does.
Another argument is one of diversity; as Australia has one of the most concentrated media ownership landscapes in the world, the ABC and SBS provide forums and outlets for views and productions that are simply not otherwise viable in a competitive, smallish national market like Australia’s.
As defenders of the ABC, in an acknowledgement of their seemingly left-liberal bias, also point out, the dominance the Murdoch-family controlled News Corporation media, containing some of the most virulent and consistent critics of the ABC and SBS, are proof enough of their need for continued funding.
Without the ABC and SBS, the argument goes, the Murdoch-monster would swallow-up the media landscape in Australia with a steady drum-beat of conservative voices, views, and productions.
Another argument for the continued existence of public broadcasting is the undoubted poor-quality of much commercial radio and television fare in Australia outside of the SBS and ABC.
But it could be argued that all these flaws in the quality, diversity, and breadth of broadcast media in Australia are because of the ABC and SBS dominance of the A-B demographic, rather than an antidote for it.
In the Sydney Morning Herald, and to a lesser extent, the Age and Financial Review, Australia has been able to support high-quality and profitable newspaper outlets for decades in a medium in which the ABC and SBS doesn’t compete.
Wouldn’t the same be the case for broadcasting if the ABC and SBS were removed from the media landscape? Wouldn’t a top-shelf and profitable broadcaster fill that void currently funded by Joe taxpayer?
Besides, in 2020, at a time when we have more choices than ever in our viewing and listening habits, and with a population more highly-educated and informed than any previous generation, isn’t there something a little anachronistic and, well, creepy and third-world, about the Government funding television and radio stations?
Despite constant conservative complaints in Australia about bias against the ABC and SBS, no conservative leader has ever seriously argued for their closure, sale or privatisation, but time, as they say, waits for no man (or woman).
Acknowledging the drastically-altered media landscape with the advent of online providers like Netflix, British Tory Prime Minister, Boris Johnson flagged a move recently to move the publicly-funded giant that is the BBC to a subscription service.
The BBC currently charges a licence fee of £157.50 (about A$300) per year to every household in Britain (Australia abolished television licence fees to fund the ABC in 1973) to pay egregious “talking heads” like Gary Lineker millions of pounds per year to host football.
If Johnson goes through with his threat against the BBC, long-accused by Tories of the same sort of bias as the ABC — against conservatives, pro-Euro, anti-British — how long before the same thing happens in Australia?
How long would it be before some Trump-esque One Nation candidate or leader bit the bullet on this issue?
While simply shutting down the ABC and SBS would be highly-unpopular in themselves — Australian are inherently conservative and most do value public broadcasting in theory, anyway — there could be another way. The ABC and SBS could be privatised and all Australian tax-payers issued shares in a company that they now already effectively-own. That company could then be floated on the share-market with everyone sharing in the bonanza.
The effect on the content of these privatised broadcasters, however, might be less spectacular than many critics realise. A sold, privatised, or commercialised ABC would initially have all the same journalists, commentators, announcers and presenters that are currently described as hopelessly-biased by conservatives like Andrew Bolt and Gerard Henderson.
Its audience is also likely to remain those same group of enlightened socially-progressive urban-dwellers, and the companies and organisations that are liable to advertise with such an entity, are likely to be high-end international brands that sponsor floats in Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
As an aside, with a heavy lock on the highest-earners in Australian society, the ABC could be highly-profitable; if able to get its exorbitantly-generous staffing arrangements and entitlements under control.
There would still be critics who would claim that it was a victim of cultural capture, nothing has changed, still the same old firm, but in a sense that would be irrelevant. It would be at least nominally-beholden to its share-holders and its profit and loss would be measured by how well it met its target-audience’s needs.
As the Guardian Online and The Age have showed, if you want to try and run a business model on tired leftist tropes and eternal victimhood for self-styled minorities, that is your affair.
The rest of us could then get on with enjoying or ignoring the ABC and SBS, as our preferences commanded.