Opinion

The ABC’s unchartered waters

In Ken Inglis’s forensic history of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, he quotes then communications minister Neil Brown as saying in the early 1980s that the ABC “jealously guarded their independence and resented any intrusion”. It “went into paroxysms of rage if a minister sought to intervene in any of their activities”.

Actual, perceived and alleged political interference is a theme running through the national broadcaster’s history, in regard to politically sensitive issues, in particular programs, coverage of contentious or contested issues, internal industrial relations and management practices, certain high-profile program-makers, producers or presenters, and the expansion or curtailing of services.

There is no doubt that political interference has been attempted by all sides of politics, at times successfully. At other times it has been fended off by brave chairpeople and managing directors or by bureaucratic dissembling and institutional circling of the wagons. Sometimes public outrage, campaigns and pressure have come to the fore to defend the ABC or to pressure it.

Ultimately the ABC operates at arm’s length, albeit through a board appointed by the government. Importantly, also, the managing director is appointed by the board, not by the government. While this structure ensures independence, it poses challenges around the relationship between the ABC and broader areas of public policy.

Editorial independence is fundamental to public broadcasting. However, the principle of the ABC’s independence has become a mechanism for the ABC to avoid scrutiny and accountability and to avoid engagement with important areas of public policy.

Neither major political party has been prepared to tackle the issue of the ABC’s governance and distinguish between its editorial independence and the independence from public policy that over time it has claimed for itself.

Accordingly, neither party has developed a consistent and coherent policy framework in relation to Australian content on the ABC or the ABC’s relationship to the independent production sector.

The high point of government policy regarding the ABC came ahead of the November 2007 election, when Peter Garrett, shadow minister for the arts, released a set of ALP policy initiatives. Garrett’s New Directions for the Arts described the ABC as a “platform for local creativity” and committed to adequate funding to ensure the ABC could deliver “substantial levels of Australian content”. It also committed to amending the ABC charter “to mandate minimum levels of Australian drama ... reflecting the similar obligations that apply to commercial television networks”.

This was a major initiative and broke new ground. The policy proposed regulating the ABC to deliver Australian content, to serve as a platform for Australia’s creative talent and to contribute towards a sustainable film and television industry. For the first time in the ABC’s history and in the history of Australian broadcasting policy development, the functions and role of the ABC were aligned within a major party’s election platform and associated with the cultural imperative around Australian screen content and the industry and creative sector that produced it. Labor won the election, and the Rudd government’s second budget, in 2009, announced that “additional funding will allow the ABC to provide similar levels of Australian drama as that required of the commercial broadcasters” along with funding for a “new digital-only children’s channel [that] will provide a high level of age-appropriate, Australian entertainment and educational material” with 50 per cent Australian content.

However, the alignment of policy objectives around content, the ABC, the production industry and creative sector was all too short-lived. A decade later, in the absence of a policy framework to direct these objectives, the ABC has returned to business as usual. There has been a reallocation of resources away from Australian content alongside a souring of its relationship with the independent production sector.

The Rudd government did not follow through on its commitment to make minimum levels of Australian drama on the ABC a charter requirement. The ABC successfully opposed the move on the grounds it would represent an intrusion on its independence. The argument has continued to be put by the ABC and its supporters that it must not be given directions in regard to its programming.

Subsequent ALP national policy platforms dropped any reference to the ABC and eventually to broadcasting more generally, including the ABC, SBS, film and television and Australian content. Within four months of Julia Gillard’s launch of the ALP’s Creative Australia: National Cultural Policy in 2013, the ABC was reallocating funds away from Australian content generally, and away from adult drama, children’s programs, documentary and Indigenous programs in particular.

The ABC began to reallocate these funds according to its own internal priorities – with no announcement, no consultation with the production industry or other stakeholders such as the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, no reporting of its decision in its annual reports and no information provided about where the money had gone. It did so standing behind its “independence” in the face of calls for greater transparency.

This reallocation was well ahead of the budget cuts imposed by the Abbott government. Malcolm Turnbull, as the minister in the Abbott government, introduced cuts totalling $254 million over five years, and took the view that these savings would not and should not affect programming – savings could be found within “operational efficiencies”. The ABC, under then managing director Mark Scott, quickly signalled that this would not be the case: how the ABC dealt with this reduction in funding was entirely a matter for the ABC.

Ultimately, the funding argument around the ABC is political in nature, circular and without reference points. What does “adequate” funding mean when all anyone can point to is the charter, which can be regarded as an important foundation but which nonetheless is no more than a list of high-level intentions without reference to broader policy considerations?

In every debate, in every discussion about the ABC’s services, its operations, its allocation of resources, where it should sit, or where it positions itself in broader policy frameworks such as Australian drama, children’s television or Australia’s creative community, finally the ABC draws the line, brings down the shutters, circles the wagons, and claims its independence. It can propose a children’s channel, support the proposal by promising high levels of Australian content and be funded to do it, and then some four years later decide that it has alternative priorities and shift more than 50 per cent of that funding elsewhere – and that is independence. It can decide to engage with Screen Australia and a nascent Indigenous production sector to develop and produce prime-time drama and documentaries and achieve additional funding to do so, and then decide to reduce that funding disproportionate to any funding cut it may have received – and that is independence.

Few would disagree that the ABC’s editorial independence must be preserved, protected and, where necessary, vigorously defended. It is what distinguishes a public broadcaster from a state broadcaster. However, the ABC is also a public institution established by parliament and funded by the taxpayer. It is Australia’s major cultural institution and the public interest in its services and its operations rightfully extends to its engagement with, and its impact on, the country’s cultural output and its creative capacity.

In Britain, government intervention has resulted in the emergence of the world’s largest and most dynamic independent television production sector. From the 1980s, policy interventions included setting up Channel 4 and, soon after, the introduction of independent production quotas for the BBC and, following that, regional production quotas. The government also established a code of practice that included a requirement for broadcasters to negotiate with the independent production sector and enter into terms of trade that were fair and reasonable, overseen by the regulator, Ofcom. This critical policy intervention was applied to the whole public broadcasting sector, including the BBC. At no stage was there ever a suggestion that somehow the BBC’s “independence” was being threatened or impinged.

The ABC will resist any attempt to impose a framework of policy requirements and outcomes relating to Australian content output and its relationship with the independent production sector. And it will be supported in this opposition by a broad range of loyal and well-meaning supporters. The debate around the ABC for the most part is binary and sterile. One side claims that the ABC is simply underfunded and that any suggestion of imposing on it a set of expectations and outcomes is a threat to its independence. The other side focuses only on the news and current affairs output and claims that the ABC is politically biased and overfunded.

Yet, as Australia looked to the BBC for a model when the ABC was established in the 1930s and again when television was introduced in the 1950s, we could do worse than look again at how the British parliament over the years has resourced the BBC and has protected its independence, but also made a number of important policy-based interventions.

The Australian parliament’s statement of the ABC’s public purpose is essentially its much revered charter – fewer than 400 words written more than a quarter of a century ago that comfortably fit within a single A4 page. In contrast, the British parliament reviews and renews the BBC’s foundation document, its royal charter, every 10 years. It also reviews and renews what is described in the charter as a framework agreement between the minister for culture, media and sport and the BBC. This 60-plus page agreement establishes the requirement for an open and transparent public interest test if the BBC should contemplate any significant change to its services that may affect its public purposes. It requires the BBC to establish performance measures and targets in relation to its public purposes and, further, it authorises Ofcom to independently establish performance measures and to collect information as required to assess the performance of the BBC. The agreement also imposes requirements on the BBC in relation to original programs, regional production and independent production. For all of this, the British parliament demands very high levels of transparency and accountability.

The Australian parliament could and should do the same. Changes we are seeing in our media landscape are profound and fast moving, in the business models that underpin the production and distribution of content and in the advancing digital technology that enables its consumption. The ABC as a public broadcaster is in the privileged position of being able to engage actively and innovatively with the new digital landscape free from commercial constraints. Its role as a provider of Australian stories and supporter of our local production sector can only grow in importance. But it is operating in this new landscape without the protection of any public policy framework to ensure a commitment to Australian content and the production sector that creates it. And it has already shown its disregard for this content, disdain for the production sector and disrespect for the adult and children’s audiences that like to watch Australian programs. The evidence before us clearly demonstrates some urgency for action and an agenda for change.

 

This is an edited extract from Missing in Action: The ABC and Australia’s Screen Culture, Platform Paper 51.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2017 as "Unchartered waters". Subscribe here.

Kim Dalton
was ABC director of television from 2006-13, and is a former chief executive of the Australian Film Commission.

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