I opened today's edition of The Australian to find an editorial (that was pointed to via the frony splash) advocating the sale of the ABC. Now whilst this is perhaps not unexpected from a Murdoch publication, it actually sets a dangerous thought in the mind of the Federal Government who is intent on selling every single damn thing it owns.
This has been stolen without permission. If the Australian wishes to charge me for the use of this article, then they're welcome. I did buy this edition of the newspaper.
Rudi Michelson: Privatise the ABC
With its poor performance, entrenched ideological bias and 'Vietcong-style' industrial strife, surely it's time we sold the public broadcaster
October 16, 2006
THE ABC in 1932 comprised 12 radio stations and was formed mainly because Australians were besotted by the British empire. Australia wanted its version of the BBC.
Postmaster-general James Fenton was typical of sentiment on the ABC Bill in Hansard in March 1932: "(The ABC will) deepen our empire spirit considerably if we, through the wireless, can listen to the greatest British artists, speakers and lecturers."
Looking back, the birth of the ABC is hardly spirit deepening. The ABC was highly censorious. It scrutinised scripts of plays to excise words such as damn, it banned certain kinds of dance music and refused outright to play jazz. Jazz was the music of black Americans. You had to apply for a licence to own a radio and only 6 per cent of Australians were affluent enough to own a radio.
Fast forward to century 21 and the reasons for establishing the ABC have become totally irrelevant. It is riddled with acrimony and operates in a range of crowded competitive markets.
The ABC today comprises businesses that include television, radio, 38 retail outlets, book publishing (over 120 titles each year), magazines, videos and DVDs, contemporary music including Renee Geyer and Kate Ceberano and logo licensing. These are all crowded commercial markets, yet Australian taxpayers are subsidising ABC businesses to the tune of nearly $800 million each year. In broadcasting, Australia has 627 operating radio stations and 138 TV stations, plus pay TV. The internet is a further ubiquitous source of information and entertainment. Why is a government broadcaster competing in this mix?
Government broadcasting is favoured by totalitarian states and Islamic theocracies. New Zealand has no government broadcaster and the CBC in Canada gets 60 per cent of its revenue from commercials.
After Australia's spate of privatisations in the 1980s and '90s, it is intriguing that the ABC was spared. Qantas, Commonwealth Bank, the ports, airports, energy, water and others were privatised. It was OK to privatise monopolies and duopolies in essential services, yet not a government body that provides entertainment. The ABC is not a smooth-running organisation. More than 3000 complaints each quarter from fed-up audiences, staff disputes, court cases, industrial action and personal vendettas are common. The latest acrimony was last month's extraordinary threat of "Vietcong-style" attacks by staff for more pay. With a fixed budget, expect more service deterioration if management capitulates.
In July it was the staff campaign against the ABC board for acting on legal advice not to publish a dirt book on rival radio broadcaster Alan Jones. This venting included a widely signed complaint, exclamations of outrage all over the ABC airwaves including a school-marmish berating on Media Watch. Yet all this heat ignored the question of why the ABC has a book publishing business. Further is the moral bankruptcy of using the ABC's supposed scarce funds for a book attacking a person's reputation and private life.
ABC acrimony has various targets and the airwaves are used to attack people. Here's just one example of how our broadcaster treats Australia's elected Prime Minister. On nationally televised The Glass House, compere Wil Anderson (April 30, 2004) responded to a taped excerpt of John Howard:
Howard: "And I always admire somebody who in his own way for his own reasons forms a conscientious objection on something."
Anderson: "Bullshit. He admires someone who forms a conscientious objection on something (sarcastically). Yep, like the war in Iraq. Or the treatment of indigenous people. Or being screwed by a free trade agreement. Gee, John Howard must have admiration coming out of his arse!"
I challenge the Friends of ABC to name a worse example of Australian broadcasting. There are more examples like this - from the ABC. The ABC complaints process is pathetic. Material such as the above is exempt because it's in a so-called comedy program. What's worse is that ABC management and the Government tolerate personal abuse and indulgences on the airwaves as just another day at the ABC.
ABC TV and radio ratings are poor. Audiences prefer the commercial networks even with advertising. A typical week's free-to-air TV ratings are: Channel 9, 28.5 per cent; Channel 7, 27.1 per cent; Channel 10, 23.7 per cent; ABC TV, 15.8 per cent. If your footy team performed like this every week, it would be asked to leave the competition. Yet the commercial stations pay tax on profits while the low-rating ABC sucks up tax dollars and complains it doesn't get more.
The ABC is positioned in a no-man's land: it can't compete with the commercial networks, but also is too big and dull to be a niche provider. There is nothing special or unique about ABC programming. ABC radio mimics its commercial rivals with the main difference being a much fatter diet of political content. When the ABC website says one of its three "must see" TV programs is the tired British Midsomer Murders you know you're in Blandville.
Part of the dullness comes from the ABC being a big politically correct straitjacket. The dominant personalities are Phillip Adams on Radio National, ex-Whitlam staffer Kerry O'Brien on TV and perennial leftists on Media Watch, At the Movies, Four Corners et al. If the ABC decides to become true to its claim of diversity, it would stop appointing same-olds.
Tonight ABC managing director Mark Scott will release the latest ABC editorial policies at the Sydney Institute. The ABC website says it publishes the most extensive set of broadcasting guidelines in Australia. This boast is like the old Soviet Union's claims of the most extensive human rights laws in the world. But the ABC needs overhaul; rewording the most extensive guidelines in Australia is just tinkering.
Privatising the ABC would be a bonanza for taxpayers. They would be spared the nearly $800 million liability each year and sales of ABC businesses would fetch multi-billion dollar prices. Also, profitability from future services would be taxed just like the ABC's competitors. But any government knows that privatisation would incite a squealorama led by the inner-city set who need their soft-left group-think reinforcement. More valid resistance may come from people who don't want commercials. Yet SBS TV's transition to semi-commerciality has been generally hailed as a success.
Further, historian Ken Inglis's book This is the ABC: The Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1932-83 states that both the Scullin Labor government and Lyons UAP government supported an ABC Bill that allowed private sponsorship. This was overturned by amendment after pressure from newspaper proprietors who did not want advertising competition. Hardly a legitimate reason.
There are different models of privatising the ABC without reducing broadcasting services. Over the past two decades, governments have become adept at privatisations especially at getting improvements in service quality. Broadcasting asset sales would be subject to strict service standards and air time would not be reduced.
A new-look ABC would carve out the retail and other fringe businesses, say goodbye to the Ultimo bureaucracy and see a number of smaller media groups of TV and radio stations similar in size and diversity to the successful mid-size public company Southern Cross Broadcasting. First preference may be management buy-outs especially in regional Australia where the people who operate the radio station could own it. Larger asset groupings should be sold to new media entrants.
Talented and hard-working ABC staff would benefit from greater rewards, more autonomy and more professional workplaces.
The ABC is becoming less relevant and less credible. It started out with roughly 50 per cent market share of Australian media in 1932; today its total media market share must be 5 per cent or less. The Government has a clear role to regulate media, but there is no compelling reason why it should own and operate an entertainment business.
Rudi Michelson, a financial public relations consultant in Melbourne, is a fellow of the Financial Services Institute of Australasia.
I write this in response to Rudi Michelson's article on the 16th of October calling for the privatisation of the ABC. I suspect that his original starting point of argument is in fact fundamentally flawed.
The ABC as a public broadcaster has two unique points on which it can never hope to please anyone with. If it tows the government line then it will be accused as being the government's mouthpiece. If in the event it attacks the government, then it will get its funding progressively cut. Clearly there is a fine line to be straddled.
Mr Michelson cited an example from The Glass House where in the name of satire, Wil Anderson made light hearted fun over issues which this very publication has asked serious questions? Come on now, which is it to be?
Further to this they cite the ABC being set up in response to the BBC and in deference to Britain. It is argued that the government should not hold an office by which it should be allowed to inform and entertain. Is this because The Australian is scared? Remember it is proudly owned by News Corporation, which as part of the Fox conglomerate also happens to own half of Foxtel.
How then does Foxtel raise funds? Foxtel is paid for by advertisers and subscribers. Now this is an interesting point - the BBC is paid for by subcribers (via the TV licence), in principle they are both user a pays system. In 1974 when the ABC dropped the licence fee of the basis of "equity", it was then forced to live in the government's pocket. I bet that The Australian was there 32 years ago also beying for blood. Hypocritically what does Foxtel do now? Charge a TV licence fee under a different name. Or is the newspaper prepared to distance itself from its parent corporation?
Another example Michelson gave was that New Zealand has no government stations. Has The Australian resorted to lying? TVNZ which runs One and Two in NZ is a Crown Entity and as such is in principle identical to the ABC. It is fully funded by the New Zealand Government, or has this fact been conveniently forgotten as well?
Hypocracy, Lies and Deception dressed up as editorial journalism. An Australian reader is an imformed Australian, really? Quite frankly I expected more from this newspaper.
An owner of the ABC who doesn't want your filthy, immoral and corrupt mits near it.