Last night on Q And A on ABC 1, Mark Day of The Australian inadvertently provided the best reason why the ABC should exist and perhaps even why it deserves more funding. Mr Day said that there needed to be media from both the left and the right to ensure that ideas are tested and put forward, in order to maintain a healthy and functional democracy. The reason why I say that he put this forward inadvertently is because in Australia we live in one of the most concentrated and myopic media markets in the world.
Broadly speaking there are three newspaper groups and in many places there is only one daily newspaper for the city, for two cities on the east coast there are two daily newspapers, and nowhere in the country are all three represented. There are five television networks and many regional areas lacking the basic functions of compiling their own local nightly news bulletin. There are four major players in the radio market but two of them are almost exclusively music boxes and only the ABC produces anything other than programs which are live sport or analysis, talkback or morning zoo style programs. To that end, only Radio National and News Radio bother to produce long form radio programs.
To that end, and the fact that the ABC is really the only major organisation in the county who trains people in radio and television production, the ABC is immensely important.
Yet for reasons not known to me, and maybe I'm being paranoid, the current CEO of the ABC, Michelle Guthrie, doesn't seem to see the importance of the thing that she's been put in charge of. As a former employee of Murdoch's STAR satellite television networks in Asia, it looks like she's been parachuted into the job by the current Liberal Government for ideological reasons, rather than because of any genuine love for public broadcasting and that troubles me. Running a commercial organisation requires a different skill set and mindset to that of running a government service and the truly great people who are remembered, are remembered because they have displayed great vision and directed governments to create something far bigger than themselves which has outlived them. I for instance have no idea who the Premier of NSW was in 1923 but the real dynamo behind public works in the state, John C Bradfield, is not only remembered in this state but also Queensland.
Someone much wiser than me once said that where you put your treasure, there your heart will be also. Not only do I think that that is true for individuals but also companies and governments. A government budget is not only a list of expenditures and taxation revenues but a statement of what the state thinks is important. Granted that in fascist, communist or other totalitarian regimes that public broadcasting is often the top of propaganda, in a mixed economy democracy, public broadcasting often contributes to the life of the nation in ways that commercial media which is dictated by the desires of advertisers and shareholders, does not.
In some respects public broadcasting projects the voice of the nation. Often it acts as a counterbalance to commercial media which when left to its own devices runs into sensationalism and engages in its own propaganda, pushing the views of its owners. If something is unprofitable then it's not likely to be aired or published by commercial media and that by default says that the only voices which are heard are those with the most money. If you saturate a population with those voices and perpetual messages of apathy, cruelty and stupidity, which is often the case, then the nation often reflects what it's being told.
Something that's bothered me recently is the way in which Michelle Guthrie has made claims about cutting managerial staff from the ABC in the latest set of economy drives but somehow those people in management end up being people like camera operators, VT editors, sound and lighting engineers and other people such as set designers. All the while, organisations like News Corp through Sky News and The Australian in particular are able to yell ever more loudly into the media space in Australia. If the ABC speaks truth to power it is accused of leftist bias but if it doesn't then it hasn't done its job of holding the government of the day to account.
Say what you will about the ABC, because it operates several national radio and television networks as well as its online news service, it is really the only truly national media network that by virtue of having a presence everywhere in the country, is able to offer consistently reliable reportage about the country. Fairfax doesn't have a daily newspaper in Qld, SA, NT or WA; News Corp doesn't have one in WA; the television networks have affiliates but don't truly operate out of the regions; and of the various radio networks, only the ABC has a proper national news gathering service. That in itself is valuable and if the current CEO doesn't appreciate the seriousness of that, then shouldn't really be there.
The job of the Chief Executive Officer of any organisation is first and foremost to ensure the continuing viability of the entity. The CEO of the ABC in particular needs to stand up to the government of the day, to maintain the independence of the corporation and to fight for the budget of the corporation. It is important for the CEO of the ABC to remember that it should outlive the current term of government, their own stewardship of the corporation and possibly even their lifetime. Just because there are calls from wingnuts and enemies to shut it down, they don't accurately reflect the will of the people or what is best for them.
Largely because public broadcasting isn't swayed by the demands of the profit motive, it can afford to tell stories and run ideas that aren't otherwise commercially viable. In an era where news gathering, collection and analysis is suffering from falling advertising revenues, really it's only public broadcasters who are prepared to take the necessary time to scrutinize what's being said by governments and the powerful. That function to some degree isn't being carried out by commercial media and nor will they do so because there's no money in it.