To fulfil its role as a public broadcaster the Australian Broadcasting Corporation no longer requires government funding. Notwithstanding the Essential public opinion polls in 2013 and 2014 indicating widespread support for the ABC, debate rightfully continues over government funding to the public broadcaster, with the Abbott government cutting its budget by around 4.6 per cent over the next five years. While the Howard government reduced ABC funding by 11 per cent in 1998, government assistance has increased most years since in nominal terms (particularly under Labour governments) to be around 110 per cent of 1995-96 levels by 2013 when adjusted for inflation.
Notably, the need to promote public broadcasting with extensive government assistance no longer applies in a media environment with a myriad of choice. Consumers can utilise an abundance of news choices, from sources more suited to their needs, as awareness and dissemination of important local, national and international news is made more prevalent with the advent of rapid internet and communication technology. When the broadcasting landscape was limited to a few commercial networks, a public broadcaster was deemed necessary to promote quality fiction and non-fiction television and radio programming. Yet today, an abundance of high quality drama flourishes on commercial television (produced both nationally and internationally), as does balanced analysis of news events and public affairs.
Moreover, a government has a responsibility to ensure that all free-to- air broadcasters operate within a fair playing field given competitive pressures. The National Commission of Audit (2014) have identified that free-to-air broadcasting companies are subject to:
Significant regulation in the content they are allowed and required to produce in exchange for their operating licences.
This indicates that the ABC and SBS have charters that do not set any specific operational requirements (such as hours of content produced, required quotas of Australian content, or channels to be broadcast), and are free to use the funding they receive from the government as they see fi t. At present, as long as the ABC can demonstrate efficiencies are being delivered in terms of cost savings, it can pursue and maintain new programmes and services as it likes, including ABC News 24.
The need for a fair playing field comes at a time when the Free TV Chairman, Harold Mitchell, observes that Australians broadcasters:
Are operating in a challenging environment where broadcasters are competing against new services that are unregulated, pay little or no Australian taxes, and invest virtually nothing in local content production.
Australian Television Drama expenditure decreased by 8 per cent in 2013-14 aft er reaching record highs a year ago, and of the 49 Australian TV dramas with industry expenditure accounting for $244 million of the $343 million of total expenditure—with the rest coming from government and foreign investment—the largest proportion came from the commercial networks (although the ABC had the largest individual share). Hence, in such a competitive environment, the National Commission of Audit has urged that:
The ABC and SBS be benchmarked against each other and the commercial broadcasters, [with the exercise providing] a sense of the savings that could be achieved without compromising the capacity of the public broadcasters to deliver services including to remote and regional Australia.
A key argument points toward funding as a safeguard for good content, but government funding to broadcasters does not determine quality—even despite the BBC pointing to national surveys that all judged their public broadcasters ‘to be higher quality than the commercial channels’.
For example, while Germany has one of the largest public broadcasting budgets—with annual revenue from licence fees being around €7.6 billion and a further €500 million coming from commercials—its news and political chat shows have been judged to rarely match the quality of the BBC, and Germany has ‘a poor record of producing exportable formats’, as reported by The Guardian in July 2015, when compared to the ‘international success of television series from Scandinavia, the US and Britain’. With the 2013 BBC report indicating that the US, like the UK and Australia, achieved amongst the highest ratings for both public and commercial broadcasters (with scores above 65 per cent and 50 per cent), it’s important to note that the success of US public broadcasting also occurs with much less government assistance. The large US market aids its decentralised system of public broadcasting with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is responsible for distributing federal assistance to producers of programming and individual public television and radio licensees.
Every $1 of federal funding directed to PBS television is matched by $6 in donations or ‘membership contributions’. There are a number of reasons to explain television success beyond whether a national broadcaster receives government financial assistance. Take the success of British television which, according to TRP Research, sold £1,207 million of television programmes and associated activities to other countries in 2014-15, and led the world in the sale of global television show formats internationally with 41 per cent in 2009.
Importantly, the privatisation of ABC funding sources is necessary because of its political bias towards centre-left policy perspectives on most issues. As long argued by centre-right commentators, the ABC very often offers positions, as Tom Switzer described in the Quadrant, that are ‘essentially left of centre’. These positions are apparent when discussing the labour-market, the economy, border protection, the republic, multiculturalism, same-sex marriage, civil liberties, Indigenous rights, global warming, the United Nations, the environment, corporations and energy sources. The bias is also further evidenced by the uneven attention given to prominent left and right wing figures following their deaths.
As it stands, a 2013 Sunshine Coast University survey found that 41 per cent of ABC journalists voted for the Greens, 32 per cent for Labor and only 14 per cent for the Coalition. Given this bias of ABC journalists towards the centre-left perspective, perhaps ABC journalists would be better informed through a university education which gives far greater attention to economic realities rather than progressive ideals—and one that’s in line with an electorate expressing greater support for the Coalition. Furthermore, it is folly to believe that the decline of commercial sector journalists today gives the ABC any added importance considering that bias.
The argument that government assistance is necessary at a time of so much choice is merely a vested interest position, and one which does not accommodate the need to ensure that fairness exists for all free-to-air operators. There may be some case for regulation to ensure that public broadcasting obligations are upheld, whether they be local content requirements or attention to regional and minority issues, as was the case with the privatisation of Telstra, which provided legislation to ensure adequate regional area attention. However, if Australia is to retain the ABC as its public broadcaster, while making it responsible for its own funding sources, then all that is needed to maintain or expand market share is quality to appeal to ample domestic (as well as international) viewers.