The difference between the ABC and Fairfax and News Ltd is that the ABC is a $1 billion government program that provides media services to Australians. Fairfax and News Ltd are private entities that do so at their own expense and hope to earn a profit. Those small details were missing from Laura Tingle’s defence of the ABC published inWeekend AFR.
As such we can expect somewhat different behaviour from the national broadcaster than from the private sector. Indeed, holding the public sector to a different standard is commonplace in our society. The ABC, very often, wants to have it both ways. For example, paying its employees market rates of pay when they don’t have to compete in marketplace for income.
But some criticism of the ABC is unfair. Of course the ABC would send journalists to cover the recent royal wedding. As every other serious media organisation did. That, however, should not detract from the mounting criticism that is being levelled at the ABC.
For all its protestations of “independence” the ABC as a large and generously funded government program can and should be scrutinised by government, the Opposition, and ultimately the taxpayers who pay for it. Having embedded itself into the Australian psyche and culture the ABC has managed to avoid serious scrutiny for a long time. The ABC – like all government programs – should be an election issue at every election.
To justify its existence the ABC and its supporters posit a range of mostly overlapping rationales. We hear a lot about independence, quality and diversity. Less about being a market-failure broadcaster. Rural subsidy also appears to play a role in justifying the ABC’s existence – although it seems to be very Sydney-centric for a rural audience. It was the diversity argument that Laura Tingle emphasised at the weekend.
But it isn’t quite clear what is meant by the term “diversity”. The idea that media markets might lack diversity has its origins in a famous spatial economic model by the mathematical economist Harold Hotelling. In his model, firms, in a market with a small number of firms and not competing on price, would offer near identical products. Hotelling believed this explained the “excessive sameness” in capitalist markets. That is an interesting model but it does not explain the creation of public broadcasters in Australia and the UK.
To the contrary, public broadcasting in the UK was introduced explicitly to reduce diversity – the perceived cacophony and anarchy of radio broadcasting seen in the United States. The ABC was designed to follow the BBC model (albeit with a small commercial sector alongside). To argue that the ABC provides diversity where the private sector does not is entirely incorrect. What the ABC does is provide those very same services without having to attract an audience.
A generous interpretation of that feature is that there are some media services that should be provided that the private sector won’t provide. But it is difficult to imagine what those services might be. In any event, the ABC explicitly denies that it is a market-failure provider.
Reporting political falsehoods
What the ABC does provide in excess, however, is partisanship. Any media organisation should be ashamed to be told that it is reporting political falsehoods as facts. Yet Mitch Fifield – the Minister for Communication and (very) nominally responsible for the ABC, did just that. No doubt he’ll be told something about consistency with “editorial standards”.
Those would be the same editorial standards that saw Emma Alberici publish Labor talking points on company tax cuts as if they were uncontroversial facts. The same editorial standards that saw two News Ltd journalists compared to a mass murderer just last week. Yet we are supposed to be fed up with News Ltd antics.
Let’s be blunt here: the ABC burns through $1 billion of taxpayers’ money every year. Not shareholder money, not a mogul’s money. Taxpayer money. The ABC is a not a blog run on a shoestring, or out of someone’s basement. To argue that being left-partisan is simply to compensate for right-partisanship in the commercial sector is to disfranchise all those coalition voters who pay for the ABC. Australians do not expect their government agencies – even nominally independent agencies – to exclude other Australians without excellent reason.