The ABC No Longer Has A Purpose, Except Pleasing Itself

Written by:
15 January 2021
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Originally Appeared In

There is good reason why former communications minister Richard Alston may have thought the ABC has a high-quality media of record while growing up in the 1940s and 1950s. For the times, it probably was. But, as Alston pointed out in these pages, those times are long gone.

When the ABC was first established in 1932 the world was very different – that world could be described as being one of media shortage. The infotainment environment was fragmented and incomplete. Fast forward 90 years and, if anything, Australians are spoiled for choice in their media consumption. Anyone with an internet connection and a smartphone can access news and entertainment from anywhere in the world. In Alston’s lifetime Australians have graduated from very little news to bitter arguments over what constitutes “fake news”.

In all that time there has been one constant – the ABC. An anachronism that has long passed its use by date. It is disappointing despite Alston knowing full well what is wrong with the ABC that nonetheless he reports that ‘There is no one in the federal parliament who favours privatising, gutting or defunding the ABC’.

This, of course, represents a governance problem within the Liberal party itself. In 2018 the Liberal Federal Council voted to privatise the ABC – a policy position the government has chosen to ignore. If elected politicians are able to ignore their constituents, it should be no surprise that apparently independent government agencies do so too. It is not just the ABC that is out of touch.

Alston’s bewilderment comes from a lack of understanding of what the ABC is, and what it isn’t. Unlike most other organisations the ABC lacks the discipline that comes from simultaneously meeting the needs of paying customers and meeting the demands of investors. The ABC neither must attract paying customers nor financial backing – they do as they please. There is no need to please anyone else.

ABC apologists often point to survey results showing how many Australians “trust” the ABC as an organisation. Yet media rating data suggests few of those very same Australians actually consume their product. Australians “trust” and value the ABC because they are in the habit of doing so, not because they are overly familiar with ABC offerings.

Rather than thinking of the ABC as being a traditional hierarchical organisation – one that can be simply improved by replacing some people at the very top, the ABC should be imagined as being a multisided platform. Subsequent Liberal governments have tried and failed to change the ABC corporate culture by stacking the board. Bottom line – the board has no capacity to implement any meaningful change; after all the ABC is designed to resist outside pressure.

As a multisided platform, the ABC tries to simultaneously satisfy multiple market segments. Many organisations are in this position, but paying customers and investors in those organisations are paramount. The ABC is in a position to ignore those segments while giving full vent to satisfying staff, running campaigns against conservatives, and political extremes. It doesn’t matter that parliamentarians, or even (some) senior management, want a “balanced ABC” that focuses on the interests of Queenslanders or whatever. There is no mechanism to make that happen. The way the ABC is set up, there can be no mechanism to make that happen.

In a world of media saturation there is no need for the ABC, beyond some sort of nostalgia – happy memories of families crowded around the “wireless” listening to the goings on of the outside world. Despite being an anachronism, the ABC remains an Australian icon and probably has some value. It would be irresponsible to simply defund it. In the face of hundreds of billions of dollars of public debt, keeping a fully funded ABC around is an indulgence that we simply cannot afford.

The ABC should be privatised. Either sold as a going concern to an existing media mogul or piecemeal to investors. I have previously suggested that the ABC be given away to current and former staff who pay for the shares via capital gains tax on disposal. It doesn’t really matter how the ABC is privatised – it does matter that even former communication ministers don’t realise that the ABC cannot be salvaged given its current organisation structure.

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