The ABC using its own airtime to cry poor makes for tedious viewing and ignores the concerns of ordinary Australians.
Other than having the host’s position filled by Virginia Trioli, this week’s Q&A was entirely ordinary, with five panellists on the left, a host (also on the left) and the Minister for Communications and Arts, Paul Fletcher, in the hot seat.
The questions where no less skewed than usual.
There were typical Q&A slanted questions that favour government cash splashes. That night these concerned the allocation of the $250 grant million arts grant, and the ineligibility of many artists for JobKeeper. One questioner (who as it turned out had been a Labor candidate) even managed to slip some identity politics in by asking “Why is it then that the Government appears to favour jobs for men in the recovery?”
There was a question about fee increases for humanities degrees that noted that everyone on the panel had one (perhaps that is the problem with Q&A).
The key moment of the evening was when a child called Matilda asked why her favourite ABCme presenter had lost her job. The Minister explained that the cuts to staff were independent decisions for the ABC to make. Trioli interjected to insist that the Minister say that there had been funding cuts to the ABC.
But Trioli didn’t have her facts straight. The ABC funding has not been cut; the 2018 budget simply froze the indexation of that funding. In practical terms that means that the yearly increase in funding is less than it otherwise would have been, but it is still increasing. For instance, in the last financial year the ABC funding increased by 1.5% (or $16 million) compared to the previous year.
But the ABC’s apparent inability to distinguish between a funding freeze and a cut is a minor issue compared to its much bigger problem – that it uses it $1 billion from taxpayers to complain about a lack of taxpayer money.
A more representative panel would have had someone to discuss the entire absence of funding cuts at a time when their commercial competitors are shedding revenue and staff. A representative cross-section of the public would have produced a questioner wondering why the arts sector receives a $250 million grant in a time when everyone is doing it tough. But instead the panel was aghast at the prospect of up to 250 staff being cut at the ABC over three years out of a workforce of over 4,000, most of which are likely to come from voluntary redundancies. Whilst every job loss is a tragedy, the concern over ABC job cuts is completely disproportionate when the private sector losses, such as the 6,000 from Qantas this week, are considered. The ABC is a remarkably safe place to work, compared to the private media sector, or any other sector at the moment for that matter.
The navel-gazing is just one of the preoccupations that the ABC does not share with the rest of Australia. Polling commissioned by the Institute of Public Affairs in December 2019 found that only 32% of respondents believed that the ABC represents the views of ordinary Australians, yet 100% of Australians are forced to fund the ABC.
The ABC and the publicly funded arts and media sector more generally is a victim of its own success. In Why Are Artists Poor? Han Abbing presents the argument that subsidies actually make individual artists poorer. Abbing, who is an artist, economist and emeritus professor at the University of Amsterdam, cites a study conducted in the Netherlands which monitored artists incomes over a period of time when subsidies were increasing, only to find that individual artists were earning the same or less.
Media and the arts are traditionally high risk, high reward professions. The government, by creating artificial job security through subsidies, encourages more people to go into the field, leading to an oversupply and therefore lower wages. Moreover, subsidies lead to a disconnect between the creator and the consumer. When a bureaucracy like the Arts Council or the ABC curate content then it doesn’t produce what the audience likes but what the bureaucracy believes they ought to like.
Q&A is the perfect example of a program that doesn’t represent Australian values, but what it thinks Australia should be. The problem with Q&A is not that it grills ministers, but that the inquisition only comes from one direction. Without the opposing critique of government expenditure, or weakness in pushing back against identity politics, Q&A and the ABC more broadly, fail to represent the views of Australia or facilitate proper public debate.
If anything, this weeks’ Q&A showed why the ABC shouldn’t just receive a funding freeze, but a cut.