For fans of publicly funded broadcasting in Australia, Mark Scott’s speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in Australia last week had some good news elements, but is it enough to save the ABC?
According to Scott, the ABC is the nation’s most trusted institution; most of us are consuming ABC products and we like it a lot, despite its critics and naysayers.
However, for Friends of the ABC (FABC), Scott’s speech sent mixed signals about the national broadcaster’s future.
The Victorian spokesperson for FABC, Glenys Stradijot is “disappointed” that Scott appears to make an argument for the ABC in “purely commercial terms”, rather than emphasising the benefits of having a “truly independent” public broadcaster. It seems to “erode the very reason that the ABC exists” she says.
Your ABC now linking to commercial news sources
Mark Scott also announced two new online news aggregation services for the ABC that he hopes will drive traffic to its already popular news website.
Newstracker is an automated system for linking other content sources directly to a news story produced in house. The BBC is using the technology to aggregate stories from a variety of sources. Scott said the service will help drive traffic to the ABC’s competitors too.
‘Spoke’ is a similar service that will work on smartphones and tablets at a more local level. Scott says these services will be trialled and rolled out later this year.
Glenys Stradijot says that sending loyal followers to commercial news sites might “dilute the broadcaster’s reach and influence”. Or that it could associate ABC credibility with advertising, “thereby cheapening its brand”.
Stradijot says it’s “dangerous and worrying” for the ABC to concede further ground and that the broadcaster’s opponents will argue it has become “irrelevant”.
“It further blurs the lines for the public about how it is different from the commercial media, which is not a strategy for the ABC’s long term survival,” Stradijot says.
On the other hand, the ABC’s supporters might now be hopeful that this means any attempts by an Abbot-led Coalition government to privatise it would be met with some fairly stiff public resistance.
At the moment Tony Abbott says that privatisation is not on its agenda, but coalition governments across Australia have started privatising public assets soon after coming to power in Queensland and other states.
The federal government now outsources most of its asylum-seeker handling to the multinationals Serco and G4S.
Given that privatisation remains on the neo-liberal economic agenda, we cannot rule out that public broadcasters might be on the chopping block under a Coalition government.
After all, the ground has been prepared for such an eventuality for some time.
The logic of neo-liberalism demands that governments vacate any economic territory that can be left to the market and media is a prime piece of real estate as far as conservatives are concerned.
Calls continue for the ABC to be sold-off
Since at least 2009, Rupert Murdoch and his extended family are on the record demanding that the BBC in Britain and the ABC in Australia get out of the way of private profit taking.
News International executives and senior columnists have also argued for the down-sizing or full privatisation of public broadcasters, using the argument that their very existence distorts the market and prevents commercial media from selling as much news and entertainment as they should be entitled to.
The 2011 decision to award the Australia Network television contract to the ABC, rather than Murdoch’s Sky network after a messy tendering process, also rankled News execs and was roundly criticised by the Auditor-General.
The News Limited attacks on the ABC have also been ideological – that it is too green, or too left, or that it is biased and engages in groupthink.
While News has led the charge, Fairfax Media has also argued that public funding of the ABC distorts the market, which it claims ‘reduces media diversity’.
This is a strange argument, but it suits the national broadcaster’s enemies.
From his comments last week, it now seems maybe Mark Scott has decided to be conciliatory towards the commercial media. Time will tell if this is a wise move or whether it will just embolden the circling sharks.
In his Chamber of Commerce speech, Scott went to some length in defending the ABC’s market orientation and understanding of the commercial “Media Ecosystem”. He says that the ABC is a good friend to the for-profit players and cites collaboration with The Age as an example.
“All in all, whenever there’s a partnership that will benefit audiences, you can rely on the ABC to pull its weight.
“We’re very alert to the balance between public and commercial media in this ecology. We understand that we need each other,” Scott argued.
This is an interesting move by Scott, who has established a reputation for aggressively backing the ABC’s digital expansion.
It is either a stroke of genius, which will inoculate the ABC against further attacks from its commercial rivals and their ideological supporters; or it is a risky move that could backfire.
The decision to reach out to the commercial sector by linking to their content via Newstracker is not likely to satisfy the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA).
The danger for Mark Scott is that he has provided more ammunition to the ABC’s detractors who might now argue that if the broadcaster is aggregating news from other sources, it does not need such a large newsroom of its own.
The future of the ABC (and the SBS to some degree) is still under a cloud. While Scott had some success at getting more money from Canberra in the last budget round, winning over A$1 billion for the first time, there is no guarantee that he will have the same luck in future.
Indeed, it could get worse. While Abbott, for the moment, has said that privatising or scaling back the ABC is not coalition policy; that could all change in a heartbeat if the conservatives win this year’s election.
Even if Rudd scrapes back in, the ABC could face cuts; after all there is a black hole in government finances that somehow has to be filled with ‘savings’ and ‘efficiency dividends’.
Public broadcasting could be seen as a luxury under such circumstances.
Free market warriors like Murdoch and the IPA will not give up their fight easily.
On the other hand, neither will Friends of the ABC.