Here’s the Thing: Why it’s your ABC

Originally published at TheVine, 2 December 2013

What’s the ABC actually for? Glad you asked!


As you’re no doubt aware, the government is slashing funding to the ABC. You know, just like they promised they’d do the night before the election. It’s not like the soon-to-be Prime Minister himself explicitly denied that the government were going to make any cuts to public broadcas…

…Oh. Sorry, scratch that.

One of the best things about the ABC, as far as the government goes, is that they can’t complain about reductions to their own services because then they wouldn’t look impartial and therefore clearly be deserving of punitive cuts.

Communications Minister Malcolm “you don’t seriously think I’m a secret lefty these days, surely?” Turbull announced the cuts earlier this week and even went on QandA on Monday to tell them that losing 500 jobs before Xmas was basically nothing to worry about and that $50 million per year in cuts should be easily absorbed.

The cuts will also force the closure of Adelaide production studios – leaving only Sydney and Melbourne operating – which has resulted in the bizarre spectacle of seeing Education Minister Christopher Pyne (and MP for the Adelaide electorate of Sturt) petitioning against his own government’s policy.

Turnbull also explained that commercial networks were all doing it tough these days and that therefore… um, the ABC should also suffer, despite not being a commercial network?

And here’s the thing: it’s a distinction that needs making because the ABC is not just a fancier version of channels 7, 9 and 10 paid for by the public purse. It’s a completely different beast.

Let’s start with the question of what commercial networks are there to do. The answer is very simple: make money from advertising.

And that’s it.

That’s what they exist to do. A network that doesn’t make money is a failing network. There’s nothing wrong with being profit driven business – that’s the entire basis of capitalism, after all. But providing you with entertainment and information is a means to an end: they want you to watch the commercials they sell. That’s the business model.

You’re not the audience: you’re the product.

It’s true of all free services. Want more proof? Lovingly cast your eyes to the left and right hand sides of the page you’re currently looking at. And hey, why not click on them while you’re at it? It all helps.

The ABC, however, is not there to make mad dollaz, yo. And that’s because of the ABC Charter, enshrined in section 6 of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983.

One of things said by the dumber end of the political spectrum is the ABC should be able to compete with commercial networks if it’s so gosh-darn good.

The problem with that is that it’s specifically forbidden to do so by the aforementioned charter. Specifically, section 2(a)(i): one of the jobs of the ABC is not to duplicate “the broadcasting services provided by the commercial and community sectors of the Australian broadcasting system”.

So it’s not meant to compete with the commercial networks. Fine. But what isthe ABC meant to do?

Glad you asked, possibly imaginary interlocutor:

Here’s section one, in its entirety, laying out what your ABC is all about.

The functions of the Corporation are:

(a) to provide within Australia innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard as part of the Australian broadcasting system consisting of national, commercial and community sectors and, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, to provide:

(i) broadcasting programs that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of, the Australian community; and

(ii) broadcasting programs of an educational nature;

(b) to transmit to countries outside Australia broadcasting programs of news, current affairs, entertainment and cultural enrichment that will:

(i) encourage awareness of Australia and an international understanding of Australian attitudes on world affairs; and

(ii) enable Australian citizens living or travelling outside Australia to obtain information about Australian affairs and Australian attitudes on world affairs; and

(ba) to provide digital media services; and

(c) to encourage and promote the musical, dramatic and other performing arts in Australia.

… so the axing of the Australia Network makes (b) kinda tricky, and since (ba) has been the main thing they’ve been sinking development money into, that’s going to be where a lot of cuts are likely to be made: which makes it harder for them to live up to the terms of their charter, which gives the government another stick with which to beat them.

You can already imagine the conservative argument: heck, if they can’t even do what they’re obliged to do under law, why are we wasting money on it?

Editor update: Inspired by the ’80s campaign “8 Cents a Day” in funding negotiations for the ABC, 8 cents being the estimated cost of the ABC per head of the population per day for the service, we’ve worked out the numbers for the ABC in 2014.

At the moment the ABC is operating on $1.04 billion per year. The current Australian population is approx 23,868,684 (you can watch it tick up on the ABS website), and that averages out to around $45 per year per person, and about 12 cents per person per day. Not bad when you take into account inflation, expansion into internet services, and digital output (leading to more channels on radio and TV), a 4 cent increase ain’t bad at all over 30 years.

Plus, there’s that leaked report from KPMG which proves the ABC is working as efficiently as it possibly can be, and is in fact underfunded.

But there’s another point worth making here, which is that the ABC isn’t just a radio and TV network. It’s a nation builder. That’s the main reason why the government decided to consolidate the country’s metropolitan public radio stations in 1932.

Furthermore, like government itself, the ABC is yours. It’s there for the betterment of you, your family, your community and your country. That’s why you pay (practically nothing from your own pocket) to support it.

We’re a small, geographically disparate country with a tiny population by global standards. One of the few things that unites us across this wide, brown, sea-girt land is Our ABC. That’s what makes it powerful, and – if you’re a government who currently sees electoral value in creating division and fear – that’s what makes it threatening.

Without getting too high-minded about it, there is nothing more important than a free press and an informed electorate for the functioning of democracy. Thomas Jefferson, that American chap who knew a thing or two about democracy, memorably said that representative media is a better curb on tyranny than even representative government:

“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

Who is more representative of the people of Australia: a media organisation obliged by law to provide timely, accessible services to the nation, or a for-profit conglomerate?

And ultimately that is why the ABC is so important. It’s not beholden to anyone except the people. It’s entire explicit purpose is to be clear, accurate, accessible, and to support our local culture without being concerned if it’s going to get a solid 12 in key demos on Sunday evenings.

We are not merely a nation of customers. We are citizens.

More than that, we are Australians.

And it’s our ABC.

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