One of the criticisms of the 2020 Summit was that it would be a carnival of rent-seeking interest groups, whose "ideas" would only represent yet another pitch for funding from government. Kevin Rudd was well aware of this line of attack, and his specification that at least one initiative from each Summit stream would be "revenue neutral" was a clever counter. At least one of the Summit delegates, though, was playing a fairly traditional game of budget politics – the ABC’s managing director Mark Scott.
Whether you’re talking about business interests, industry lobbies or municipal and state governments, everyone knows that a change of government will at least provide the potential for cutting differently shaped and sized slices of the fiscal pie. A change of political regime provides an opportunity for players to suss out what a new government’s spending priorities are going to be. In this environment a clever lobbyist couches their demands in the rhetoric of "fresh thinking" and "new ideas".
Government-owned corporations don’t really need to employ lobbyists. The CEO role in the ABC and the SBS is as much about being a supplicant to government as it is about managing a public broadcaster. All this provides the essential context for understanding Mark Scott’s pitch in advance of the 2020 Summit. In essence, Scott’s "ideas paper" is an ambit claim for as much dosh as possible neatly wrapped up in threads of Ruddian rhetoric about creativity and digital futures.
It’s interesting that the paper hasn’t attracted much media comment. Perhaps that’s because of the timing – it got drowned in the flood of 2020 stories. But it’s also probably because the heat has gone out of the ABC funding debate. Although Kevin Rudd only promised "adequate funding" in the lead up to the election, the defeat of a government that expended so much energy on critiquing "bias" and whose acolytes in the commentariat never tired of denouncing the ABC in hyperbolic terms has probably served to siphon off much of the intensity of the public broadcasting budget wars.
On newmatilda.com, Tony Moore recently bemoaned the "management knows best" attitude of senior ABC players, picking up on a note that media analyst QUT academic Axel Bruns also sounds – that Scott’s rhetoric about interactive content disguises a continued failure to envision content creation differently from the traditional top-down model of creation for relatively passive audiences. But Bruns is also right to point to the plethora of initiatives the ABC has undertaken – including op-ed section Unleashed, satirical video outlet Sledge and open publishing initiative pool.org.au. There’s also the opening up of "interactive town squares" through a morphing of the local radio network with cyberspace.
However, Moore raises another important point which he doesn’t quite take to its logical conclusion – the fragmentation of audiences, the desire of users to become "produsers" and interact and create, and shifts in the media landscape all render the traditional left/right frame for understanding the politics of public broadcasting inadequate, if not obsolete. Moore correctly pings the fracture lines within the ABC itself, but he misses the commitment that does exist within a large and complex organisation to an innovative digital future, something Bruns experienced in his participation in the ABC’s Digital Futures talkfest (and which I saw at first hand at the same event in 2006).
This is where Scott comes back into the picture. The fracture line between those in the ABC who are committed to digital futures and those who are sceptical don’t correspond to the management/creative divide, as Moore seems to think. There are some very senior managers who are a lot more enthusiastic than many of the troops on the front line.
Scott plays his cards close to his chest, and ABC insiders are unsure whether he fully understands the digital futures agenda, and whether he’s prepared to support it with the top-down commitment it needs. (The underrated Balding certainly got it and supported it.) Here again the budget context provides an invaluable interpretative key. Scott is used to – in his previous role at Fairfax – "managing up", that is, mediating between those who do the job and those who pay the bills. Scott’s vision is really a budget submission manqué.
It’s here that the Rudd Government’s blind spots come into play. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has been preoccupied with the infrastructure side of his portfolio and Peter Garrett is not across the issues in his Arts role. So all Scott has to work with in pitching to the Government for more dedicated funding is the grab bag of communications policy cliches – a democratic citizenship, facilitating access, multi-channelling, and so on. No one really knows if the Government has been paying much attention to the ABC, and whether much serious policy thought has taken place.
Another aspect of this debate comes from the parallel conversations going on about culture and creativity more broadly. There are distinct divisions between those who want to see more funding for established cultural forms and those who want to see a thousand creative flowers bloom (a theme I’ve been analysing in my commentary on the Creative Australia stream of the 2020 Summit). Exactly the same dispute is being played out within the ABC.
Scott is broadly perceived as a manager rather than a visionary – and his ideas paper represents an attempt to paper over cracks within the ABC while at the same time present the best face to Government. Combine this with the political vacuum in communications and cultural policy in the government itself, and he may be missing a chance to shape the future of the ABC much more profoundly.
We’ll get an idea about where Aunty is heading on budget night next week. But we’ll learn even more when these debates – largely carried out internally and among policy wonks and academics – are held in the public domain.
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