Why Public Broadcasting Must Survive


The pitch to privatise the ABC and SBS by Victorian Liberals and the conservative think-tank the Institute of Public Affairs is the latest shot in a never-ending cold war. Knocking Australia's two public broadcasters is a rite of passage for some on the political right. While they believe the call for full privatisation may get some traction in the popular mind, in reality it is going nowhere. In the cold war against the ABC in particular, it is just hot air.

The clearest indicator of this came from Liberal Party Leader – and Prime Minister-in-waiting – Tony Abbott, who declared in the Daily Telegraph before the weekend’s Victorian Liberal conference, “[w]e have no policy to go down that path, we have no intention of going down that path and we won't go down the path”. Considering he was speaking to one of Australia’s most consistently right-leaning newspapers, that would appear to be an emphatic end-of-story. The conference's postponement of the privatisation debate would seem to suggest so.

If Labor wins the federal election, it will be end-of-end-of-story, with Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy reaffirming in this month’s budget outcomes the Gillard Government’s commitment to taxpayer support for the national public broadcasters, to the tune of an extra $109 million over the next three years.

The Greens – who whatever the result are likely to hold the balance of power in the Senate, pending a threatened double-dissolution – would never support privatisation. They accuse the Coalition of “[letting]the extremist cat out of the bag”.

That should, of course, be the end of the debate, though the Liberal Right and the IPA will try to keep this particular kite in the air as long as possible, if only to further embed in the public subconscious the general idea of privatisation.

Even if political reality rules out selling off both broadcasters, even if the ABC is still cherished by Australians whether they use it or not, even if the three commercial networks would campaign tooth-and-nail against having fourth and fifth competitors in the advertising marketplace and would prefer the ABC and SBS to continue to carry the main burden of public broadcasting responsibility – even then, privatisation is not a sound idea in practice.

One has only to look back at the SBS commercialisation push under Liberal Party appointed chairman Carla Zampatti and her managing director Shaun Brown to see that. Far from wrenching a public broadcaster from the public breast to roam freely in the so-called “free market”, trying to run a competitive commercial TV or radio network under a constrained public service charter is doomed to failure.

The Zampatti/Brown experiment sought a solution in substantially abandoning the more restrictive elements of the SBS Charter, such as its central commitment to multiculturalism, and it still ended in disaster. SBS television could not increase its average audience share much beyond its long-time five to  six per cent. The much-touted advertising bonanza failed to last, even before the global financial crisis.

SBS today remains essentially dependent on the public purse. What private investor in his or her right mind would buy such a can of worms?

Of course, proponents of privatisation argue that the Special Broadcasting Service is a special case and that the ABC would make a much more attractive proposition for investors. But would it?

There are essentially two possible options for a privatised ABC; it could either try to retain the spread and quality of its present offerings, especially its news and current affairs output, and thus require a premium from its shareholders. Or it could abandon the high-ground, try to emulate the three populist commercial networks in competing for a sustainable share of the advertising market and in all likelihood see its market value plummet and be snapped up by the likes of mining billionaire Gina Rinehart. The result would not be an ABC as we recognise it.

Privatisation supporters like to point to a market like the United States, which can support three major national commercial TV networks offering something akin to public service broadcasting – though it would be hard to argue for Fox as a fourth. They forget the American population is more than 13 times that of Australia or that television privatisation of itself – as George Washington University’s Professor Harvey Feigenbaum points out – does not lead to more choice for consumers. Concerning the global Americanisation of content, he argues, “The paradox of television privatisation is that, in cultural terms, it has led to less, rather than more, consumer choice.”

Time and again, in many areas of commercial life including newspapers and publishing, the tyranny of Australia’s relatively small population undermines the alleged freedom of the free market, resulting in monopolies or restricted oligopolies. It is a situation that already prevails in Australian commercial broadcasting and one which the removal of substantive alternatives such as the ABC and SBS would only exacerbate.

Which brings both proponents and opponents of privatisation to the issue of the public good.

The IPA and their fellow-travellers worship the “user-pays” principle, as if a nation’s intellectual and democratic life and social health is no different from shopping. This ignores the fact that there are very few real user-pay systems in our complex societies. Even in commercial television, non-viewers effectively subsidise viewers through the increased price they pay for an advertiser’s goods or services due to the cost of the advertising itself.

The so-called free-marketeers spruik the alleged benefits of across-the-board privatisation, without recognising there are some institutions and services that are too important to a nation not to be run by its citizenry. The police, law courts and public streets are obvious examples. So too is diversity of opinion – even if provided by the taxpayers themselves through publicly-accountable institutions like the ABC.

The ideological right’s recently-deceased “free market” poster-girl Baroness Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 claim that “there is no such thing as society” would still find little genuine support today among most Australians who, though cherishing their individuality as men and women, still believe they are joined to each other for the common good.

In many ways and unsurprisingly, the privatisation proposal by the Victorian Liberals and the IPA is an appeal to the past, to failed solutions they choose to ignore or fail to understand.

One has only to glimpse across the Tasman to see what a sorry mess commercialisation has made of the public-private hybrid TVNZ or look further afield to see the huge social and cultural dividends a broadcaster such as the BBC brings to Britain’s public life. There is even an argument that excellence in a public broadcaster such as the BBC — through heightened public expectations — encourages a similar excellence in its commercial rivals, though for a variety of reasons there is less evidence of that in Australia.

One reason is the power of the commercial networks and the way broadcasting regulation is established and administered in Australia. While the commercial radio and television companies are supposed to abide by their industries’ codes of practice, they are often ignored and only randomly enforced by the regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority. By comparison, the ABC and SBS have quite stringent charter obligations and frequently draconian codes governing their responsibilities to their audiences.

Coupled to the public’s sense of ownership of their national broadcasters, this has resulted in the perception that the ABC and SBS are somehow more error-prone than their commercial rivals whereas, in truth, they are simply more responsive in dealing with audience complaints – as anyone who has ever complained to a commercial broadcaster will testify.

Both national broadcasters face a host of potential threats, such as increased commercialisation, from whichever party wins office in September. But if Australians want a diversified media that is responsive to their needs, committed to excellence and independent of big business or powerful individuals, the ABC and SBS are best left as they are – in public hands.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.