I fear that the continued cuts to the ABC will exacerbate the issue, not solve it. For the move away from the mass media is the issue, not the perceived “state-run” nature of it.
The future of the ABC is perhaps in more doubt than ever, and this is not just because of a strong trend away from traditional media. Incessant criticism of the public broadcaster’s role in the Australian press has led to severe budget cuts, of which more were announced this week.
When Michelle Guthrie took over as the ABC’s managing director, she warned that its continued existence was by no means “safe”, and that the strategy for its future was to be planned accordingly. Her statements were meant to be read as mere pragmatism, but I contend that there was something more – namely a veiled concession to the troubling idea that the ABC has lost its way and should proceed only in subservience to the major private networks, or else fold. Those are the same networks, I might add, whose only present appeal to relevance is in maintaining a modern-day definition of yellow journalism.
That is not to let the ABC off the hook. While losing key radio programs, it maintains some questionable television ones like The Drum, a half-hour spectacle of non-debate. I would say that an example like that has something to do with its declining viewership, but the occasional poor programming is so strongly outweighed by the investigative qualities of Four Corners and Foreign Correspondent (and by the general presentation of news) that I am more inclined to cite the mass movement away from traditional media as the biggest problem.
The interesting thing about the ABC, and one of the keys to its longevity, is that through public funding it has maintained itself as perhaps the strongest defender of the role of the Fourth Estate in Australian democracy.
Moving back to the programming criticism, it must be said that the pitfalls are rare and substantially outweighed by the standard of information with which viewers are provided. Perhaps there is another argument to be had here about the effect of digital media on attention spans? The market for long-form television news content is not as strong as it once was, which is a great shame.
I am not convinced that budget cuts are the correct method for solving this problem. Indeed, in them is a terrible irony, as forcing limitations on programming will invariably result in a decline in the standards, depth, and breadth of the content presented. When it does, the consequences will be used (by those same people who called for cuts) against the ABC to mount an argument for the cessation of its journalistic activities.
And you should have no doubt that such an argument will be made with force. Indeed, it already is in the form of a libertarian misnomer about the existence of the ABC as a publicly-funded broadcaster: that the organisation should not exist on principle because state media organisations are bad, and because media programming should not be sourced from tax revenue. The latter is fair game. But the former, although state media is problematic to say the least, is completely irrelevant to what we have in Australia. The ABC is not a state-bound entity that massages the political class and functions as an organ for the distribution of propaganda. On the contrary, from its founding and in the tradition it has subsequently built, the ABC is decidedly independent and, if anything, it can only be said that it is too critical of government – but even that is a stretch.
I am not convinced that budget cuts are the correct method for solving this problem. Indeed, in them is a terrible irony, as forcing limitations on programming will invariably result in a decline in the standards, depth, and breadth of the content presented.
Indeed, the interesting thing about the ABC, and one of the keys to its longevity, is that through public funding it has maintained itself as perhaps the strongest defender of the role of the Fourth Estate in Australian democracy. Admittedly, I would probably not be found to advocate for the establishment of more public broadcasters; one is quite enough to keep in check. But this one has worked particularly well, which is why I am not at all hesitant to stand in its defence.
Some are not so complimentary, and would view the downfall of the ABC with nothing short of glee. I am disinclined, however, to give much weight to the idea that the editorial board of the ABC are in the game for the chief purpose of perpetuating some kind of disagreeable Leftist conspiracy. If you are so far to the Right that you see enemies where they do not exist, and view the use of Wodehousian-quality language in news programming as “a cultural cringe if there ever was one”, then you will believe just about anything. (The educational value of the ABC is, I contend, another of its most important traits.)
The ABC remains an incredibly reliable news source in Australia, and I wish it were the case that its quality was better rivalled so as to drown-out the yellow end of the trade. Its independence from government as a public broadcaster is an exceptional, historically rare scenario, and we would do well to appreciate it as such.