The internal affairs at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (the ABC) that have led to the dismissal of its general manager, Michelle Guthrie, and the board chairman, Justin Milne, had the effect of pushing parliamentary politics to the side. This may have been a good thing for newly installed prime minister Scott Morrison, as commentator interest in the ABC upheaval has surely deflected attention from the problems of the Liberal party. The respite may be brief, however, as Mr Morrison and his cabinet colleagues are now in the position of being able to select the next ABC chair.
The spectacular implosion of the ABC’s leadership has understandably received significant attention. To lose both a board chairman and a general manager in one week certainly qualifies as an event of some importance, but it might be worth remembering that the ABC’s leadership “crisis” may be symptomatic of a much deeper malaise. Bubbling away under the surface of the personality conflicts has been a much deeper debate about the ABC’s future in this the era of rapid technological change that has challenged the very media platforms that the ABC once excelled in – television and radio.
The traditional platforms have been under siege from the world known as “on-line”. This is presumably a reference to mobile telephones and the various forms of personal computing via which citizens in the “digital age” interact with the outside world. The prevailing wisdom here is that, as these forms of very personal communications become all pervasive, things like televisions and even radios no longer become the places citizens go to for news, information, sport and even entertainment. The ABC’s problem, like so many traditional media corporations be they state or privately owned, is that it’s primary role was in providing content for these old media forms.
The new generation of leadership at the ABC was obviously alert to this and had been seeking to find ways to make the ABC relevant in the more modern age. In fact, the dispute between management and the board at the ABC, which has been reported now as a battle of principle over political independence, was in fact partly triggered by concerns about how the ABC should progress in the digital age. It should be remembered that the reason for the former chairman’s concern about government anger at the ABC’s reporting of politics was driven less by his friendship with the then prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and more by seeking to enhance his chance of gaining significant funding to develop new on-line services by not alienating the potential source of source of those funds.
In fact, the leadership battle appears to have been driven in no small way by competing visions of what the ABC’s digital future would be like conducted against a backdrop of regular cuts to the ABC’s funding by the Liberal-National coalition governments led by both Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull. It was in the context of the need to achieve cuts to services in order to stay within budget (although it has since been revealed that the ABC kept returning significant operating deficits) that there were reductions to a host of services including some key news and current affairs programs.
One of the interesting paradoxes in this is that the group of people who stand to lose most from diminished coverage of news and current affairs are those who are at the centre of such activity, including leaders in business, in social services and, of course, in parliamentary politics. This is because few, if any other electronic media corporations in Australia take politics, government and local affairs as seriously as the ABC.
A diminution of the ABC’s efforts in these activities has the potential to result in deleterious consequences for the national public debate, not least because of the very self-conscious recognition within the organisation of the need to achieve balance in reporting whilst maintaining a notion of political independence. The ABC’s nearest rivals in the public sphere do not have these concerns. The cable network Sky appears to base its approach on the need to be partisan, whilst the meagre offerings from Channel 10 and its “The Panel” are driven by the need to appeal to perspectives of its viewer demographic given the need to sell advertising time.
All of this brings us back to the central point, however, and that is the impact technological change is having on the media and the struggle a public corporation dependent on government funding is having balancing its traditional role with what its perceived as its role in to the future. The ABC was originally intended to be the vehicle for the cultural enrichment of the masses. Audience response to, and acceptance of the ABC were driven more by the corporation’s commitment to broadcasting sport, news and a slightly more popular form of entertainment. In the days of limited networking capacity, the ABC’s ability to broadcast across the nation was also important.
These days, most of the ABC’s competitive advantages have been lost. Sport coverage is now being monopolised by commercial interests, and the news is something people are happy enough to learn about from their facebook or twitter accounts. The lack of funds limits the ABC’s ability to undertake cultural production, and in an era where the world’s cultural production can be easily accessed via the internet there can be no certainty that there would be great public acclaim for any ABC program anyway.
The challenges confronting the ABC are substantial and do not disappear with the sacking of Ms Guthrie and/or the resignation of Mr Milne. The political elite also need to be careful about whom they select to re-start the process of leading the ABC, for the future of the public sphere hangs in the balance at this time. Whether you like it or not, agree with it or disagree with it, the fact is that the ABC is one of the few outlets committed to enhancing that public sphere. It certainly is an institution that takes coverage of Australian politics very seriously. For that reason alone Australia’s politicians need to be much more reflective on the decisions they make on matters that affect the corporation’s future.
by Dr Nicholas Economou
Dr Nicholas Economou teaches Politics at Monash University’s Clayton Campus in Melbourne.