Come On, Aunty, Time To Work Out Where You’re At

Management guru Peter Drucker famously asked the chief executive of General Electric two simple questions: “If you weren’t in the business you’re in, would you enter it today? If the answer is no, what are you going to do about it?” Has our ABC ever asked itself these questions?

The GE chief took Drucker’s questioning as an opportunity to radically restructure the company and re-examine its core business. The ABC should use the challenges brought on by new media and the internet to do the same.

A poorly kept secret of Australian libertarian and conservative politics is that when we complain about bias, it’s usually only because we faithfully watch and adore the ABC.

The network’s nickname – Aunty – makes it seem more like a kindly relative who has cats and loves having you over for quiche than a major government program that employs 4500 people and receives nearly $1billion dollars of taxpayers’ money.

Aunties don’t have to justify their own existence; government programs do. Certainly, the broadcaster has a charter. But that charter consists of little more than vague platitudes towards diversity, community and “awareness of Australia”.

Unfortunately, the reforms announced over the past month – the introduction of a 24-hour news-gathering service, a few local websites, and some shedding of in-house production staff – do little to clarify the ABC’s proper role.

But that is hardly surprising. In fact, in her 76 years of operation, Aunty has never really known what she is for. Australia has public broadcasting primarily because our pre-WWII federal government didn’t trust the commercial radio stations to sufficiently educate the lumpen masses on the finer points of Brahms and Shakespeare.

Since everybody in parliament agreed that Britain’s BBC was really cool, the government set up an Australian version. But unlike the original BBC, the ABC has tried to be “for all Australians” and tried to compete with commercial broadcasters, adopting an uncomfortable mix of highbrow and lowbrow programming.

But a core foundation of liberal democracy is that the government should not do anything that society can do itself. The government should not directly compete with the private sector.

What then would the ABC be doing now if it took Drucker’s advice?

There seems little reason for the network to have a commercial arm – should the ABC be directly competing with bookstores? Why, too, should it be broadcasting highly popular sporting events when there is no lack of private networks willing to do so? As a rule, the ABC should never out-bid another broadcaster for programming.

ABC director Mark Scott argued that not only can the network provide local news and commentary to remote and rural communities, but it could also provide a digital “town square” for community engagement.

Among public broadcasting advocates, this view is popular – it is a convenient way to imagine a role for the ABC far into the online future. But it is again indicative of the ABC’s drifting purpose. Why should taxpayers be paying the government to imitate the thousands of bulletin boards and forums that already pepper the internet? And genuine communities are built by individuals, not governments.

There are, unquestionably, roles for which the ABC is necessary. Government is responsible for broadcasting political events such as Parliament. And the ABC has an enormous back catalogue of Australian history it should be immediately digitising.

Its cultural role needs to be examined in the context of the entire broadcasting market – in particular, the Australian content regulations that apply to commercial channels. If government is convinced that artificially promoting Australian culture is vital even in the age of media abundance, then that may be a task for public broadcasting alone.

But these are unasked questions. The ABC is seen by commentators from the left and the right as a sort of gift from the government for the politically obsessed, rather than a major public policy initiative of the Federal Government.

All media organisations across the world need to go through similar soul-searching. But because the ABC is insulated from the punishing winds of the market, it has consistently avoided tough decisions about what services it should provide. If it is to adjust to the future, that will need to change.