The reaction to the announcement that Michelle Guthrie is ABC's new managing director designate has been, in some predictable quarters, depressing.
Senator Eric Abetz, a yesterday's man who won't lie down, declared Guthrie's first priority should be to "stop the lefty love-in". The ABC had become a "protection racket for the left ideology". Challenged by the guest presenter of RN Breakfast, Hamish McDonald, to justify this ludicrous hyperbole, Abetz cited a single Q&A panel that copped criticism in the recent review of that program by Ray Martin and Shaun Brown.
Guthrie: ABC a 'critical organisation'
Google executive, Michelle Guthrie, who has been appointed the new Managing Director of the ABC speaks on her plans for the ABC. Vision courtesy ABC.
Although Abetz didn't say so, he was referring to a special Q&A program on gay rights and same-sex marriage. The panel featured five gay or transgender panelists, and the Reverend Fred Nile. Brown and Martin rightly described that selection as "poorly judged".
However, they regarded that and one other unbalanced panel as "isolated lapses of judgment and not symptomatic of any systemic issue". Other than a tendency to invite left-leaning overseas guests on to the program, Brown and Martin found no evidence of political bias in the production of Q&A.
Abetz, on the other hand, said that single panel choice was "indicative of the regrettable culture in the ABC that emanates mainly out of Ultimo, Sydney".
Brown and Martin agree with Abetz that Q&A is too Sydney-centric but at least they acknowledge that its production, nine weeks out of 10, in the ABC's Ultimo studios is simply a matter of money. To produce the show in a different location around Australia each week, as the BBC produces Question Time around Britain, would be vastly more expensive.
But if Brown and Martin's recommendations are accepted, it's money that the ABC's News Division, into which Q&A has been moved, will now have to find: a task made no easier by the savage cuts to the ABC's budget, imposed, in clear violation of its election promises, by the cabinet of which Abetz was a member.
He is one of those politicians who have no difficulty whingeing about a centralism forced on the ABC by budget cuts, while simultaneously burning to cut further.
But this is petty stuff. It's been going on for decades and it will never stop, so long as the ABC exists. What is facing Michelle Guthrie, in an even more intense form than it faced Mark Scott when he took on the job a decade ago, is far graver; the existential challenge posed by the digital revolution.
The ABC, by charter, is a public broadcaster. But the very notion of broadcasting – public and commercial – is under threat.
Set up in the radio age, the ABC was permitted, and funded, to expand into television in the 1950s. By the late 1990s the ABC – first its staff, then its management, then its board – realised it had to move into the online space or become irrelevant. But it wasn't until 2013 that the Federal Parliament caught up, amending the ABC Act specifically to authorise the corporation to "provide digital media services".
But like every other television broadcaster in the land, it faces an incontrovertible reality: the natives of the digital age no longer watch broadcast television or listen to broadcast radio. If they're using the ABC's services at all, it's digitally: streaming content on their phones, downloading podcasts, or watching programs on iview.
But every time a viewer watches a program on iview, it costs the ABC money – money that its budget was never intended to cover. Should it charge viewers for access to iview? If it did, how long would it keep them? Or is digital distribution just the modern equivalent of old-style analog broadcasting, part of the service that the taxpayer should fund?
As for advertising online, that's not currently an option: it's specifically forbidden by the ABC Act.
There's a perfectly tenable argument, most often advanced by Guthrie's former employers at News Corp, that public broadcasters have no business parking their tanks on the digital lawn; that in an age of content profusion and profit scarcity, the competition to commercial media posed by publicly funded online news and programming is commercially unfair and socially unjustified.
There's the opposing argument, propounded untiringly by Mark Scott and, in former days, by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull: that with commercial business models – whether print or broadcast – failing, newsrooms shrinking, drama budgets dwindling, funding the ABC to tell Australian stories is more essential than ever.
What is the role of a public broadcaster in an age when broadcasting is dying? When newspaper empires are pushing into video newscasts and audio streaming, should the ABC be funded to produce text-based news? Where are the new rules for the new age?
It's a debate that should be raging. Inside the ABC, and in every other media company, it is raging. And yet in Canberra the politicians seem uninterested. Too many would rather bang on about bias, as they've been doing since about 1965.
Welcome to Australia, Ms Guthrie, the land that time forgot.
Jonathan Holmes is a Fairfax columnist and a former presenter of the ABC's Media Watch program.