The Coalition parties' latest failed attempt to bring the ABC to heel, with Liberal senator Andrew Bragg's proposed Senate committee inquiry into the ABC's complaint review process, was both unnecessary and questionable.
It was unnecessary, because as Senator Bragg would know, there was already a review under way. Although appointed by the ABC, the review's members have considerable merit. Professor John McMillan AO is a former federal and state ombudsman, and is noted for his independence. The other member, Jim Carroll, although having been an SBS news director, also had commercial network experience. Certainly the ABC has since announced that the public will be allowed to participate in the review.
The proposed Senate inquiry was questionable because it indicated a lack of trust by the Coalition parties in the ABC's process. After all, Senate inquiries are hardly ideal means to review sensitive areas like the public broadcaster, given they are increasingly seen to be partisan, biased and non-expert, with their recommendations rarely implemented. Indeed, the Senate review appeared to have been undertaken for reasons of political grandstanding and career advancement, rather than to tackle the more important issues that do deserve attention about the ABC.
Some of those bigger issues include not only the quality of ABC reporting and the adequacy of its complaint processes. They also concern whether the ABC, as presently configured, really works any more, given the rapidly expanding digital platform, Australia's changing demographics and cultural diversity, and different emerging settlement patterns.
An attempt to tackle these broader issues has been missing under the successive Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments. Labor, too, has hardly been forthcoming with any viable suggestions.
The last full, open, public review of the ABC was the 1979 Dix Committee of Review of the ABC. It reported in May 1981. By that time the incumbent Fraser government was besieged with too many other problems to give close attention to the ABC.
Recent suggestions from think tanks such as the Institute of Public Affairs to privatise the ABC are hardly practical. The necessary legislation would never get through the Senate. Such attacks also ignore the ABC's support, its innovative programs, its reach into regional Australia - and the crassness of commercial offerings.
Coalition worries about ABC bias affecting younger voters are exaggerated and misplaced. Except for triple J, few tune into the ABC's current affairs programs, listen to Radio National or bother to watch Insiders. Those shows are for the few politically engaged.
Perhaps critics, including Senator Bragg, should take heed of Glyn Davis' suggestions in his 1988 book, Breaking up the ABC. He proposed "deconstructing" the ABC into distinct autonomous units to meet specific functions and to cater for different audiences. These bodies would have clearer missions, be more focused and responsive to their audiences, and with different boards, be more accountable for delivering specific products. Public participation through subscription could also be more easily facilitated.
Such a change would require a less monolithic bureaucratic structure at head office. As Davis said, all this could happen "without creating additional administration or financial problems" and the "the mechanics of implementation are not daunting".
Keeping a public broadcaster is necessary for a wide variety of reasons - including the need for independent news reporting, ensuring quality programs are available as distinct from just the most popular, and issues with private-sector media conglomerates.
The challenge is making the ABC more diverse, more organisationally flexible, and responsive not to political demands, but to public interests.
All political parties whinge about the ABC, especially when they are in government. Attempts to address concerns about the ABC with letters of complaint from communication ministers, changing the ABC board, budget cuts or partisan-motivated parliamentary inquiries ignore the more fundamental challenges facing our national public broadcaster which governments need to address.
That requires first a clear articulation of desired outcomes and a long-term strategy to build support for change. The Coalition should have started this process when it came to office in 2013, but has singularly failed to do so. The proposed Senate inquiry was another misplaced initiative. It was politically inept, bereft of clear policy goals and provoked understandable adverse reactions from the ABC, ensuring it failed to get up in the Senate before it started - and worse, further poisoned relations between the ABC and the current government.
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