IN THE drama over the federal government’s mostly abortive bid to introduce reforms to media regulation, the significance of one small success has largely been overlooked.
Parliament unanimously voted for a change to the charters of our two public broadcasters, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Special Broadcasting Service. The Charter of the ABC will now recognise that its function is not only to “broadcast” in the strict and old sense, but also to deliver digital content on its websites.
This matters to the future of journalism, because the ABC is now the largest single employer of journalists in the country. At a time of strained and breaking news media business models the ABC’s journalism is, depending on your point of view, either a safety net to guard against an emerging dark age, or an unfairly publicly subsidised competitor to struggling free market businesses.
The idea of modernising the ABC Charter to reflect that Auntie is about much more than broadcasting is not new. It was raised at Kevin Rudd’s 2020 summit in 2008, and in submissions to a 2009 review of public broadcasting. The more recent Convergence Review also recommended the Charter be updated.
Previously, ABC management has always resisted such moves. Managing Director Mark Scott has said it is better not to let that particular genie out of the bottle. As it is, the charter is nice and broad. It can mean many things to many people, and that has suited the ABC.
Yet the recent changes were supported by ABC management. Why the change in attitude? My understanding is that there is a fear that a coalition government might try to force the ABC to charge for its content online, or limit and withdraw it.
This suggestion has been advanced by senior people within News Limited, and found ready ears among some in the coalition.
The recent changes [to the ABC Charter] were supported by ABC management. Why the change in attitude? My understanding is that there is a fear that a coalition government might try to force the ABC to charge for its content online, or limit and withdraw it.
To be fair, it is not the view of the Shadow Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull. He said in a doorstop interview last month that while newspaper groups were critical of the ABC’s online presence, particularly The Drum’s “op-ed” style content, he did not believe “the travails of the newspaper industry can be laid at the door of the Drum website”. He told parliament that the ABC was “more important than ever” at a time when newspapers were in decline.
But the idea that the ABC’s online presence should be restricted has been pushed vigorously for many years by News Limited and the pay television industry, and that pressure is unlikely to go away.
With its substantial web presence, the ABC is effectively playing in the same space as newspapers at a time when both News Limited and Fairfax Media are erecting paywalls around their news content online.
The fact that news content is free to users on the ABC website is a significant problem for them. It makes it less likely that the average citizen will pony up the cash for a subscription to read The Australian, The Age or the Herald Sun.
The fact that the charter changes went through without controversy was partly thanks to deliberate strategy. They were slipped in at the same time as Senator Conroy was trying to introduce a statutory basis for news media self-regulation. The ABC was for once a long way down the commercial media hate-list. The eye was off that particular ball.
Yet the vehemence of the commercial media’s anger about the ABC shouldn’t be underestimated, and the lobbying won’t go away. It has been happening for years now.
When Foxtel launched its A-PAC public affairs channel in 2009, ahead of the ABC’s News24, it came with a cheeky video boasting that it was “at no cost to the taxpayer”.
There is another reason why the ABC might have supported the change to the charter. As an organisation tasked with broadcasting to the nation, the ABC has had the costs of transmission included in its funding. Yet the web-based content has never been funded.
In its submission to the 2009 review of public broadcasting, The Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association argued aggressively that the ABC and SBS should receive government money for new channels only in cases where there was a clear market failure.
ASTRA contended that there was no evidence of market failure in news reporting, children’s content, education or overseas content. If that argument had been listened to, then ABC3 and ABC News24 would never have gone ahead.
Even if there is a market failure, ASTRA said, then the money to address it should not go straight to the ABC and SBS. The required services should be put out to competitive tender.
That kind of argument, if accepted, would see the ABC restricted to providing only niche content such as that on ABC Radio National. It would leave a greatly weakened public broadcaster.
The battle between public broadcasters, newspaper publishers and pay TV has been hotting up ever since the ABC first entered web publishing, but has grown particularly bitter in recent years.
Mark Scott in 2009 described the attempt by News Limited to make people pay for content online as “a classic play of old empire, of empire in decline”. Mr Scott described the ABC’s determination to be “great partners with our audience and hosts of a national conversation”. He envisaged the ABC as “a town hall, a commons, a place for connecting not just with content but connecting with each other… A town hall that excludes no-one. A town hall, which is not … locked behind the pay TV wall. No citizen in a nation should have to buy a ticket to participate in democratic life.”
With this kind of talk, Mr Scott made himself the chief antagonist of every commercial media outlet that saw a future in charging for content.
This was a local variant of overseas controversies, including James Murdoch’s attack on the British Broadcasting Corporation for making life harder for commercial media. The then-BBC boss Mark Thompson responded: “Just because there are commercial art galleries does not mean you don’t have a national museum; just because there are commercial fun parks does not mean you don’t have a government park. National broadcasters represent a space that is neither commercial nor private but a “third space” that is public, and free to enter.”
Meanwhile, there is another reason why the ABC might have supported the change to the charter. As an organisation tasked with broadcasting to the nation, the ABC has had the costs of transmission included in its funding. Yet the web-based content has never been funded.
Once the dust has settled – and regardless of who wins the election in September – expect to see the ABC arguing that now its charter encompasses digital content, the funding must be made available to support the web platform, and more besides.
Journalist and author Margaret Simons is Director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism and Editor-in-Chief of The Citizen.