Now more than ever: the ABCs of Australia
Ignore the reviews. The Australian ABC, at ninety years old, is clearly more valuable to Australians today than it ever was. ABC Local Managing Director David Anderson gives us a rare insight into the ABC he knows intimately: a cultural powerhouse where Australian identity is celebrated, democracy is championed and a very Australian brand of creativity is encouraged to flourish.
Many Australians who care about the ABC are worried about its future. I’m not surprised by this, considering how our critics conveniently overlook, ignore and overlook the entirety of the ABC’s contribution across the country, every day.
We know that for democracy to flourish, a country’s citizens must have a source of truth that is independent, unbiased and committed to providing the accurate and relevant information they need. This is the central role played by the ABC. And any attempt to interfere with or undermine the independence of the ABC, by political or commercial actors, must and will be resisted at all costs.
I am of the view that the ABC’s best defense against attacks on its legitimacy or interference in its operations will always be the continued support of the Australian people. I believe we can count on this support because now, more than ever, the ABC is important to Australia.
It is true that in real terms, ABC’s funding is 30% lower than it was in the mid-1980s. This year, ABC’s operational funding is over 10% lower in actual to that of 2013-2014.
(The federal government pledged $3.3 billion to the ABC over three years earlier this month. That’s an increase of $87.2 million over the period. This includes resuming escalation to the ABC’s core funding, renewing funding for the Enhanced News Gathering Program which has given the ABC the ability to deliver more local news and broadcast information from across the country to a national audience, plus additional funding for audio description (realizing ongoing savings of approximately $40 million per year.)
Internationally, well-organized calls have been made to completely “defund” public broadcasters, including in Canada and Britain, and this right-wing agenda is being amplified through social media. The globalization of information and entertainment creates major new challenges for all media organizations, as well as many opportunities.
The vast majority of Australians trust the ABC, rely on it, appreciate its importance to democracy and regard it as a reliable source of news, information and entertainment. It should be a matter of national pride that for 90 years a multi-generational community of talented artists, journalists, broadcasters and storytellers have shaped this unique and irreplaceable Australian institution.
A standout for the ABC in recent years has been You can’t ask that. This is a program with a unique, no-frills way of addressing the myths and fears that can accumulate around those who are seen as different, those who find themselves misunderstood or pushed to the margins. The participants are brave, they are asked to answer anonymous, sometimes rudely honest questions sent by our viewers. Sounds high risk, and in the wrong hands it could be.
You might be surprised to learn that this bold program is already the most successful ABC format in our history, adopted and localized in countries around the world, from Israel to Canada, from Belgium to the United States. Already, 30 seasons of YCAT aired on 10 international productions in nine different languages, including Arabic, and seven other territories took options on the format.YCAT has become a globally unique Australian gift.
Bluey quickly became a global phenomenon, earning accolades and numerous international awards. The series is so Australian that one of its episodes is called “Dunny”. Disney+ has chosen to honor this authenticity by retaining the original Australian voices to deliver to overseas audiences. One episode, ‘Sleepytime’, was named by New York Times criticizes Margaret Lyons as one of the best tv episodes of 2020. In any genre.
As global giants offer more entertainment choices and commercial investment in Australian content dwindles, the ABC must and will play an even bigger role in sharing and promoting Australian stories and culture. We will therefore continue to advocate for a budget envelope that gives us the financial stability and confidence to undertake these tasks comprehensively.
Public funding that backs the ABC means there is no real or perceived pressure to circumvent issues that may affect sponsors or advertisers. In the absence of subscribers, ABC cannot be subtly tempted to focus on a particular audience segment or demographic with content that caters to one perspective on the world.
The ABC opposes any proposal for a so-called “external” government-appointed ombudsman with powers beyond the current role of the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Other major public broadcasters like the BBC and CBC do not have a comparable external role and this would increase the possibility of government interference, significantly degrading the independence of the ABC and its ability to fulfill its democratic function.
We cannot take democracy for granted. Nor can we take public broadcasters for granted.
Unfortunately, public broadcasters and independent journalism around the world are under increasing pressure. The ABC has teamed up with seven of these broadcasters – the BBC and the national broadcasters of France, Germany, Canada, New Zealand, South Korea and Sweden – to form a global task force to defend the values of public media and preserve the future of healthy democracies. .
Independence certainly does not mean a lack of accountability. The ABC is always accountable to the Australian people. This accountability is expressed every day in the roles of the six directors (plus the president) appointed by the government to ABC’s board of directors for a five-year term. Today, the ABC remains fiercely protective of its editorial independence, providing trusted public interest journalism through investigative reporting, fact-checking, public health and safety reporting and emergency broadcasts.
Australia has now entered a world of multimedia abundance. We are experiencing a series of revolutionary changes in news, media and entertainment. On-demand viewing services like Netflix, Stan, Apple and Disney+ are in a global race for viewers. Apple spent around US$6 billion ($8 billion) on content in 2019. Amazon spent US$11 billion ($15 billion) in 2020. And Netflix planned to spend US$17 billion ($24 billion ) in 2021. Meanwhile, specialty services such as Foxtel Kayo offer on-demand sports; Spotify and Apple Music promise unlimited music choice; and YouTube offers a lottery of user-generated material and, increasingly, curated content. Traditional television and radio formats, with their fixed linear schedules, seek to best compete with this myriad of choices and the instant gratification of paid and free sources available through phones, laptops and home theater screens.
The news has also changed forever. Not only can Australians easily access international news online, overseas news providers have been targeting the Australian market with Australian content and are experimenting with ways to win and retain Australian customers. As a result, local news providers have seen their traditional audiences decline and lost valuable ad revenue to platforms like Google and Facebook.
We can also see that while the options available to Australians beyond the ABC for their news, information and entertainment have multiplied, more is not always better. We will need the ABC to confront new kinds of informational, media and social deficits: loneliness and disconnection, fake news and conspiracy theories, mistrust in the effectiveness of our democratic processes.
The ideal level of CBA funding is still debated. But this is ultimately about the kind of Australia we want. Do we, as a nation, believe in the notion of an institution serving all Australians independently, with a broad charter to provide services that the private sector cannot provide? I think so.
This is an edited extract from Now More Than Ever: Australia’s ABC by Managing Director David Anderson, published February 15 as part of the In the National Interest series published by Monash University Publishing.