A tale of two media reports: one poses challenges for digital media; the other gives ABC and SBS a clean bill of health



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The competitive neutrality report has given the ABC, and SBS, a clean bill of health.
Shutterstock

Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

Two reports out this week – one into the operations of Facebook and Google, the other into the competitive neutrality of the ABC and SBS – present the federal government with significant policy and political challenges.

The first is by far the more important of the two.

It is the interim report by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission of its Digital Platforms Inquiry, and in a set of 11 preliminary recommendations it proposes far-reaching changes to media regulation.

Of particular interest are its preliminary recommendations for sustaining journalism and news content.

These are based on the premise that there is a symbiotic relationship between news organisations and the big digital platforms. Put simply, the news organisations depend heavily on these platforms to get their news out to their audiences.

The problem, the ACCC says, is that the way news stories are ranked and displayed on the platforms is opaque. All we know – or think we know – is that these decisions are made by algorithms.




Read more:
Constant attacks on the ABC will come back to haunt the Coalition government


The ACCC says this lack of transparency causes concerns that the algorithms and other policies of the platform giants may be operating in a way that affects the production of news and journalistic content.

To respond to this concern, the preliminary recommendation is for a new regulatory authority to be established. It would have the power to peer into these algorithms and monitor, investigate and report on how content – including news content – is ranked and displayed.

The purpose would be to identify the effects of the algorithms and other policies on the production of news and journalistic content.

It would also allow the authority to assess the impact on the incentives for news and journalistic content creation, particularly where news organisations have invested a lot of time and money in producing original content.

In this way, the ACCC is clearly trying to protect and promote the production of public-interest journalism, which is expensive but vital to democratic life. It is how the powerful are held to account, how wrongdoing is uncovered, and how the public finds out what is going on inside forums such as the courts and local councils.

So far, the big news media organisations have concentrated on these aspects of the ACCC interim report and have expressed support for them.

However, there are two other aspects of the report on which their response has been muted.

The first of these is the preliminary recommendation that proposes a media regulatory framework that would cover all media content, including news content, on all systems of distribution – print, broadcast and online.

The ACCC recommends that the government commission a separate independent review to design such a framework. The framework would establish underlying principles of accountability, set boundaries around what should be regulated and how, set rules for classifying different types of content, and devise appropriate enforcement mechanisms.

Much of this work has already been attempted by earlier federal government inquiries – the Finkelstein inquiry and the Convergence Review – both of which produced reports for the Gillard Labor government in 2012.

Their proposals for an overarching regulatory regime for all types of media generated a hysterical backlash from the commercial media companies, who accused the authors of acting like Stalin, Mao, or the Kim clan in North Korea.

So if the government adopts this recommendation from the ACCC, the people doing the design work can expect some heavy flak from big commercial media.

The other aspect of the ACCC report that is likely to provoke a backlash from the media is a preliminary recommendation concerning personal privacy.

Here the ACCC proposes that the government adopt a 2014 recommendation of the Australian Law Reform Commission that people be given the right to sue for serious invasions of privacy.

The media have been on notice over privacy invasion for many years. As far back as 2001, the High Court developed a test of privacy in a case involving the ABC and an abattoir company called Lenah Game Meats.

Now, given the impact on privacy of Facebook and Google, the ACCC has come to the view that the time has arrived to revisit this issue.

The ACCC’s interim report is one of the most consequential documents affecting media policy in Australia for many decades.

The same cannot be said of the other media-related report published this week: that of the inquiry into the competitive neutrality of the public-sector broadcasters, the ABC and SBS.

This inquiry was established in May this year to make good on a promise made by Malcolm Turnbull to Pauline Hanson in 2017.




Read more:
The politics behind the competitive neutrality inquiry into ABC and SBS


He needed One Nation’s support for the government’s changes to media ownership laws, without which they would not have passed the Senate.

Hanson was not promised any particular focus for the inquiry, so the government dressed it up in the dull raiment of competitive neutrality.

While it had the potential to do real mischief – in particular to the ABC – the report actually gives both public broadcasters a clean bill of health.

There are a couple of minor caveats concerning transparency about how they approach the issue of fair competition, but overall the inquiry finds that the ABC and SBS are operating properly within their charters. Therefore, by definition, they are acting in the public interest.

This has caused pursed lips at News Corp which, along with the rest of the commercial media, took this opportunity to have a free kick at the national broadcasters. But in the present political climate, the issue is likely to vanish without trace.

While the government still has an efficiency review of the ABC to release, it also confronts a political timetable and a set of the opinion polls calculated to discourage it from opening up another row over the ABC.The Conversation

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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ABC and SBS are not distorting media market, government inquiry finds


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government’s inquiry into whether the ABC and SBS are competing
fairly with the private sector’s media operators has given a tick to
the public broadcasters.

The report concluded: “Given their market shares, and other factors, this inquiry considers the National Broadcasters are not causing significant competitive distortions beyond the public interest”. But it did see the need for greater transparency from them.

The review arose from a 2017 deal between the government and Pauline
Hanson to get One Nation support for media law changes which
liberalised ownership rules. It has been chaired by Robert Kerr,
formerly from the Productivity Commission. The report was released by
Communications Minister Mitch Fifield on Wednesday.

The outcome will be disappointing to News Corp in particular which has
been highly critical of the ABC’s expansion in online publishing. The
former Fairfax organisation, now taken over by Nine, also complained
about the competition eating into the market of commercial media
groups.

The report said: “Competitive neutrality seeks to ensure that
competition is not distorted by public entities taking inappropriate
advantage of government ownership.

“It is not intended to prevent public entities from competing, nor to
relieve discomfort from competitive processes which are bringing
benefits to consumers as they rapidly adopt and enjoy new services”.

The inquiry found the broadcasters’ business activities in order; they
were “abiding by a best endeavours approach to competitive
neutrality.” It suggested there should be some improvements in
transparency and internal procedures.

Beyond that, “the question arises as to how competitive neutrality
principles about competing fairly without distortion might apply to
the free services delivered by the ABC and SBS.

“Free ABC and SBS services are having some competitive impact.
Submissions included complaints about the ABC’s online news service
and SBS’ multi-channel and streaming services. But the National
Broadcasters are established and funded to provide free services. So
long as they operate within their statutory Charters they are
operating in the public interest”.

The report said submissions questioned whether the broadcasters were
operating within their charters. But, it said, these charters were
very broad, and reporting against them “is not detailed or robust
enough to settle doubts”.

“Accountability is difficult, especially as there is no opportunity
for Charter complaints to be addressed”.

The broadcasters should improve their reporting of charter performance
in the context of competitive neutrality. “If this enhanced reporting
does not occur, the government should consider a way of managing
complaints about Charter performance in this area,” the report said.

“While the National Broadcasters are not prohibited from competing,
some improvements in the way they interact with markets should be
contemplated”.

The report also said the government should consider options for a
longer term funding framework for the national broadcasters,
accompanied by increased transparency and accountability.

Fifield said he recognised the broadcasters’ charters were broad and
allowed flexibility in how their boards implemented them.
“It is now up to the national broadcasters to act on these
recommendations,” he said.

Labor’s communications spokeswoman Michelle Rowland said the
government’s “fishing expedition” had spent half a million dollars to
establish what the public broadcasters had said all along – that they
“are operating in a manner consistent with the general principles of
competitive neutrality.

“Australians trust and value the ABC and SBS and should not have to
foot the bill for Mitch Fifield and Pauline Hanson’s vendetta against
public broadcasting,” she said.

Also in return for Hanson’s support the government agreed to bring in
legislation to require the ABC to be “fair” and “balanced” in its
coverage.

Under the legislation, the board would be required “to ensure that the
gathering and presentation by the Corporation of news and information
is fair, balanced, accurate and impartial according to the recognised
standards of objective journalism.”

But the legislation is bogged down, with no chance of being passed
before the election.

The government has yet to appoint a new ABC chair, after the implosion
within the organisation involving the board sacking managing
director Michelle Guthrie and the resignation of Justin Milne as chair
amid a row over editorial interference.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How ABC chairman Justin Milne compromised the independence of the national broadcaster



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Reports this week revealed that ABC Chairman Justin Milne called for a journalist to be fired after receiving complaints from the government.
Joel Carrett/AAP

Peter Fray, University of Technology Sydney and Derek Wilding, University of Technology Sydney

Update: Justin Milne has now resigned as chair of the ABC board.


Behind the extraordinary events engulfing the national broadcaster lies a rather ordinary and clear statement of principle enshrined in the ABC Act. It clearly stipulates that one of the functions of the board is to maintain the corporation’s independence and integrity.

Has Justin Milne, as chairman of the board, done that?

Reports from Fairfax Media this week revealed email correspondence between Milne and the then managing director, Michelle Guthrie. In the emails, Milne called for chief economics correspondent Emma Alberici to be sacked over a report on government funding for research and innovation.

Then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had complained about the article; this followed complaints in February about two other pieces by Alberici on corporate tax, also critical of government policy. The ABC amended and reposted one of these pieces and eight days later republished the other, an analysis.

An internal ABC review found fault with both earlier articles, which had attracted considerable attention.

Another report this week in The Daily Telegraph makes further claims that Milne later demanded the resignation of ABC political editor Andrew Probyn, following anger from Turnbull. “You have to shoot him”, Milne is claimed to have said to Guthrie.




Read more:
ABC Board Chair over-reaches in a bid to appease hostile government


On one view, the performance of a journalist is an operational matter for the MD or other executives, not a strategic matter, and there was no cause for intervention by Milne.

But others might ask, isn’t it the role of the board to intervene if there’s possibly severe reputational damage to the organisation and executives are not acting?

Both points seem reasonable, but this is the ABC, not a commercial operation.

It’s hardly contentious to say that its journalistic role distinguishes a news organisations from other businesses. Watchdog, fourth estate – however we describe it – news media are different. Editorial independence, along with editorial standards, is important.

But this is even more pronounced for public broadcasters. While government funds the ABC and SBS using public money, these are not state broadcasters. Being free from state control is a part of the legislation under which the ABC operates. It’s when we look at the ABC Act that we see the problem for Milne.

Although we often speak of the ABC “charter”, this is really just section 6 of the ABC Act. It sets out the functions of the ABC and it’s where we find reference to the ABC providing “innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard”.

But important obligations are found elsewhere. The requirement to provide a news service, for example, is in a later, operational section.

And it’s section 8 where we find the twin requirements of independence and editorial standards. These are worth setting out in full:

  • 8(1)(b) to maintain the independence and integrity of the Corporation

  • 8(1)(c) to ensure that the gathering and presentation by the Corporation of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognised standards of objective journalism

The problem for Milne is that these obligations are not imposed on the ABC as an organisation. They are imposed on the board. The lead-in to section 8 is: “It is the duty of the Board…”




Read more:
Media Files: ABC boss Michelle Guthrie sacked, but the board won’t say why


Returning then to the emails, at issue was a report by Alberici on the main 7pm television news bulletin on May 6. According to the Fairfax report, Turnbull sent an email to news director Gaven Morris the next day complaining about the report.

Morris sent it to Guthrie, who contacted Milne. Milne responded, saying “they [the government] hate her” and “get rid of her”.

This apparently is before Communications Minister Mitch Fifield complained about the same report on May 9 and before the ABC’s complaints review unit had a chance to assess the complaint. When it did, it found no problem with the article except for one inaccuracy – certainly nothing that would justify the dismissal of the journalist.

It appears Milne acted to protect the reputation of the ABC. He and the board are required to do that – protecting its “integrity” is a part of their statutory duties. And the board also has a role in upholding standards.

Had the ABC’s complaints unit found there was a serious problem for a second time and executives had failed to act, maybe the board would have been right to intervene. But that step – assessing the validity of the complaint – was skipped, and it seems the main reason for proposing Alberici’s dismissal was to appease the government.

In this case, “independence” should have trumped the reputational aspect of “integrity”, especially when the risk was political. Instead, the chairman of the ABC may have compromised both values.The Conversation

Peter Fray, Professor of Journalism Practice, University of Technology Sydney and Derek Wilding, Co-Director, Centre for Media Transition, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

ABC Board Chair over-reaches in a bid to appease hostile government


Andrew Linden, RMIT University

Update: Justin Milne has now resigned as chair of the ABC board.


Reports of the contents of leaked emails written by ABC Board Chair Justin Milne provide a powerful insight into how governments of the day can exert influence over what parliament had intended to be an independent agency.

The emails have emerged in the wake of the ABC board’s termination of ABC managing director, Michelle Guthrie.




Read more:
Government sets up inquiry into embattled ABC chairman’s email


Milne is correct in asserting that the ABC Act requires the board “to independently govern the Corporation, protect its best interests, ensure that it is well funded, well managed and that our content is of the highest standards”.

But it doesn’t operate in exactly the same way as other corporate boards.

The ABC board is different

For example in most corporations, commercial or otherwise, boards exercise control over management by using specific delegations and determining corporate policy.

Boards also appoint the chief executive and in some instances other members of the management group.

However that’s not the case for the ABC.

The ABC Act provides that on advice of the prime minister and communications minister the governor general appoints the chair and other directors with the exception of the managing director and the staff elected director.

Partly non-political

The Act bars former members of parliament and senior political staffers (for a time) from being appointed as the chair or as non-executive directors.

Appointments to all other ABC board positions, including the chair, must follow a merit-based process with candidates interviewed in a process that the government does not control.

But that requirement does not apply to the managing director. This gives the board greater latitude to appointment a candidate that may draw less criticism from the Government of the day.

And partly political

This is highly problematic because of real (but usually latent) potential that a managing director might arrive with an agenda to undermine the board’s statutory role and parliamentary-determined Charter to be an independent public broadcaster.

The potential conflict is more acute because at the ABC the managing director is designated in the Act as the editor-in-chief.

Because the managing director is responsible for content, the reported instances of the Chair pressuring the managing director to remove individual journalists and approaching ABC editorial staff are inappropriate.

Setting the scene for conflict

The Act sets up a potential conflict between most of the ABC directors (who essentially have a trustee role) and the managing director who might be a non-merit based appointee.

The ABC board used to avoid this conflict by sticking to the public service tradition of appointing technocrats to the managing director role.

But over time perceptions about the appointment have become increasingly politicised.



As Marco Bass, ex head of ABC news and current affairs Victoria has written, the temptation to control the news is becoming harder to resist:

What [Guthrie and Shier] shared was an implicit brief to disrupt the ABC, dismantle internal fiefdoms and, importantly, bring the news and current affairs division under control.

Make no mistake, federal governments, regardless of political complexion, don’t care about Peppa Pig. They care about political coverage by the ABC’s journalists and broadcasters.

These idiosyrantic governance rules amplify flaws in the design of boards on which both executives and non executives sit.

Other boards have similar problems

As I and colleagues have written previously, mixing executive and non-executive directors on a single board creates governance problems.

On corporate boards managers who are also directors can (and usually do) position themselves as very powerful gate keepers and dominate both other directors and senior executives.




Read more:
Solving deep problems with corporate governance requires more than rearranging deck chairs


This was a problem at the Commonwealth Bank and from some reports was becoming a problem at the ABC.

If a government can use the idiosyncrasies of the the ABC Act to cower a much-loved and very public institution like the ABC, imagine how pliable agencies like APRA, ASIC and ACCC might be in accommodating the views of a government who might not want to deal with the political fallout of, for example, tough but necessary decisions such as cancelling banking or superannuation licences.


This piece has been edited to remove an earlier incorrect statement that under the ABC Act the managing director is appointed by the governor general on the advice of government ministers. The managing director is appointed by the board, but without the constraints imposed on the government in appointing other board members.The Conversation

Andrew Linden, Sessional Lecturer, PhD (Management) Candidate, School of Management, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why the ABC, and the public that trusts it, must stand firm against threats to its editorial independence



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Author Tom Keneally, actress Magda Szubanski and journalist Kerry O’Brien are among the ABC’s high-profile supporters.
AAP/Jeremy Ng

Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

The people who are turning up at Save the ABC rallies around the country are defending a cultural institution they value because they trust it.

In particular, they trust its news service. Public opinion polls going back to the 1950s consistently show it is by far the most trusted in the country.

So at this time it is pertinent to look at what creates a trustworthy news service. The cornerstone is editorial independence. As opinion polls have shown time and again, where people suspect a newspaper, radio, TV or online news service of pushing some commercial or political interest, their level of trust falls.

Editorial independence does not mean giving journalists licence to broadcast or publish whatever they want or to avoid accountability for their mistakes.

It means encouraging journalists to tackle important stories regardless of what people in power might think, then backing them to make judgments based on news values and the public interest, not on irrelevant considerations such as commercial, financial or political pressure.




Read more:
Constant attacks on the ABC will come back to haunt the Coalition government


Editorial independence is hard won and under constant pressure from outside the newsroom.

In commercial media, this pressure comes from big advertisers or company bosses with financial or political interests to push.

In public-sector broadcasting, the pressure comes from the federal government, which provides the funding and has powerful means of subjecting the broadcaster to intense political pressure.

A robust editorial leadership is essential to resisting this heat. It’s a daily battle. If the senior editorial management wilts, the weakness is swiftly transmitted down the hierarchy.

Middle-level editors and the staff journalists who work to them start looking over their shoulders, tempted to take easy options and avoid possible heat. The easiest option is self-censorship, dodging sensitive stories, leaving out material or watering it down.

This is where the ABC is at a crossroads. It has as its managing director and editor-in-chief Michelle Guthrie, a person with no journalistic background and who until recently showed scant signs of understanding the impact on the ABC’s editorial independence of the Turnbull government’s relentless bullying.

Then last month she gave a speech at the Melbourne Press Club in which she said Australians regard the ABC as a great national institution and deeply resent it being used as “a punching bag by narrow political, commercial or ideological interests”.

It was a start, and now the cause has been taken up by ABC staff themselves and by the wider public in the Save the ABC movement led by ABC Friends.

It is strongly reminiscent of events at The Age nearly 30 years ago, when I was an associate editor there. Then, a Save The Age campaign showed how effective a public outpouring of support for a news outlet can be when they set out to defend one they trust.

The campaign’s origins lay in concerns among senior journalists at the paper over what might happen to its editorial independence when receivers were appointed in 1990. This followed a disastrous attempt by “young” Warwick Fairfax to privatise the Fairfax company, which was the paper’s owner.

A group of senior journalists, including the late David Wilson and the distinguished business writer Stephen Bartholomeusz, formed The Age Independence Committee. It drew up a charter of editorial independence.

The key passages stated that:

  • the proprietors acknowledge that journalists, artists and photographers must record the affairs of the city, state, nation and the world fairly, fully and regardless of any commercial, political or personal interests, including those of any proprietors, shareholders or board members

  • full editorial control of the newspaper, within a negotiated, fixed budget, is vested in the editor

  • the editor alone decides the editorial content, and controls the hiring, firing and deployment of editorial staff.

The Save The Age campaign generated tremendous public support. Former prime ministers Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam, who had barely been on speaking terms since the Dismissal 15 years earlier, joined together at the head of a public demonstration in Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens. One of the campaign slogans was “Maintain Your Age”, a pun on Whitlam’s post-Dismissal election slogan, “Maintain Your Rage”.




Read more:
The politics behind the competitive neutrality inquiry into ABC and SBS


Eventually, the receivers signed the charter and so, after some wrangling, did the new owners led by the Canadian-born newspaper baron, Conrad Black. Black is gone but the charter remains.

Like The Age in 1990, the ABC today has strong public support.

Like The Age in 1990, senior journalistic staff, most notably the Melbourne “Mornings” radio presenter Jon Faine, and former presenter of 7.30 on ABC TV, Kerry O’Brien, have shown leadership, lending their profile and authority to the cause.

But unlike The Age, the ABC does not have publicly acknowledged bipartisan political support.

Whatever Malcolm Turnbull’s private views of the ABC, and whatever the stated policy of his government, the facts are that since 2014 the Abbott and Turnbull governments have cut $338 million from the ABC’s funding, and the federal council of the Liberal Party voted last month to sell it off.

It is quite possible that when it reports in September, the present inquiry into the ABC’s competitive neutrality will provide some impetus to this proposition or propose some other ways to clip the ABC’s wings.

It is significant in the context of editorial independence that the inquiry is taking a particular interest in the ABC news service. That is the part of the ABC most detested by politicians, and on which the present government has focused its most intense pressure.

The ConversationIf editorial independence weakens, public trust will weaken too. That would make the ABC an even more attractive political target for a hostile government.

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

ABC chairman Milne attacks ‘self-serving’ commercial critics


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

ABC chairman Justin Milne has gone on the offensive against the organisation’s critics, linking the public broadcaster to preserving the nation’s identity and strongly warning against the push to clip its digital wings.

Putting the present battle over the broadcaster in an historical context, Milne said in a Wednesday speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in Australia that “Australia has reached another decision point in respect of public broadcasting, just like those of the past.

“The first was whether to establish an ABC, then whether to equip it to deliver a news service independent of the commercial media barons, then once again whether to invest in a public television service.

“And now, as we enter a digital age, Australia must decide whether it wants an ABC fit for the future, and if so, what investments the nation is willing to make to achieve that.”

Milne – who was appointed chair by Malcolm Turnbull – said that “in a world of global platforms and content, it has never been more important for Australia to retain its identity.

“And in a world of contested views and facts, it has never been more important to provide an independent and trusted voice, to promote informed democratic debate, and to drive public accountability through investments in investigative journalism.”

With reviews into the ABC underway on its competitive neutrality and efficiency, Milne said that, echoing the past, some rivals have suggested the ABC be banned from providing digital services and restricted to linear radio and television.

“Let’s be clear: if the ABC were barred from serving audiences on digital platforms, it would wither away and cease to exist. Linear broadcast audiences are in steady decline because Australians, just like people everywhere else on the planet, value the convenience of consuming their favourite content whenever, wherever and however they like.”

The competitive neutrality review, which was set up as part of a deal with Pauline Hanson, is looking at the ABC’s role in the modern media environment. An efficiency review of the public broadcasters, including SBS, was announced in May, when the budget froze the ABC’s funding until 2022, for a saving of $83.7 million.

Milne said complaints about the ABC’s coverage were taken seriously, because mistakes were made. But the biggest question facing the ABC was not whether a journalist made a mistake or even a question of bias – because some 80% of Australians thought it was not biased. The bigger question was: “How can Australia have a public broadcasting system that is fit for purpose, as efficient as possible, and just as valuable to our children as it has been to us?”

He derided the case put by commercial interests and some partisans who said public money should not be used for a media service that duplicated commercial ones. This argument was “simplistic, facile and entirely self-serving,” he said.

A key challenge facing Australians was how to maintain diversity of voice in a media landscape that was rapidly consolidating, Milne said.

Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google – the FAANGs – had fundamentally transformed the media landscape around the world.

“Facebook and Google alone capture two-thirds of the digital ad market in Australia. Amazon has become a trillion-dollar company. And Netflix’s annual spend on content is now three times that of all Australia’s commercial, public and pay television businesses combined.

“By contrast, audiences and revenues for incumbent commercial media organisations are tumbling, and ownership is consolidating, especially Down Under.

“Our three pay television operators have become one, owned by the Australian arm of News Corporation in New York. Channel Ten is now in US hands too. And since 2003, the number of owners of Australian newspapers has halved.

“In television and radio, some 70 per cent of the market is now owned by just four organisations. And in print, 90 per cent is owned by three organisations. These figures will worsen if speculation is correct and Fairfax merges with another incumbent, or regional television businesses merge with their capital-city partners.”

Milne said federal governments had dealt with the onslaught of the FAANGs by enabling further consolidation in Australian media, diluting ownership restrictions and boosting commercial incumbents with licence-fee cuts.

“Whatever your view on the business or political logic of this, the effect has been to hand control over many Australian media voices to businesses in the US – while substantially diluting the diversity of voices that remain.

“Those who would cripple or even abolish the ABC would clearly exacerbate that consolidation, leading to further homogeneity of voices.

The Conversation“That may mean that pretty soon our kids only see American stories and perspectives to mould their morals, culture and behaviour as adults. And
those same kids would need to give up any aspiration to work in a healthy domestic production sector,” Milne said.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Constant attacks on the ABC will come back to haunt the Coalition government



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ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie has launched a strong defence of the public broadcaster.
AAP/Julian Smith

Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

In January 1931, as the newly elected United Australia Party government of Joseph Lyons was contemplating the establishment of a national broadcasting service, the prime minister received a deputation of prominent Melburnians, including a barrister and member of the Victorian parliament, Robert Gordon Menzies.

They urged that the new broadcasting service “be organised on an independent basis and that cultural potentialities of the Broadcast Service be considered a matter of primary importance”. The broadcast service came to be named the Australian Broadcasting Commission and went to air for the first time on July 1 1932.

It is a measure of how far today’s Liberal Party has drifted away from the values and ideals of its founder, Menzies, that last Saturday its federal council should have resoundingly adopted a motion that the ABC should be privatised.

One of the proponents of the motion was Mitchell Collier, the federal vice-president of the Young Liberals. He said there was no economic case to keep the broadcaster in public hands.




Read more:
View from The Hill: Threat to the ABC is not sale but more bullying


No economic case. Where the ABC is concerned, that is a false premise on which to proceed. The ABC was explicitly not established for economic purposes or in pursuit of an economic ideology. It was established for social, educational and cultural purposes.

It was also established on an explicitly non-commercial basis: it takes no advertising. Why? Because it was believed advertising would weaken its independence. The policymakers of the 1930s had seen only too clearly how beholden the newspaper proprietors of the day had become to commercial imperatives: the demands of advertisers and the pressure to increase circulation, even at the cost of editorial quality and integrity.

The newspapers of the day had also become mouthpieces for sectional interests. In Melbourne, The Argus stood for the interests of the mercantile classes and conservative political causes; The Age for a kind of Protestant liberalism and social justice. It supported the miners at Eureka.

The bipartisan political vision for the ABC was that it should not be vulnerable to sectional interests or commercial pressures, but should exist to serve the public interest in the widest sense.

The first paragraph of its charter captures the essence of these expectations:

The functions of the Corporation are to provide … innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard … and … to provide broadcasting programs that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural diversity of, the Australian community; and broadcasting programs of an educational nature.

No mention there of economic criteria.

Nonetheless, in a political age dominated by the narrow perspectives of neoclassical economics, it is self-evidently no longer enough to rely on ideals of the kind promoted by Menzies and reflected in the charter.

In her reply to the privatisation motion, the ABC’s managing director, Michelle Guthrie, told the Melbourne Press Club the ABC contributed more than $1 billion last financial year to the Australian economy, on a par with the public investment in the organisation.

She also advanced an efficiency argument, saying the ABC’s per capita funding had halved in real terms over the past 30 years, and warned that the latest cuts in funding – $83.7 million in a so-called efficiency dividend – would serve only to punish audiences.

Herein lies the political sting for the government, and especially for the National Party.

A motion to privatise the ABC, no matter how vigorously repudiated by the government, is political poison, especially in regional, rural and remote Australia.

These voters have watched as the Abbott-Turnbull administrations have cut the ABC’s funding by $338 million since 2014. They have watched as the ABC has been used – in Guthrie’s words yesterday – as a punching bag by narrow political, commercial or ideological interests.




Read more:
The politics behind the competitive neutrality inquiry into ABC and SBS


Guthrie was too diplomatic to nail the government or the Murdoch press. But the overt hostility to the ABC shown by the government over the past four years may now reap a political harvest.

That hostility has been demonstrated not only by the funding cuts but by sustained carping criticisms, vexatious complaints and political stunts exemplified by the current competitive neutrality inquiry.

It would be more accurately called the editorial neutering inquiry. Its focus is clearly on the ABC news service, as its own issues paper makes clear. That is the part of the ABC most detested by the government and the politician for whom the government is a cat’s paw in this, Pauline Hanson.

Each Tuesday, I engage in a pro-bono 25-minute segment on media issues with the presenter of ABC Radio Statewide Drive, Nicole Chvastek. The program is broadcast across regional Victoria and southern New South Wales, covering the National seats of Riverina, Mallee, Murray and Gippsland, and the Liberal seats of Farrer, Wannon, McMillan, Corangamite and McEwen.

Yesterday the talkback calls ran hot on this one issue: privatisation of the ABC. Yes, the ABC needed scrutiny; yes, the ABC was a bunch of lefties. But: where would we be without it?

The ConversationJust after 5pm, the Nationals served up their deputy leader, the Victorian senator Bridget McKenzie, to answer talkback calls on this issue. It was like something from the Colosseum.

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

ABC contributes as much to the economy as it costs the taxpayer: Michelle Guthrie


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie has hit back against critics with a Deloitte Access Economics assessment that the public broadcaster contributed more than A$1 billion to the Australian economy in the last financial year.

This was on a par with the public funding of the organisation, she told the Melbourne Press Club, in an address coming days after the Liberal Federal Council urged the ABC be privatised – a call rejected by the government.

Far from being a drain on the public purse, the audience, community and economic value stemming from ABC activity is a real and tangible benefit,“ she said. The Deloitte study was commissioned by the ABC; Guthrie said its report was still being compiled and would be released next month.

Of the $1 billion, “more than a third is economic support for the broader media ecosystem. Far from being Ultimo-centric, the ABC is boosting activity across the country,” she said, giving as examples the filming of Mystery Road in the Kimberley and the production of Rosehaven outside Hobart.

Deloitte calculated the ABC was helping sustain more than 6000 full-time equivalent jobs across the economy. “It means that for every three full-time equivalent jobs created by the ABC, there are another two supported in our supply chain – local artists, writers, technicians, transport workers and many more.

“In hard figures, the research shows that the ABC helps to sustain 2500 full-time equivalent jobs in addition to the 4000 women and men who are directly employed by the public broadcaster.

“When broken down this equates to more than 500 additional jobs in production companies, over 400 jobs elsewhere in the broadcast sector, and close to 300 full-time equivalent jobs in the professional services.

“Amidst the debate over the ABC’s purpose and its funding we should all remember that there are 2500 jobs outside public broadcasting at risk in any move to curtail our remit and activities”.




Read more:
View from The Hill: Threat to the ABC is not sale but more bullying


Addressing the critics’ argument that the ABC’s about $1 billion funding wasn’t well spent, Guthrie pointed out that the broadcaster’s per capita funding had halved in real terms in three decades while the demands on it had increased, and that this financial year 92% of its budget would be spent on making content, supporting content makers and distribution.

“Thirty years ago, the ABC had five platforms and 6000 people working around the country. Today, Your ABC has two-thirds the number of people operating six times the number of platforms and services with half the real per capita funding”.

Guthrie argued that the claim that the latest 1% efficiency dividend could easily be accommodated ignored the accumulation of efficiency takes over the past four years, and the fact these efficiencies robbed the organisation of its ability to finance new content and innovation.

She rejected what she described as two other “fallacies” – that the ABC should be stripped back to servicing gaps in the market, becoming a “media failure operator”, and that the ABC served only sectional interests.

Referring to the ABC charter, she said that “as the independent national public broadcaster, our purpose is to provide a balance between broadcasting programs of wide appeal as well as specialised interest”.

Public broadcasting was “about providing the distinctive programs that Australians young and old, left and right, rich and poor, in Bourke and in Brisbane, both want and need”.




Read more:
Shorten promises to reverse budget cut to the ABC


She attacked those commentators and politicians who liked “to pigeonhole our audience as being of a particular political bent or social strata.

“In the two years since I’ve been in this role, I have been constantly reminded how wrong that is”, she said, citing the 12 million Australians who would watch ABC TV this week, the nearly five million who’d listen to ABC radio, and the 13 million ABC podcast downloads that occurred every month.

“If all those listeners and viewers were on the one side of politics, there wouldn’t be much politicking left to do.

“I note also the findings of the recent Reuters Digital News Report. Australia may have an increasingly polarised media sector, but ABC television attracts viewers from across the political spectrum for its news coverage”.

The ConversationGuthrie said that Australians regarded the ABC “as one of the great national institutions” and “deeply resent it being used as a punching bag by narrow political, commercial or ideological interests”.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

View from The Hill: Threat to the ABC is not sale but more bullying


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

A re-elected Turnbull government wouldn’t sell the ABC, whatever scare Bill Shorten might be raising. But you’d have to be an optimist to think that if it wins, it won’t intensify its bullying and denigration of the public broadcaster.

There is more than a little irony in the Liberal federal council on Saturday delivering Labor a campaign issue around the ABC before the Super Saturday byelections.

Just a while ago, the government was surfing on the skirmishing on refugee policy ahead of the ALP national conference, only to see that dispute put on the backburner when Labor delayed the conference because the byelections were set for the same date.

The council motion came from the Young Liberals – who over the years are variously on the left or the right of the party – and called for “the full privatisation of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, except for services into regional areas that are not commercially viable.”

Unlike Labor, where conference policies formally carry heft with the MPs, Liberal council motions are non-binding.

This one has been described as “virtue-signalling” to the base. I think it is rather more serious than that. It will reinforce the anti-ABC sentiment of some in government ranks – which has reached, frankly, absurd levels.

The fact that Malcolm Turnbull and his colleagues did not, would not, could not prevent its passage says a lot, especially about the Prime Minister.

When he was clawing his way towards the leadership, Turnbull was the conspicuous friend of the ABC. Now he’s critic-in-chief, as Communications Minister Mitch Fifield and the Prime Minister’s Office fire off complaints about errors and interpretations.

No one should object when the prime minister or ministers call out journalists’ factual mistakes (though they make quite a few of their own). And it is absolutely their right to argue the toss on commentary.

But we know there’s a lot more to this than robust criticism. Much of it is an attempt – that to a degree has been successful – at intimidation.

This isn’t the first government to engage in ABC bashing. On the other side of politics the Hawke government at one stage had (to borrow a Turnbullism) a red hot go. But I don’t remember any government sustaining the onslaught so strongly for so long.

What makes the assault even more concerning is that it’s part of the culture wars now engulfing multiple fronts of public debate. The media provide battlegrounds and targets in these wars.

News Corp, fuelled by financial imperatives as well as ideology, relentlessly stalks the ABC. News Corp is squeezed between the strains on the commercial media’s business model and the successful expansion, especially online, of the ABC.

The ABC is cast not simply as another competitor, but one that must be discredited in terms of both professionalism and legitimacy, by portraying it as out of touch with the “mainstream” and robbing the commercial media of what’s rightfully theirs.

As parts of News Corp have increasingly become bold, self-declared standard-bearers for the right, they are ever drawn to the ABC as a useful punching bag.

One can see what’s in this for the ABC’s commercial competitors, and indeed for a right wing think tank such as the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), which urges that the ABC be privatised.

It’s more difficult to discern what the government gets out of its obsession with attacking the ABC to a degree disproportionate to the alleged sins of individual journalists or the organisation as a whole.

Perhaps it’s a gesture of frustration – kicking the car tyres when you find you have a puncture. Or the feeling that if you can just cow the buggers, they mightn’t be so “biased” – ignoring that the perception of “bias” mostly varies according to where you’re coming from, and in journalism the notion of giving diverse viewpoints a fair go can be a more manageable one.

It’s noteworthy that for all their carrying on, ministers still seem anxious to appear on the ABC. If it were so bad, so unresponsive to the “mainstream”, you’d think some might be calling for a boycott now and then.

One reason why they line up is they actually know the public regards it as a trusted and credible media outlet.

The Australia Institute at the weekend released an ABC question taken from its earlier ReachTEL poll in Mayo that showed crossbencher Rebecca Sharkie leading Liberal Georgina Downer 58-42% in two-party terms. The June 5 poll asked: “In the budget the government cut the ABC’s funding by A$83.7 million. Do you think funding for the ABC should be reduced, increased, or stay the same?” Nearly three quarters said funding should be increased (40.5%) or stay the same (33.5%), with only 23% saying it should be decreased.

Last week Shorten promised a Labor government would restore that funding. The Liberal council motion has played into his hands.

In Mayo, the council motion has handed Sharkie a small gift. There will be interest in what Downer, who comes from the IPA, has to say about how she would like to see the future of the ABC.

The ConversationNot quite as interesting, however, as hearing members of the Turnbull team protest they really are committed to the ABC, however badly they behave towards it. That they have to do so is a sort of perverse justice – the price of overreach.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.