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
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
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
“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
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.
In March this year, Sunrise aired a panel discussion about the removal of Indigenous children from dangerous or abusive family situations.
It wrongly claimed that Indigenous children could not be fostered by non-Indigenous families and one panellist, commentator Prue MacSween, suggested that the Stolen Generation might need to be repeated in order to save children from physical and sexual abuse.
The reaction was swift and fierce: the segment was condemned as racist and insensitive, with many questioning why the panel featured no experts or Indigenous people. There were protests at the show’s Sydney studio, and multiple complaints were made to the Australian Communications and Media Authority.
This week, ACMA announced that the Channel Seven breakfast show did indeed breach the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice in airing false claims that Indigenous children could not be placed with white families.
It was also found that the segment provoked “serious contempt on the basis of race in breach of the Code as it contained strong negative generalisations about Indigenous people as a group”.
Seven has defended their actions, labelling the ACMA’s decision as “censorship” and “a direct assault on the workings of an independent media”. They are also considering seeking a judicial review of the decision.
However, it is not correct to assess ACMA’s decision, nor its role, as censorship. Rather, the ACMA monitors and enforces basic journalistic principles governing ethics and responsibility.
The decision is more symbolic than material – Channel Seven will not be forced to pull the segment from online; indeed, it is widely available. ACMA also has no power to order any compensation to be paid to a wronged party or fine the broadcaster; nor can it force Channel Seven to apologise or correct its error.
This dispute is but one of many examples that raises questions over the power of the media and what happens when media make a mistake, deliberately bend the truth or publish information that may cause harm to people, especially from marginalised groups.
In his research on the media portrayal of Indigenous people and issues, and the difference between sensitivity versus censorship, Michael Meadowsargues the media are resistant to admitting there is a problem with racist or insensitive coverage. He writes:
Aboriginal Australians have had to be content with a portrayal which is mostly stereotypical, sensational, emotional or exotic, with an ignorance of the historical and political context in which these images are situated.
While “censorship” is a label that is often used by the media in response to criticism, actual censorship in Australia by government or media watchdogs is thankfully rare to nonexistent. Other issue such as defamation law are greater sources of censorship.
In a 2018 report released by Reporters Without Borders, a worldwide organisation that advocates for a free press, Australia ranked 19th out of 180 countries on press freedom. This was a fall from ninth in 2017 due to of media restrictions on reporting on asylum seekers and refugees in offshore detention centres, not the role of ACMA. In fact, ACMA and the Australian Press Council were not even mentioned.
Australian journalists are expected, although not obliged, to abide by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s Code of Ethics. This states that journalists should “report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts” and to “do your utmost to achieve fair correction of errors”.
ACMA’s finding on the Sunrise segment that featured sweeping claims such as “children left in Indigenous families would be abused and neglected”, is simply holding those responsible to the minimum standards expected, not just within the industry, but from the public, too.
In the era of “fake news”, it is not surprising that the public’s trust in journalists is low; a 2018 surveyfound only 20% of Australians deemed newspaper journalists as being “very” honest and ethical, with television reporters fairing even worse, at 17%.
The ACMA was created in 2005 following the public outcry over the infamous “cash for comment” scandals in 1999 and 2004. At the time, the then-Australian Broadcasting Authority was criticised for being “too soft” and ineffective in response, the ABA was abolished and replaced by the ACMA.
It’s incorrect to label the ACMA’s role as playing “censor” when they do no such thing. In fact, there is criticism that ACMA, like its predecessor, is a “toothless tiger” that lacks any power to actually hold the media to account.
No media can operate without a basic framework that places public interest, a commitment to accuracy and responsibility to the public.
In a statement released on September 4, ACMA chairwoman Nerida O’Loughlin highlighted this important distinction:
Broadcasters can, of course, discuss matters of public interest, including extremely sensitive topics such as child abuse in Indigenous communities. However, such matters should be discussed with care, with editorial framing to ensure compliance with the Code.
With “clickbait” and inflammatory opinion increasingly finding a home in the media, it’s more important than ever that the media respect and abide by their responsibilities to fairness and the truth. And when they cannot or do not do this, regulatory bodies such as the ACMA are essential.
Presto, a joint venture between Seven and Foxtel, was shut down in early 2017.
Foxtel then launched FoxtelNow in June 2017. It is already set for an overhaul later this year, to include 4K streaming, along with sports and entertainment streaming packages.
Aussie streaming services, more than just subscription
In addition to Stan, there are also transactional video-on-demand (TVoD) services in Australia, although these are discussed far less. A TVoD service is based upon a single payment being made to view singular content for a limited time, e.g. you have streaming access to the latest release for 48 hours.
One such Australian service is Quickflix, which launched in 2014. It went into receivership in 2016, before being saved and later relaunched.
Quickflix is still a streaming company, but retains the older disc mail-out service. This mail-out service could help Quickflix survive against global streaming services.
With the closure of video stores and retail stores removing discs from their shelves, a mail-out service still has value for Australians with poor internet speed and access.
The other Australian TVoD service is OzFlix, which some Australians may not be aware of.
Its differentiation is plans to source “Every Aussie Movie. Ever.”. A big task, but its specific niche may help it survive the onslaught of global media streaming services, while also giving local content a dedicated home.
Global media giants set their sights on Australia
Australia has been the first country that many media companies expand to when moving outside their own region. Netflix and YouTube Red (now YouTube Premium) are two examples.
More recently we have seen Amazon Prime Video launch in late 2016, although it is yet to have a major uptake locally.
The arrival of CBS All Access will impact Stan particularly. Stan features a number of CBS programs, so future programming will need to be from other distributors or through greater investment in original content.
Disney is also set to acquire 21st Century Fox. This will expand its catalogue on the new streaming service beyond its already huge catalogue. The Marvel movies look set to remain on current services, for now.
Australians and streaming…. what next?
A recent Roy Morgan report found over 9.8 million Australians had access to Netflix, with Stan at over 2 million. While Stan is clearly behind, it has had a 39.2% increase in the last 12 months.
YouTube premium has over 1 million subscribers, FetchTV 710,000 and Amazon Prime Video last at 273,000 (an 87% increase year on year).
The arrival of CBS All Access and Disney will make an already crowded market only more so. But is more choice a good thing?
A 2014 Nielsen report showed the average channels receivable by US households grew from 129 in 2008 to 189 in 2013. But the average channels tuned in remained at 17.
On top of larger content libraries, the global players also have deeper pockets. Disney looks set to spend US$100 million on a new Star Wars series for its streaming service. Netflix will spend more than US$8 billion on content in 2018 alone, and Amazon last year spent US$4 billion on content.
Australian services will need to have a point of difference. Quickflix and OzFlix have their points of difference, but what about a larger service like Stan?
Stan can’t compete with the global companies on quantity of content, so it must, like others, have a point of difference.
Stan could become a premium platform for content of which some is broadcast on Nine later. That would be a similar approach to when Australian FTA broadcasters would buy US content months after it was broadcast in the US – to save on costs.
For an Australian service to compete, a better solution would be a combined approach, an all-Australian streaming service that combines the strengths and finances of the Australian media industry.
The Freeview app is an example of how Australian television has tried to work collaboratively but failed. The users can view all the catch-up content from Australian broadcasters, but to view it they are taken from the app to the specific broadcasters’ own catch-up apps.
This requires six apps in total to be installed to view all catch-up content.
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But is the Australian media industry willing to come together to fight against global streaming media companies, or will they continue to battle each other? Failure here could result in a further decline in Australian media.
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.
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”.
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.
If editorial independence weakens, public trust will weaken too. That would make the ABC an even more attractive political target for a hostile government.
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.
“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.
Bill Shorten has moved to make the ABC an election issue, promising to reverse the Turnbull government’s $83.7 million budget cut and to guarantee funding certainty over the broadcaster’s next budget cycle.
Ahead of appearing on the ABC’s Q&A program, Shorten and frontbench colleagues declared the Coalition had “launched the biggest attack on the ABC in a generation”.
In recent months Communications Minister Mitch Fifield has sent a stream of complaints to the ABC about stories, both online and on air, contesting facts and interpretations. The Prime Minister’s Office has also complained. Government frontbenchers and backbenchers frequently make cracks at or about the ABC, echoing a theme of many conservative commentators.
The ABC is also under constant attack from News Corp, driven by both ideology and commercial interests. The government has an inquiry underway into the ABC’s competitive neutrality, which was part of a deal with Pauline Hanson but also important in the context of News Corp’s argument about the government-funded ABC encroaching on financially strapped commercial media.
When the government made the $84 million budget cut – which took the form of a freeze to indexation – Treasurer Scott Morrison said “everyone has to live within their means”. Managing director Michelle Guthrie said that “the decision will make it very difficult for the ABC to meet its charter requirements and audience expectations.”
In a statement Shorten, communications spokeswoman Michelle Rowland and regional communications spokesman Stephen Jones said Labor’s commitment would ensure the ABC could meet its charter requirements, safeguard jobs, adapt to the digital environment “and maintain content and services that Australians trust and rely on”.
They said the Coalition since 2014 had “overseen $282 million in cuts to the ABC that has seen 800 jobs lost and a drop in Australian content and services”.
“Labor will stand up for the ABC and fight against the conservatives’ ideological war against our public broadcaster,” the statement said.
The promised investment “demonstrates Labor’s commitment to the ABC’s independence and to maintain the ABC as our comprehensive national broadcaster.
“Now, more than ever, Australians need the ABC – our strong, trusted and independent public broadcaster.
“At a time when too many Australians feel disengaged from their democracy and distrustful of their representatives, Labor wants to restore trust and faith in our institutions. Part of restoring trust is is supporting a healthy public interest media sector, and protecting that trusted institution – the ABC”.
The government agreed to do this in the form of an inquiry into the ABC’s competitive neutrality – and broadened it to include SBS.
It was clear at the time this had the potential to do real damage to the national broadcaster.
Competitive neutrality principles say an organisation should not enjoy an undue competitive advantage by virtue of it being government-funded. It is suitably arcane camouflage for an inquiry whose real purpose is to put pressure on the ABC over its news service, which Hanson had alleged was biased against her.
And now we know the shape of this competitive neutrality inquiry. We know who is conducting it, and last week we got to see the issues paper that the inquiry put out, which tells us what it is going to cover.
Scope of the inquiry
The chair is Robert Kerr, who has a Productivity Commission background and impeccable credentials as a free-market economist. Joining him in the inquiry are Julie Flynn, a one-time ABC reporter who used to be CEO of the commercial TV lobby group Free TV Australia, and Sandra Levy, the former head of television at ABC.
This all seems perfectly reasonable, until you remember this is mainly about online media. In that case, why have two people with television backgrounds on the panel?
Online is where the real action is now. Data from the Australian Communications and Media Authority included in the issues paper show just how dramatic the shift has been from traditional television viewing to digital online platforms for media consumption. In 2017, Australians aged 18-34 spent an average of 9.2 hours per week watching video content online compared to just 3.8 hours watching free-to-air television.
Mark Scott foresaw this when he was managing director of the ABC and drove the broadcaster hard into the digital sphere. He realised that if the ABC was not a relevant provider of digital content online, it would soon cease to be relevant.
That’s why the other big media players, especially Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, have lobbied relentlessly to have the ABC’s wings clipped in this arena. Hanson, wittingly or not, played right into News Corp’s strategy.
As for the issues paper, the giveaway is on page 11.
There, it refers to the requirement in the ABC Act that the ABC “take account of the broadcasting services provided by the commercial and community broadcasting sectors of the Australian Broadcasting system.” In other words, the ABC is discouraged from just replicating what the commercial broadcasters do.
In that context, the paper then addresses this question to the ABC: How does it apply this requirement specifically to its on-air, iView and online news services? Nothing else. Not its drama or documentaries or narrative comedy or children’s programs. Just its news services.
The reason? That’s the part of the ABC that Hanson detests. So there’s the pay-off.
There are some broader competition questions, as well, but the only part of its vast portfolio the ABC is specifically asked about is its news output. Yet, if there is one category of program content that most obviously and unmistakably distinguishes the ABC from commercial broadcasters, it’s news.
Time for responses
Then the issues paper asks “other stakeholders” – basically the ABC and SBS’s commercial broadcasting rivals – a range of questions about ways in which they think they may have been harmed by any undue competitive advantage enjoyed by the public broadcasters.
There is no indication the answers to these questions are going to be subjected to any cross-examination by the ABC or SBS. Not that there would be time for that anyway, with just three months between the deadline for submissions in response to the issues paper on June 22 and the completion of the report in September.
So, the inquiry is a quickie. And by its own admission, it’s trampling over ground already covered 18 years ago by the Productivity Commission.
Nonetheless, the inquiry is likely to provide the Turnbull Government with ammunition should it wish to mount an attack on the ABC’s scope of operations (especially online) and give Hanson what she really wants: a rolled-up piece of paper with which to smack the ABC around the head.
Among the four concessions concerning the ABC that senator Pauline Hanson extracted from the federal government in exchange for her support of its recent media ownership law changes, one in particular has the potential to do real damage to the national broadcaster.
This is the promised inquiry into the ABC’s competitive neutrality.
It has been on the agenda of News Corp for years to have the ABC’s wings clipped, for the obvious reason that it sees the ABC as a commercial rival. If News Corp had its way, the ABC’s big strategic move into digital broadcasting more than a decade ago would have been cut off at the pass.
So Hanson, whether she knew it or not, has played into the hands of New Corp on this, and given the government a political opportunity to do yet one more favour for Rupert Murdoch.
Since the government does not need a vote in parliament to set up an inquiry like this, it is easy to see how it might unfold.
An eminently well-qualified chairman could easily be found. To pick a name at random: Maurice Newman, former chairman of the stock exchange, former chairman of the ABC and now public ideologue opposed to public-sector broadcasting. He wrote a polemic in The Australian in April asserting that the ABC and SBS no longer served a public purpose.
The government could effortlessly craft terms of reference consistent with that axiom of politics – you never hold an inquiry without knowing the outcome.
A high-profile firm of economic consultants could be engaged to conduct an analysis of the impact of the ABC’s activities on private-sector media.
Using suitable assumptions, a selection of data and a fitting framework of economic theory, it might easily find that the ABC, despite manifold inefficiencies, was indeed using its public funding in an anti-competitive way to crowd out the private sector.
Recommendations would naturally ensue that the range of ABC activities had strayed well beyond the confines imagined by its founding fathers in the early 1930s. It would therefore follow that its funding should be cut in order to see it focus on outputs that no commercial broadcaster would touch with a barge pole.
Of the other three concessions to Hanson, the one likely to do the most mischief is the one requiring the ABC to publicly disclose the salaries and conditions of all staff whose packages amount to more than A$200,000 a year.
While in principle it seems reasonable that the salaries of people on the public payroll should be public, in fact the pay of individual public servants is generally a private matter.
This is the case not only because a person’s financial affairs are inherently private, but because it is a disincentive for good people to join the public sector if their private affairs are going to be trawled over in public for political purposes.
It has already happened with ABC salaries when they were inadvertently released under freedom-of-information laws a couple of years ago.
The combination of fame and their type of work magnifies the privacy issue for high-profile ABC journalists and presenters. No-one cares what some obscure under-secretary in the Department of Veterans Affairs gets paid, but politicians like Hanson salivate over the pay of people like Leigh Sales and Barrie Cassidy.
The remaining two concessions are not likely to have much impact on the ABC.
The one that got all the attention at the start was the insertion of “fair” and “balanced” into the ABC’s charter.
This is a sideshow. The ABC’s charter is contained within section six of the ABC Act, so amending it will require a parliamentary vote. Senator Nick Xenophon has said his team will not support it, and since his team’s support is likely to be necessary, it looks like an empty gesture by the government.
In any case, the requirements for fairness and balance are already built into the ABC’s editorial policies, which are binding on ABC journalists, so the practical effect would be nonexistent.
However, a parliamentary debate on the ABC’s impartiality would keep this matter bubbling along in the public mind and furnish an opportunity for reactionary politicians to further ventilate their suspicions.
Finally, there was a concession concerning provision of broadcasting services to regional areas. The ABC has already announced a A$50 million package
to enhance regional services. And anyway, this is a level of operational detail that generally lies beyond the reach of politicians.
A bit of cosmetic arm-wrestling between Communications Minister Mitch Fifield and the chair of the ABC, perhaps some pointed questions at Senate estimates, and a tweak of the ABC’s budget will probably satisfy this concession.
Taken together, then, three of these concessions have considerable nuisance value. But the fourth contains the seeds of a serious challenge to the ABC’s future.
This is an edited extract from The Weather Obsession by Lawrie Zion, published by Melbourne University Press.
When Olympic swimming champion Giaan Rooney was asked to fill in presenting the weather segment on Melbourne’s Channel Seven weeknight news program just before Christmas 2012, she was taken aback. She pointed out that she knew nothing about weather and that her credibility was in sport. “Don’t worry, just do the weather,” was the reply from the network. Six weeks later, the 30-year-old Rooney was invited to continue in the role, replacing the 52-year-old presenter and trained meteorologist David Brown, who had been presenting on Seven for 20 years.
As it turned out, Brown remained with the network and eventually went on to present the weather for Seven’s Sydney weeknight bulletin. But the switch from Brown to Rooney illustrates a dilemma that has never been resolved. Just who should present the weather on television?
Commenting on Rooney’s appointment soon after the announcement, the Sunday Herald Sun’s Susie O’Brien wrote:
…the old adage that people like a mature man to tell them the serious news and a pretty face to tell them the weather still seems to apply. The real question is why we need a nice-looking woman who isn’t a meteorological expert to tell us the weather at a time when climate issues have never been more
important. The fact that we are still having these debates is a sign we have a long way to go. Sadly, I think we will continue to see women used as decorations on network TV for a while to come.
What O’Brien saw as an anachronistic decision needs to be understood in the context of the role of weather segments in television news bulletins, and the changing demographics of broadcast news audiences.
Weather presenters have long been a crucial component of any television news team, and are promoted as such. For many in the audience, they’ve also been the main conduit of weather information. Ten years ago 90% of Australians received at least some of their weather information from television. This has since fallen to 71%, according to a Bureau of Meteorology survey. But that’s still a lot of eyeballs. And with their segments usually perched at the end of bulletins, the extent to which weather presenters connect with viewers helps to determine whether their station can carry the valuable news audience over to the start of the next program.
When it comes to sheer numbers, TV news audiences may have generally held up well with older viewers, but younger viewers aren’t drawn to these programs to anything like the extent that their parents were. The result is that around half the audience is over the age of 50, and therefore more likely to go for the familiar than the experimental. So while the steady evolution of graphics means that weather reports look very different now from how they appeared in the early days of television, the format has remained more predictable than the weather itself.
We all know the ritual: What happened today? What will happen tomorrow? And beyond tomorrow? Across the country? If it’s a local bulletin the state and/or city forecast will precede the sign-off. As Channel Nine Brisbane news presenter Andrew Lofthouse has put it: “The weather reports are still one of the constant reassuring things that people can rely on.” This might partly explain why changes to who presents the weather attract so much attention within the media itself.
Despite an overall tendency to play it safe, what this actually means tends to fluctuate, with appearance, personality and specialist credentials all deemed to be relevant factors to varying degrees. As O’Brien put it in the context of Brown’s replacement by Rooney: “Presumably Channel Seven has tired of the serious approach and in the midst of falling ratings is going for the well-worn route of installing an attractive female to freshen things up.”
Hiring attractive women as weather presenters is a time-honoured global tradition. Writing about the history of TV weather in America, Robert Henson points out that it became clear in the 1950s that women could be accepted as weathercasters, as long as the focus was kept on clothing, hairstyle or anatomy. “So began the brief ascendancy of ‘weathergirls’, a term that speaks volumes about the differences in status between these women and their male counterparts in weathercasting.”
But while the weathergirl craze abated in the United States by the early 1960s, in Australia, where television had been introduced relatively recently, it was just beginning. In 1961, an item in the Bureau’s in-house publication, Weather News, noted that in Brisbane, “the majority of stations appear to favour the glamour-girl type of telecaster for weather presentations”, and that “Bureau staff have had the pleasure of indoctrinating and briefing two ‘Miss Australias’ and one ‘Miss Queensland’ in the short time that television has been operating in this State”. The background training included explaining the need for weather information to be presented seriously and faithfully, “and particularly for the more glamorous the need to submerge their glamour behind the prosaic highs and lows”.
In 1965, Melbourne’s Channel 9 hired model Rosemary Margan to present the weather. One evening in 1969, she appeared in a fur coat before stripping to a bikini during her live segment, sparking a steady stream of responses from viewers. In the 1970s, when searching for a replacement for the then pregnant Margan, the station hired the 15-year-old schoolgirl Kerry Armstrong, whose job application had led them to believe she was 22. While often appearing in short, tight garments, Armstrong, who went on to become a celebrated actor, did on one occasion break away from the standard weather script, when she informed viewers that “due to the drought, 1,000 head of cattle died. But don’t worry, beachgoers, it’s going to be another great day tomorrow with a top of 35 degrees”.
Decades later, the “weather girl” tag has proved hard to shake, as current Melbourne Channel Nine weather presenter Livinia Nixon told The Age in 2010. “TV and radio are very much boys’ clubs; they’re industries that are still very, very male-dominated,” she says, acknowledging that a male who presents the weather is a weather man, whereas she is a “weather girl”. “I wonder at what point you lose the ‘girl’?” she asks, having presented the segment on Nine’s 6pm weeknight news since 2004. “What age do you have to reach to not be called a girl any more?”
What if the woman presenting the weather has a relevant tertiary qualification? Back at Seven in Melbourne, Giaan Rooney remained in the role of weather presenter until taking maternity leave, when she was replaced by model and television personality Jo Silvagni, who was in turn replaced in late 2014 by Jane Bunn – who, as it happens, is also a qualified meteorologist. Her appointment also attracted media attention. When Nixon was asked about her new on-air rival, she told the Herald Sun that she didn’t think this would lend Seven’s bulletin any more clout. “I think it’s fantastic that Jane’s a meteorologist – hats off to her for doing the hard yards – but I’m confident working in conjunction with the Bureau (of Meteorology),” she says. “I feel very confident relaying all the information we get from them. Their accuracy rate has gone up over the years.”
Did Nixon, who had replaced the veteran weather presenter Rob Gell on Nine in 2010, have a point? A trained meteorologist of either gender might make the weather segment seem more credible to some, but would they enhance the substantive quality of information that is delivered? Historically the Bureau has insisted that provision of its information comes with a requirement that the media doesn’t mess with the message. TV stations can and do use the services of private weather companies to provide graphics, but the actual forecasts are still meant to be broadly consistent with the Bureau’s. So whichever nightly news channel you watch, won’t the next-day forecast be essentially the same?
With this and others questions in mind, I went to Melbourne’s Seven studios in Docklands to meet Bunn. After completing a Bachelor of Science at Monash University and a Graduate Diploma in Meteorology, Bunn worked for the Bureau in Sydney before turning to presenting the weather on television. “I loved the forecasting part of it but hated it when the message was being changed in the
media by people who got their terms muddled, so I decided I wanted to present it,” she tells me, citing an incident where a forecast of “fine and mostly sunny” was abbreviated to “mostly fine”. “You can have trust in what we are saying because that message might be jumbled up elsewhere. You’re better off
getting your weather from a meteorologist than a presenter because you know it’s as good as it can be.”
But Bunn doesn’t simply recite the Bureau’s forecast. Before her main segment goes to air at 6.55pm she checks the forecast models from Europe and Australia, which are updated after the Bureau releases its late afternoon forecast, to see if there are developments that might require some additional interpretation. She also analyses those same models to take the Bureau’s seven-day forecast one step
further, providing viewers with an eight-day outlook.
For all her specialist knowledge, however, Bunn’s appearance has also been a talking point both in social media and in the gossip columns. “Jane Bunn had the farm boys panting when she was the weather girl on regional television,” began one Herald Sun story, before conceding that “she doesn’t fit the weather girl stereotype”. Bunn accepts that her image is to some extent constructed by others. When I bring up the subject of how she is characterised in social media, she points out that other people have considerable input into how she appears before the camera. “I’ve purposely made it so hair and make-up and wardrobe decide what I actually look like – and that allows me to concentrate on my craft which is forecasting.”
As well as presenting all the usual weather details, Bunn has the scope to discuss seasonal forecasts and weather news in her segment, which provides her with the opportunity to embed her meteorological knowledge in her reports. Despite such individual touches, however, weather presenters in Australia, including Bunn, stick far more closely to the official forecasts than their American counterparts. In the United States, it is commonplace for local TV stations to hire meteorologists to present the weather, and many of these develop their own forecasts, which may be based on National Weather Service (NWS) data, or on those of other private providers whose predictions may also differ from those of the NWS. And television has long been a much more popular source of weather forecasts than the NWS. A 2006 survey of more than 1,400 Americans found that 72% of them caught a local TV forecast at least once per day, but less than 20% obtained daily forecasts from NWS websites, with just 4% tuning in to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio each day.
It might be just as well that Australia has not gone down this track. As American data journalist Nate Silver has noted in the American context, “the further you get from the government’s original data, and the more consumer facing the forecasts, the less reliable they become. Forecasts ‘add value’ by subtracting accuracy.” This is particularly the case with precipitation predictions. Non-National Weather Service forecasters, it turns out, tend to overestimate the probability of rain. There is a logic of sorts to this “wet bias”, says Silver. “People don’t mind when a forecaster predicts rain and it turns out to be a nice day. But if it rains when it isn’t supposed to, they curse the weatherman for ruining their picnic.”
In the short term, Ten has to focus on reducing costs by renegotiating contracts with its suppliers. Over the long term, Ten has to contend with changing demographics and falling television advertising. The company has to receive more revenue from the content it already has, and the best way to do that may be through a tie-up with Foxtel.
How to make Ten viable
Entering voluntary administration provides an opportunity to reorganise Ten and renegotiate contracts. Changing media ownership laws would doubtless make this easier, by allowing some of the major shareholders to take the company private.
In the short term, Ten should aim to reduce expenses, aiming for annual savings of A$80 million. In a release to the ASX, Ten talks about renegotiating contracts with the studios it buys content off, notably CBS and 20th Century Fox. Ten had already identified these cost reductions, but entering voluntary administration will give the company a stronger bargaining position.
However, these negotiations are just the beginning of content changes. Ten will need to produce content more cheaply and aligned to a changing target demographic. As younger viewers moved away from traditional television, Ten’s programming has suffered. Voluntary administration will give Ten more power to renegotiate contracts with domestic suppliers too.
Longer term, Ten needs to protect and expand its revenues. With television advertising declining, Ten needs to reach more viewers so that it can maximise the revenue from the content it has. Distributing content through more channels, such as realising the full potential of streaming, would enable more efficient use of content and increase the potential audience.
But developing these channels by itself might not be a viable option as Ten has neither time nor financial resources. This is why it makes sense to tie up with Foxtel, already a major shareholder and a big player online.
A common theme to these strategies is that Ten needs to compete more effectively for content and advertising revenues. This means that regulatory constraints must be removed if it is to fight for long-term financial sustainability.
Overcoming financial hurdles
A major contributor to Ten’s recent half-year loss was a one-off impairment charge – the company wrote down A$214.5 million from the value of its television licences.
But, even allowing for this one-off item, there was still a substantial loss and the financial pressures have been building for some time. Much of this pressure stems from a decline in revenues from A$998 million in 2011 to only A$689 million in 2016. The 2016 annual report even notes a structural change in advertising as a risk facing the company.
Over this same period Ten has been working to reduce operating costs, but obviously this has been difficult. The financial reports do not give exact breakdowns of costs, but we do know that content contracts with CBS and 20th Century Fox are substantial and need to be reduced.
If there is one thing we can be certain of, it is that there must be substantial change in the business for Ten to recover.
Further contributing to Ten’s woes are loan facilities that expire in December. This includes borrowing that amounted to A$73.8 million at the end of February and which needs to be repaid in the short term.
Unless Ten can negotiate an extension to its loan facility at the Commonwealth Bank, the solvency of the business becomes doubtful. Failure to get backing for a new loan to replace the current one in December is reportedly one of the reasons Ten decided to go into voluntary administration.
Previously, major shareholders had provided guarantees for Ten’s banking facilities, but this is difficult to justify given the state of the business. Regardless, it would not resolve the underlying issues. For Ten to be viable, it needs to get a handle on costs and reach more viewers with the content it has.