The following is an excerpt of Per Capita’s research report “It’s Our ABC”, which was published on 4 May 2020 with funding from political activist group GetUp!
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), has, since its establishment in 1932, provided radio, later television, and, more recently, digital broadcasting services to inform, educate and entertain Australians across our vast land mass.
The ABC is the most trusted and valued media outlet in Australia.
Surveys and polls consistently show that more than three-quarters of Australians consider the ABC as an essential service, and that it is trusted to provide impartial news and information more than four times as much as any other media organisation.
Despite repeated calls from free-market think tanks, and even a vote from grassroots members of the Liberal Party in 2018, to privatise the ABC, the Coalition Government has ruled out such a drastic measure. This may be a consequence of the ABC’s overwhelming popularity: politicians know that Australians, including many Liberal and National Party supporters, treasure the ABC.
Unfortunately, this knowledge has not prevented the current government from subjecting the ABC to a “death by a thousand cuts”. Since the election in 2013, excessive cuts to operational funding, the removal of support for specific services and programs, and repeated incursions on the ABC’s independence by government sponsored inquiries and reviews, have combined to undermine the ability of the national broadcaster to fulfil its chartered obligations to serve the citizens of Australia.
Per Capita’s report looks at the accumulated impact of recent government decisions, and uncovers details of a virtually unprecedented attack on the operational capability of Australia’s national broadcaster.
Over the last seven years, the ABC has been forced to close regional production facilities, reduce local news gathering, make savage cuts to staff numbers across all divisions, reduce the amount of current affairs and in-depth analysis it provides on radio and television, stop coverage of local sport in regional Australia, cut the number of hours of original scripted Australian content in half, end some essential broadcasting services in remote Australia, consolidate content production in Sydney and Melbourne, and scale back its international programming in our region, with significant implications for Australia’s diplomatic relationships with our nearest neighbours.
Our report, and the GetUp campaign to restore the funding and independence the ABC needs in order to fulfil its charter, comes at a critical time for our nation. Following a summer of devastating bushfires across the Eastern seaboard and in parts of Western and South Australia, Australia is now, along with the rest of the world, grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, the greatest crisis of public health in living memory, which has caused the biggest economic shock in a century.
As most of us are locked down in our homes, our reliance on the services of our national broadcaster has never been greater.
A survey commissioned by GetUp in March found that more than 80% of Australians believe the ABC provides an essential service during these times of national crisis.
Outside our capital cities, as commercial media responds to the economic downturn by closing the few local, community-based news services still operating, the provision of ABC services in regional and remote communities becomes even more critical.
Through the bushfires, and now into the daily updates about the spread of coronavirus and the changing measures put in place to manage the crisis, the ABC provides the most trusted, impartial, and authoritative information to keep Australians safe.
Even more important than this critical emergency service, though, is the role of the ABC in maintaining our national unity, our sense of ourselves as one people. While we are unable to gather in our own tribes, the ABC represents the ties that bind us together as Australians. It is, quite literally, the voice of our nation.
Our ABC has never been more valued, or more valuable. Yet, as part of its measures to support the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government has announced public funding for commercial media, totalling $91 million, while doing nothing to support the ABC. The package includes a $50 million “Public Interest News Gathering” program, open only to commercial television, radio and newspaper businesses in regional Australia, despite the clear evidence from regional audiences that only the ABC is committed to providing local stories to their communities.
The government is also refunding $41 million in spectrum taxes to the commercial television broadcasters, an amount that is almost two-thirds of that returned to the government from the ABC during this financial year as a result of the enforced “efficiency dividend”. Effectively, the government is taking money from the national broadcaster and using it to subsidise commercial media services.
The analysis in Per Capita’s report finds that, unless the hostility demonstrated towards the national broadcaster by the federal government is arrested and reversed, Australia will suffer irreparable damage to its social fabric, its democratic participation, the safety and security of its people, and its national identity.
Without a strong and independent ABC, able to provide comprehensive, multiplatform services to all citizens, our very understanding of what it means to be Australian will be under threat.
As we recover from this unprecedented crisis, there will be pressure on the government to further cut spending on public services, in an effort to pay down the debt we have rightly incurred to protect jobs and livelihoods during a time of economic collapse.
The ABC, and the essential services it provides, must be shielded from such misguided austerity; rather, it is fundamental to Australia’s recovery that the national broadcaster be adequately funded to play its critical, ongoing role in rebuilding our society, maintaining our social cohesion and sharing the stories of all Australians as we work together through the reconstruction.
It’s our ABC. It’s time we, as its owners and its audience, demand a long-term, bi-partisan commitment to properly resource and respect the institution that is a bedrock of our nationhood.
You can read the full Per Capita Discussion Paper “It’s Our ABC” (May 2020) here.
-  The function of a public broadcaster to “inform, educate and entertain” the populace was conceived by Lord John Reith, the first Director General of the BBC, who is widely regarded as the architect of the principles of public broadcasting.