You know the power of silence… A conservative take on ABC funding

There are a lot of hot takes about the ABC.  The problem with most of the hot takes is the unasked question at their heart: what is the point of the ABC?  Because people do not articulate clearly and precisely what they think its purpose is, we get a wild and stormy sea of opinions.  The ABC should do this, not do that, be run like this, or sold off like that.  The Charter, the Charter, the Charter.

One of the key policy intents behind the public broadcaster is outlined in the Budget papers:

Informed, educated and entertained audiences – throughout Australia and overseas – through innovative and comprehensive media and related services.

What this means in practice, however, is left open to people to interpret.  There are a wide variety of ways to meet this goal but, perhaps surprisingly, not a lot of ways objectively to fail to meet it.

I was interested in reading a new book on the subject by Chris Berg and Sinclair Davidson of RMIT’s Blockchain Innovation Hub.  A check of local bookstores, newsagents, and petrol stations came up empty, so I was disappointed not to know their argument for selling off the ABC.   Given their other books and work, I imagine it treads the path of other libertarian rightwing arguments: the ABC presents views which with some group of taxpayers disagree and this is morally wrong.

As a conservative myself, I’ve always been confused by this view.  It makes some sense intuitively but doesn’t hold up, thus the question of how to sell it off doesn’t arise.

Conceptually, there is a difference between what the ABC currently is and what the ABC could be.  We can (and, I think, should) be highly critical of what the ABC currently offers.  Its programming is uninspiring, and is rarely essential viewing for being an informed citizen.  Its entertainment options are extremely poor, and appears to target an audience that is already well served by the rest of the media (centrist liberals).  And its coverage is weirdly skewed towards markets where there are already suitable options while ignoring areas where there are very few options.  Good examples of the latter here are the decisions to send 7.30 to the United States (the US media was already capable of doing a better job than Australian journalists) and to the United Kingdom for the Royal Wedding (BBC exists).  It is unclear why this duplication was needed when there’s a need for better coverage across Southeast Asia and the Pacific, and across regional Australia.

Even despite the above, we do not necessarily reach the argument that we should be carving up the ABC.  We do reach the intuition (expressed by those in News Corp especially) that taxpayers should not be forced to pay for this particular content: ‘I disagree strongly with this content and I am forced to pay for it.’  Even though it might be an intuition that is presented disingenuously or self-servingly, it’s an intuition that deserves a considered response.

The response is that the ABC does not exist for citizens individually but citizens collectively.  As a society, we need broadcast content that is driven by something other than market forces — broadcast content that can be courageous in the face of the economically powerful and influential.  At the heart of programming and editorial decisions should be a clear vision of the public good.

That clear vision of the public good might sound subjective, but a pluralist approach is amenable to reasons.  That is, a clear vision of the public good should inform programming and editorial decisions and we can engage in criticism where we can argue that decisions are clearly not motivated by the public good.  Calling a person standing for office a ‘c-word’, for example, seems to fall outside anybody’s reasonable articulation of the public good.  The jester liberalism nonsense that pollutes Wednesday night ABC in general is very difficult to justify with a reasonable conception of the public good.

The argument also works to motivate a defence of the ABC.  If there were a clear vision of the public good articulated by the ABC, the public would be more inclined to defend it against budget cuts.  When the Gillard government went after higher education funding, there were protests.  Universities are in a similar space to the ABC: they have to rely on demonstrating their public value in order to justify their resources.  A university is a multi-billion dollar organisation, and that’s money that could be put towards more hospital beds, teachers in schools, or (frankly) tax cuts.  Universities need to convince people that we, as a society, are better off with a university than with individuals having an extra ten dollars in their pocket each fortnight.

But when the cuts to the ABC’s budget came, there wasn’t much of a public backlash.  If anything, it caused those engaged in the discussion to point to poor decisions of the ABC as examples of where money could be saved on the one hand, and, on the other, sheer disinterest from the broader public.

There are plans by various centrist liberal groups (like, ugh, GetUp) to run a campaign to defend the ABC.  But the fact that the campaign is needed is the entire problem.  What we really need is clear visions of the public good and engagement with the debate about what would nurture an informed, educated, and entertained audience.


Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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