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Byron Shire
March 9, 2021

Outbreak of entitlement confuses ABC critics

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Bernard Keane, Crikey

Judging by the squealing coming from government ranks, many in the coalition are all for efficiency when it comes to public broadcasting – but only for everyone else, thanks.

Nationals MPs are seething about cuts to ABC regional radio services, despite the much higher cost per listener of producing regional radio content compared to either networking it from elsewhere or offering national services. The cuts should have fallen preponderantly on Sydney and Melbourne, Nats say – missing the point that that’s exactly what’s happening, especially with the loss of 100 news and current affairs jobs and 40 management jobs.

Reductions in ABC Local Radio services in the bush naturally affect Nationals electorates, but it’s more personal for Nats MPs: the boys, and the occasional girl, from the bush are guided on media policy by how much media coverage they get in their own electorates, and since regional commercial radio licensees have mostly become networks with minimal local content and few local reporters, increasingly the ABC is the only source of local electronic media coverage for Nationals MPs. When they complain about ABC cuts, Nats are as much incensed about the diminishing number of microphones at their press conferences as they are about their constituents.

It was pressure from the Nationals that helped the ABC get the first new money for domestic services it ever got from the Howard government, in 2001, when it received just under $20 million for, primarily, more regional radio services. The government also wanted to reward the ABC board for appointing Jonathan Shier, who was perceived as One Of Us, although Shier, with his Rudd-like genius for alienating people, left six months after that. The extra funding enabled the ABC to expand its Local Radio network to over 50 locations at a time when commercial radio was abandoning the bush in favour of networked programming. One of the stations opened with the Shier funding, Wagin in Western Australia, will now be closed, along with four others. On balance, it’s not a bad outcome for the bush – an extra $19 million a year delivered four more stations, and a cut of $50 million a year, 13 years later, closes five stations.

But while Nationals MPs have a long history of demanding that urban Australians be subjected to the sort of efficiency and economic rigour that they themselves would run a mile from, it’s different when urban Liberals adopt a similar NIMBYism. Take born-again public broadcasting advocate Education Minister Christopher Pyne, representing the electorate of Sturt in South Australia. Pyne is gung-ho for deregulation in the university sector, backed the government’s automotive subsidy cuts, and wasn’t overly fussed when General Motors announced it was closing local operations. ‘The simple reality,’ Pyne said in February, completely accurately, ‘is that it is very expensive to manufacture motor vehicles in Australia.’ Now, however, Pyne is unhappy that the ABC has decided to close its Adelaide production facilities when they are more expensive than larger, centralised production facilities in Sydney and Melbourne.

Who’d have thought a Liberal politician would be more concerned about maintaining subsidised production for ABC staff than for car workers?

What Pyne and the Nationals have in common is an apparent belief in the concept of an efficient national broadcaster. Of course, there can be no such thing – you can either be a genuinely national broadcaster that not merely broadcasts to, but makes content in, every part of the country, or you can be efficient. But while you can efficiently produce local content in a rural radio station, or in a TV studio in Adelaide, it will never be as efficient as producing it in a centralised location where economies of scale and larger workforces are available. The ABC is less efficient than commercial broadcasters, because it produces much more of its content in less economically efficient locations like Wagin, so the best way to make it more efficient is to cut back such content. So ABC managing director Mark Scott’s cuts take the government at its word: it wants a more efficient broadcaster, right? Well, this is how you achieve it.

If Pyne or the Nationals or critics of the ending of state-based programs want production subsidies to keep less efficient ABC services open, the answer is what the Howard government did – fund the ABC to maintain those kinds of services (there’ll be an argument about tied funding, but an accommodation can easily be reached that preserves ABC independence but ensures it delivers what the government has funded). Indeed, there is much to be said for making more explicit the cost of being a genuinely national broadcaster so that voters can see how much is spent providing broadcasting services to rural and regional communities.

What has annoyed News Corporation, of course, is that Scott has declined to target ABC activities in markets where it competes successfully with the Murdoch family’s interests as part of its statutory requirement to provide a comprehensive service. You don’t see the Murdochs running commercially unviable regional radio stations – only a commercially unviable national broadsheet. It’s in digital services that the ABC is the biggest threat to the Murdochs. Thus the froth-mouthed fury in The Australian today about where Scott has chosen to cut. It turns out it’s not merely the Nats and Pyne that had a sense of entitlement about the ABC, the Murdochs did too, and the ABC board has disappointed them. The war, accordingly, will go on.

This article was first published in Crikey.

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