Is there still a case for the ABC?

I had the opportunity to debate the Managing Director of the ABC, Mark Scott, on the role of public broadcasting during the weekend.  The topic of my presentation was ABC: from correcting market failure to causing it.  Mark went first.

Scott has taken to using the language of economists to defend the billion dollars or so of taxpayer funds that are handed out to the ABC each year. (This is not counting the dollars for the Australian Network – the ABC is now a shoo-in for the next contract and will therefore being able to continue its contribution to the government peddling soft diplomacy in the region (I am not making this up – check out Scott’s past speech on this topic).)

Now I guess that back in 1932 there might have been some market failure with thin capital markets.  And if national radio coveragewas an aim, then … But note that there was an incipient radio network funded privately at that time which is essentially nationalized to create the ABC.

Forward to the present, according to Scott, there are still market failures, indeed greater market failures notwithstanding the acknowledged proliferation of media outlets which are easily accessible.  This seems to be a case of heads the ABC wins, tails the ABC wins (and the taxpayer loses).  He refers in particular to quality coverage of news and current affairs (stop laughing) and quality drama (Crownies, Angry Boys? … again stop laughing) as two examples of correcting for this growing market failure.

I was amazed when he boasted about ABC News 24 being established without any new resources.  This seems like an amazing admission of extreme levels of fat within the organization.  Can you imagine a company setting up a new division without making a substantial investment?

Not surprisingly, I decided to give him some examples of egregiously bad journalism coming out the ABC: Deb Cameron suggesting that Gina Rinehart was influencing Channel 7’s programming decisions even though Rinehart is a shareholder of Channel 10; Adam Spencer hanging up on Christopher Monckton having been caught out on a point of fact about a scientific paper; Jeremy Thompson defaming Bjorn Lomborg because
Tony Abbott had mentioned Lomborg.  And new there is the case of Wendy Carlisle super-defaming Monckton and making all sorts of appalling errors along the way.

A Scott’s response?  Sure, there are occasional lapses of journalistic standards but there are thousands (millions) of hours broadcast and, in any case, people can complain and their complaints will be taken seriously (just stop that laughing, it might cause some physical damage).

So here is the ABC’s complaints-handing rule-book (I know – I decided to road-test it a while back – some little clerk got back to me after nearly two months: COMPLAINT REJECTED.)

  • Treat the complainant as dim-wit, using a patronizing tone;
  • Refer obliquely to the matter raised but declare that all approaches to journalism are equally valid;
  • Assure the complainant that the matter has been thoroughly investigated;
  • Tell the complainant that management takes all complaints very seriously;
  • Finally, quote the internet address of the Editorial Guidelines.

In the meatime, over at the BBC, there seems to be a more open-minded approach to criticism: the Director-General has conceded that the organization has been guilty of “massive left-wing bias”, as well as egregiously delaying any consideration of the topics of immigration and Euroscepticism.  On these topics, the BBC staff just didn’t get it.

(I have a piece coming out on The Drum along the above line :))

 

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66 Responses to Is there still a case for the ABC?

  1. Ooh Honey Honey

    That makes me insanely happy.

  2. m0nty

    Is there still a case for Catallaxy?

  3. Rafe

    What would you do if you didn’t spend your day trolling here?

  4. Sinclair Davidson

    If the federal government wants to pay a billion dollars or so for the Cat, I’d happily accept.

  5. m0nty

    What would you do if you didn’t spend your day trolling here?

    Working. The horror.

  6. Judith Sloan

    Hand over the billion dollars of compulsory collected taxes to Catallaxy and we will do a better job.

    The fact that some people like mOnty like the ABC does not constitute a case for this example of extortion.

  7. Rafe

    Sinc if you sold out for a billion, and ran away laughing, do you think the government would let the rest of us retain our blogging rights?

  8. bytheway

    Perhaps part of the problem is a failure to highlight the opportunity cost of government monopoly. Imagine what a cool billion could do to promote diversity of opinion and public enlightenment if allocated competitively, with audience preference having a large say in the choices. More realistically, a quarter of a billion in vouchers for public interest broadcasting would surely achieve ten times the benefit.

  9. On cold mornings I listen to the ABC to deliberately raise my blood pressure and help me warm up.

    It’s bad enough that the overall journalism quality is so poor and bias so entrenched, but it’s when I remember that I’m paying for it that I really warm up.

    If trolls such as Monty like the ABC, let them pay for it. The rest of us shouldn’t have to.

  10. Samuel J

    why is Tony Jones allowed to moonlight frm Q&A? if a public servant speaks at a conference, his or her department keeps any fee. so why shouldn’t the ABC – which owns Q&A – collect the fees and not Jones?

  11. m0nty

    The case for the ABC, in my mind, is this: News Ltd and Fairfax are dead ducks in financial terms, so Aunty is the least worst option to maintain some standard of journalism in the long term. News will be gutted at or around the time of Rupert’s demise, just as Nine was after Kerry’s – or it will be flogged off to Rinehart, who will debase its journalism even further. Fairfax has been on a long, inexorable decline for years, with no courage by the board to change its trajectory, so there’s no hope there either. For better or worse, the ABC is the only bastion of journalism left whose “business” model, such as it is, is impervious to the historical destruction of revenue streams for commercial journalism. It’s nothing to celebrate, but there it is.

  12. daddy dave

    The moment people start making lists of all the useful functions (news, current affairs, drama, music) then there is no longer a single rationale for its existence being debated, but lots of mini-rationales.

    The weakest argument, by far, is drama, and we can see that the ABC has virtually vacated the field on this. And why not? There’s a tsunami of good – sometimes superb – drama coming out of the US and to a lesser extent, Canada and Britain. Why spend a fortune making imitations with sprinklings of local dialect when we can get so much of it cheaply and easily from overseas?
    The ‘local drama’ argument is overplayed, since great drama, like all great art, is universal (this also applies to ‘pretty good’ too); and often we end up copying foreign formats with local accents anyway.

    Not only that but the commercial, non-government owned TV stations are producing plenty of local drama, from the long-lived Neighbours and Friends to Rush, Rescue Special Ops, etc.

    The next weakest argument is music, and JJJ is actually distorting the local music argument.

  13. Rafe

    Maybe under the Fair Work Act we could have our status upgraded from part-time casual to fulltime permanent with all the other benefits?

  14. daddy dave

    correction: JJJ is actually distorting the local music industry.

  15. Ooh Honey Honey

    The very expression “market failure” implies a straw man hiding in the basement. I think people who would prefer things be provided in a free market can be divided into two groups – those who believe that a free market can build a better world, and those who just think that it is less evil than a minority stealing taking money from the majority in order to build a better world.
    The former is the straw man I think. I belong to the latter. I have absolutely no idea what the world would look like if everyone was free to solve their own problems. That’s the adventure of humanity. I just know it would look like the work of humans rather than the work of an elite group of tyrannical humans.
    So the ABC joining a conversation on “market forces”? All they can ask is “will the market produce the same outcomes as we are trying to produce?” They won’t understand any other question.
    The market isn’t trying to do anything. It can’t fail. It is just a place where individuals try to do stuff. And who cares if they fail?

  16. daddy dave

    Where’s the market failure?
    ABC doesn’t produce any newspapers so how can it be competing with News Limited papers, or addressing the dominance of Murdoch in newspapers?

    The ABC competes with non-ABC television stations, non-ABC radio stations and non-ABC websites. When their competitors go broke and shut down, then we can talk about market failure. But it seems to me that the areas that the ABC is in, there’s no market failure.

    All this talk of countering Murdoch is a distraction.

  17. Deb Cameron is definitely ABC Sydney’s resident lefty, kind of playing the same position in the ABC Sydney stable as Bob Brown does in the Labor-Greens-Independents Coalition. Examples of egregious ABC left-wing bias are rare but if right-wingers want to kick a stink up about that issue in the future, then they would be wise to listen to a couple of hours of Cameron. Some of the issues she’s grumbled about –

    – Price controls on alcohol
    – Plain packaging policy for cigarettes
    – Australia Post shutting up a few of its outlets which is apparently ‘bad’ because it should be a ‘public service’.

    Definitely more. Not saying all of her arguments are necessarily bad, but if you want someone to give a stereotypically nanny-state point of view then Cameron’s that person.

  18. Tim Quilty

    If you read the left-wing blogs, or the polling blogs (but I repeat myself…) you’11 know that the ABC has an overwhelming anti-Labor bias. The “Their ABC” meme has become pervasive. While I assume this is laughable nonsense, I haven’t had a TV for over 10 years now and so I’m not in a position to be absolutely sure about it.

    However, this strikes me as an opportunity. If both the left and right are dissatisfied with the ABC, we should be able to build a grand coalition to shut it down or sell it off. Or something.

  19. Token

    The reason for the ABC becomes more ridiculous once the NBN is rolled out.

    Once every 80 year old in every postcode across this land can access every digital TV / radio station (is that 98% or 99% of locations), which location will have a market failure?

  20. JC

    The left wouldn’t agree to that, Tim. What they want is a fully operational ABC as the arm of the Greens. I say stick Andrew Bolt on at 730 and watch them squirm. Perhaps Alon Jones does Lateline.

  21. daddy dave

    If both the left and right are dissatisfied with the ABC

    Talk is cheap.
    If you try to do that, ‘revealed preferences’ will come to the surface.

  22. Token

    Growing up in regional Australia we had 1 commercial radio station & 1 commercial TV station + ABC TV & radio.

    Now every location can access all Free TV digital stations and digital radio stations, where is the market failure when people can access 20+ stations anywhere in the country?

    Add to this, with the free set top boxes, even the most disadvantaged gets access.

  23. MOnty! What in the hell are you on about? You keep bobbing up and down like a kid on a pogo stick.
    I think you and the few other followers of the ABC should band together and pay your 4cents a day to privatise it. Its probably not worth much and your mob could just about afford it. Everyone else who is tortured by it would save millions and there would be no need to endure it any longer.

  24. Token

    Final question. Why do we have a SBS as well as ABC? Once the NBN is rolled out, who needs a multi-cultural broadcaster bringing programming from around the world.

    Greeks can tune into Greek TV 24/7. Same for every other ethnic group.

    Sell it off or merge it into the ABC.

  25. johno

    The market failure arguement is just a croc.

    If Mark Scott and the ABC supporters club were really interested in increasing the diversity of media opinion and onwership then they should be looking at those sections of the Broadcasting Act that make it ILLEGAL for new entrants to compete with the existing radio and TV broadcasters. There is plenty of spectrum available for there to be many more TV and radio networks than allowed by the current legislation. The so-called concentration of media ownership in Australia is NOT the result of market failure. It has been the policy intent of every Australian government since the inception of commercial radio in this country.

  26. JC

    Sell it off or merge it into the ABC.

    Or perhaps run Greek news on at 7 with sub titles. It’s cheaper.

  27. Token

    Deb Cameron…Not saying all of her arguments are necessarily bad, but if you want someone to give a stereotypically nanny-state point of view then Cameron’s that person.

    Deb Cameron gets it right as often as a stopped clock.

    As long as she can stay in the sheltered workshop that is the ABC she and many others like Kerry O’Briend can get away peddling such tosh for an entire career.

    She should have to put her opinions in a commercial market and see if she doesn’t have to either get an alternate job or change her attitude. From the ratings, there should be a large enough audience, why do they need government subsidies?

  28. Is there still a case for the ABC?

    No.

    Defund it.

    Next question?

  29. Media Wars
    Episode V
    The Empire Strikes Back

    The rebellion has decamped to the remote and hostile planet of Goth. Meanwhile Darth Murtok has seen hiz zonz return from an expensive prep school and is horrified to find zat zhey haf become nerds.

    It’s not a comedy.

    Starring Justin Bieber as Lachlan, that kid from High School Musical as James. The Jabba the Hut puppet plays Darth Murtok with the voice of the ex-Republican governor of California who can’t get James Cameron to return his phone calls.

    Marketing researched the ABC and found no-one interesting enough to make fun of. The Goth planetary rebellion will feature a brief scene where Kurt Russel shoves Sean Penn into the smelly guts of a yak and then sews him up. The US red State zone will rent the video just to see that.

  30. m0nty

    MOnty! What in the hell are you on about? You keep bobbing up and down like a kid on a pogo stick.
    I think you and the few other followers of the ABC should band together and pay your 4cents a day to privatise it. Its probably not worth much and your mob could just about afford it. Everyone else who is tortured by it would save millions and there would be no need to endure it any longer.

    Whereas you, Hubert, have crawled out of under a rock for the first time since the Cretaceous, as far as I can tell.

  31. JC

    Pyth.

    Bubert does make a valid point.

  32. m0nty

    JC, the top of your head makes a sharper point.

  33. Even the drama on ABC is tuned to their sensibilities.

    On ABC Network in Asia you get all the government-funded dramas which depict some fantasy version of Australian life. My favourite is the police procedural starring an Iraqi muslim copper. A lot of the storylines feature illegal immigrants (who are obviously always the good guys).

    You also get the 5 minute segments between programs celebrating great Australian cultural institutions like the BLF. I shit you not.

  34. badm0f0

    … there would be no need to endure it any longer.

    The button for changing channels is usually the one with the up and down arrows Hubert. Failing that you can select one of the buttons with numbers on them – except the one that looks like this; 2.

  35. Viva

    flogged off to Rinehart, who will debase its journalism even further

    LOL. The Oz is the only rag worth reading in this town because of the high standard and breadth of its news and commentary. I’ve said it before – I feel sorry for those having to resort to the others by their political preference.

    Re the ABC – its bias is enraging but we watch it quite a lot for dramas, stuff like QI, The Collectors, science programs and some docos and for ad-free viewing – plus Chris Uhlman.

  36. Token

    The button for changing channels is usually the one with the up and down arrows Hubert. Failing that you can select one of the buttons with numbers on them – except the one that looks like this; 2.

    The problem badm0f0 is not the TV controller, it is when we have to send a cheque / have wages withheld by a government agency with these letters on the letterhead.

    ATO

  37. twostix

    The fact that:

    A. Every single ABC political editor and anchor bar one is either an EX Labor prime ministerial advisor or is married to one immediately settles the “bias” argument. What disgraceful cronyism.

    B. There are so many Labor connections in the ABC that it’s just not funny anymore, even one of the Chaser losers is married to a NSW Labor MP. I mean seriously, out of 20 million people the ABC end up with two major personalities (that I’m aware of) that are *married* to Labor MP’s?

    Really?

    C. It is exclusively lefties that think the ABC should continue in its current form.

    D. Lefties regularly make the slightly unhinged appeal that because “the right” has most of the private media, why shouldn’t they have the ABC? Ignoring the fact that we on “the right” (aka the majority of Australian’s given the failure of private left wing media) have to pay for our own media AND for them to have a media to attack us and our beliefs.

    I think that the solution to the entire problem is to either:

    1. Ban anybody from working for the ABC who has been or is a member or a paid advisor to a political party, union, business organisation, political lobbying group or government.

    If the left don’t want that simple and fair way to reduce corruption within the ABC, then:

    2. Ban the ABC from being involved in political commentary. Drama, Sport, Weather and News OK. Blantant and sickening leftwing propooganda knows as The Hungry Beast, The Drum, Q & A, etc not ok.
    Simple.

    4. If that’s too much

    Privatise it.

    3. If that’s still too much.

    Defund it.

  38. daddy dave

    even one of the Chaser losers is married to a NSW Labor MP

    I’d love to see the ABC restructure to have comedy as a separate department.
    Then we could have the totally Orwellian “Department for Political Satire.”
    We could point and make fun of people who think it serves an important social purpose.

  39. daddy dave

    but we watch it quite a lot for dramas, stuff like QI, The Collectors, science programs and some docos and for ad-free viewing – plus Chris Uhlman.

    It’s got some good shows. I watch ABC too sometimes, but the question is, is this something the government should be involved in? They sold Telstra and the sky didn’t fall in.

    Also as I said above, its value is questionable when it comes to drama. The best dramas on ABC are the ones they’ve bought from overseas, with a couple of rare exceptions. Waking the Dead springs to mind but that’s just a personal preference.

  40. daddy dave

    clarification: Waking the Dead was an example of a good imported British show, not something they made themselves.

  41. Judith Sloan

    An interesting issue is that if the ABC Drama output is so good, why is it not sold overseas? It is not, even though the ABC (and other channels) source heaps of drama from overseas. Mmmm, I’m wondering whether it is really that good if we are talking about global values of excellence.

  42. Viva

    Just as an aside – one thing the ABC could have done to get at least some brownie points was to air Downton Abbey – I would have thought it was this type of drama’s natural home. Instead we were all condemned to watch Channel 7 advertisements interspersed with a few minutes of Maggie Smith et al. Where was the ABC when this was flogged to overseas networks?

  43. Ooh Honey Honey

    Judith, I’m sure you were being sarcastic up there when you said “Give us a billion dollars of tax money and we’ll do a better job”. You wouldn’t though. Catallaxy would stop trying to find out what “good” means, and allocate more and more resources to keeping the money tap on.
    And the ABC simply rents out this brand called “Australian”. What the hell is “Good” drama? It is a circular argument to most people – they want stuff to happen in Australia, so Australian = good.
    “Australian” is a credential, and all credentials are permission to stop worrying about quality.

    Other than that though, you rock.

  44. badm0f0

    Every single ABC political editor and anchor bar one is either an EX Labor prime ministerial advisor or is married to one immediately settles the “bias” argument.

    How about the many ABC journos & anchors that have gone onto work for other parties? Most recent is Josephine Carfagna, who hosted Stateline right through the Victorian election & took a job as Ted’s mouthpiece days after the results were in. Would your “employment ban” fix this sort of problem?

  45. JC

    Bado

    No problem with going the other way.. he way carfagna did. But let’s face it, the next time we will ever see a move that way will be around the same time Haley’s comet visits which is I think around 2050ish.

    In any event we all know Ted is basically a leftie idiot, so that doesn’t count.

  46. C.L.

    She actually worked for that well-known ‘conservative’ Ted Ballieu?

    LOL.

    What next as a distraction, Bado, an ex ABC staffer working for Malcolm Fraser?

  47. twostix

    They sold Telstra and the sky didn’t fall in.

    Not only didn’t it not fall in, as far as the Internet was concerned ADSL bloomed. Telstra the faux-government department didn’t like ADSL, so it stepped on the neck of it for a nearly a decade in favour of awful and expensive ISDN, and for inner-cities, cable.

    Telstra the private company on the other hand couldn’t ignore the ACCC and multitude of furious customers and other ISP’s regarding its wholesale monopoly abuse and so had to change.

  48. badm0f0

    What next as a distraction, Bado …

    The only one doing the handwaving is you captain mendacious. The issue was of political staffers working for the ABC, the question of whether they count as conservative enough in your eyes is a sideshow invented by & for your benefit.

  49. twostix

    How about the many ABC journos & anchors that have gone onto work for other parties? Most recent is Josephine Carfagna, who hosted Stateline right through the Victorian election & took a job as Ted’s mouthpiece days after the results were in. Would your “employment ban” fix this sort of problem?

    Lol in response to a dozen, you have one. Some unknown from Stateline – a little watched rural news program who went to work for a state government.

    To which I respond: Maxine Mckew, infinitely worse.

    Would your “employment ban” fix this sort of problem?

    You can’t prevent people from doing things in the future, but you can not hire them due to their past. The government has no trouble telling private businesses who they can and can’t hire for certain jobs so why not the state run media?

    Are you (as a resident lefty) saying that you wouldn’t support such a rule in the State run media? why not?

    (I suspect because you know it would flush the ABC clean of it’s rabid left-wing partisans).

  50. C.L.

    Uh-huh.

    One staffer nobody’s heard of versus, at one stage, all three major political current affairs shows on the ABC. Whitlam staffer O’Brien, Hawke staffer Cassidy and former member for Bennelong, Mrs Bob Hogg.

    Clown.

  51. JC

    I wouldn’t be shocked if they offered Maxine a job back at the ABC…. because of he rounded, even handed positions and interview style. lol

  52. badm0f0

    One staffer nobody’s heard of versus …

    The ABC’s chief state political reporter, including for the 7:30 Report, & host of Stateline may not be all that familiar to you in QLD but is certainly not unknown in Victoria. And if you want an accounting game you can add quite a list of ABC journos who’ve gone to the Liberals (in addition to the the current managing director & former liberal party advisor Mark Scott), including Pru Goward.

  53. JC

    Bado

    Stop being an idiot. The ratio of lefty idiots to anyone normal at that fetid leftist sewer we call our ABC is about 500:1.

    Sure the occasional dissenter makes it through the barricade. Big fucking deal. It’s still an open sewer of 70’s leftism combined with support for the Greenslime party.

  54. IanW

    This question merits far more detailed debate. The evolution of media through the information revolution has rendered State transmission of news and entertainment services unnecessary. The ABC is an instrument of the State which has lost any semblance of independence. So why should taxpayers fund it?
    The most fundamental aspect of the change going on around us is the shift from the Nation-State to the Market-State which began in the early 1990s. An important aspect of this change is the unwinding of welfare programs, no longer affordable in times of high State debt. In the US, there is a philosophical and demographic struggle over how expensive the State can be. Those arguing for smaller government have youth on their side and will win out in time. This same struggle will play out in a smaller way in Australia. And when it comes around to working out how to make government smaller, there will be a realisation that not funding the ABC is politically painless compared to cuts to other government programs.
    As the ABC is a financial asset of the Commonwealth, the best course is to sell it off for as much as we can get. The sooner the better.

  55. m0nty

    Ah, it’s the smell of burning rubber from that sort of drive-by idiocy by IanW that keeps me coming back to the Cat. Sniff the crazy.

  56. daddy dave

    I would still love to see a “Department of Satire.”
    Perhaps Federal arts funding for comedy festivals could be combined with the ABC comedy budget?

  57. Tiny Dancer

    Montyy. There’s enough crazy at lavatory pro isn’t there?

  58. Correllio

    Is there still a case for the ABC?

    No, sell it.

    Next.

  59. Rococo Liberal

    What I like about being a COnservative, as opposed to a Libertarian, is that I am free to revel in the inconsistencies that are thrown up in the field of public policy. On a market-oriented view of the world, the ABC is something that we don’t really need. But, let’s face it, a lot of the ABC, non-news/current affairs programmiing wouldn’t be seen or heard if we let the market decide.

    That is not to say that the ABC doesn’t need some drastic reform.

    The ABC should be the creature of those who pay for it: ie the Social ABs, who want a bit of high culture or some intelligent programming. COmmercial networks are not a place for this. They pander to the lower orders, and quite right too.

    What we ABS don’t want is an ABC news service that slants to the left. In fact, we don’t want a news service on the ABC at all. That is something the commercial channels do just as well as the ABC.

    So the news/current affairs department at the ABC should be shut down, and the way be made clear for more drama, arts documentaries and all the other things that the ABC should be doing.

  60. Sinclair Davidson

    More shows like Angels in America? Loved it myself.

  61. That is something the commercial channels do just as well as the ABC.

    I agree. Both appalling. 🙂

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