Time to challenge the priests of public broadcasting

In The Australian today:

“Malcolm Turnbull is right to check whether the ABC and the SBS provide taxpayers with value for money. But to ensure good use of the community’s resources, it is not enough to ask whether the public service broadcasters are doing what they do properly; one must also ask whether they are doing the right things. “

About Henry Ergas

Henry Ergas AO is a columnist for The Australian. From 2009 to 2015 he was Senior Economic Adviser to Deloitte Australia and from 2009 to 2017 was Professor of Infrastructure Economics at the University of Wollongong’s SMART Infrastructure Facility. He joined SMART and Deloitte after working as a consultant economist at NECG, CRA International and Concept Economics. Prior to that, he was an economist at the OECD in Paris from the late 1970s until the early 1990s. At the OECD, he headed the Secretary-General’s Task Force on Structural Adjustment (1984-1987), which concentrated on improving the efficiency of government policies in a wide range of areas, and was subsequently Counsellor for Structural Policy in the Economics Department. He has taught at a range of universities, undertaken a number of government inquiries and served as a Lay Member of the New Zealand High Court. In 2016, he was made an Officer in the Order of Australia.
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32 Responses to Time to challenge the priests of public broadcasting

  1. boy on a bike

    It’s also worth asking how the ABC came to be doing so many things.

    I think I know the answer, and it can be summed up by the word “relevance”.

    The ABC is totally paranoid about being “relevant”. It knows that as soon as it is seen as being irrelevant, its budget will start to shrink, and eventually it will disappear without trace.

    Therefore, it has to continue expanding into every possible niche so that it remains front and centre in the consciousness of Australians – or at least those Australians that count. Hence the drive into web content, twitter etc. Was there a massive market failure that required the ABC to step in and provide on line news, comment and content? No. However, the ABC couldn’t afford to be left behind for fear of being seen to be irrelevant.

    Same goes for the 24 hour news channel. Who on earth thought that the public was marching in the streets, demanding that the ABC churn out news 24 hours a day? It was more a case of, “Hey look – Foxtel are carrying a 24 hour news channel; we have 1,000 journalists sitting around supposedly working all day – if we don’t do something flashy and demonstrate that those journalists are worthwhile, they will no longer be required”. The only difference I can detect between the two channels is that one uses a blue background and the other a red one – and I know no one that watches the one that is predominantly blue.

  2. boy on a bike

    I think I have just found the rationale behind running Q&A:

    Prof. Jean-Noel Kapferer takes an experiential approach and defines luxury as items which provide extra pleasure by flattering all senses at once. Several other researchers focus exclusively on dimension and argue that luxury must evoke a sense of belonging to a certain elite group.

    There are also goods that are perceived as luxurious by the public simply because they play a role of status symbols as such goods tend to signify the purchasing power of those who acquire them. These items, while not necessarily being better (in quality, performance, or appearance) than their less expensive substitutes, are purchased with the main purpose of displaying wealth or income of their owners. These kinds of goods are the objects of a socio-economic phenomenon called conspicuous consumption and commonly include luxury vehicles, watches, jewelry, designer clothing, yachts, as well as large residences, urban mansions, and country houses. Also see positional good.

    Watching Q&A is all about status and positioning. Telling others that you sit through it is a way of setting you apart from the hoi polloi, and it costs you nothing to do so.

  3. danno

    I can’t imagine anyone sitting through Q&A, and doing that plus enjoying it is something alien to me.

    Does it really appeal to that many?

    I guess it must, but I do find it unwatchable .. I do enjoy the sniping on the Cat though, very amusing. (it’s the little things that make life bearable)

  4. blogstrop

    Our own illustrious Richard Boyer had a different view to the priests you refer to, Henry. He wanted independence, but not with a free hand to instruct. Here’s a quote we’ve seen before at this blog, this time drawn from a good article in The Australian, which noted the ABC’s failure to live up to the ideal as stated by Boyer:

    “It is our hope national broadcasting may stand solid and serene in the middle of our national life, running no campaign, seeking to persuade no opinion, but presenting the issues freely and fearlessly for the calm judgment of our people.”

    Boyer wanted the ABC to become “an impartial clearing house for ideas, a stimulant to thought, an instrument of education and aesthetic culture … a much needed centre of national unity”.

    The abandonment of Boyer’s Reithian ideals began two years after his death. A Four Corners report on the RSL, broadcast in August 1963, strangely omitted from the recent anniversary compendium, was a turning point, introducing a genre of partisan journalism that Boyer would have abhorred.

    Well worth reading the whole thing.

  5. Notafan

    I would say, even without reading the article, that they are acting in a classic public service manner, always chasing more funding and more make work. It doesn’t matter that you add no value or derive no profit you must always grow. It’s a new business case for this and a new business case for that.
    It’s the biggest make work enterprise in Australia.

  6. blogstrop

    Sorry, omitted to say it’s by Nick Cater, who will be on Q&A tonight, along with Barnaby Joyce, plus several chair fillers of the usual sort. Might even be worth watching for once.

  7. james

    Please don’t ask Turnbull to evaluate the role of the ABC.

    He will come back with the sage conclusion that they need another 500 million a year.

  8. Anne

    $1.2 Billion – that’s about 5000 Australians who wouldn’t have to pay tax for the next ten years.

  9. rickw

    ABC & SBS

    – What void do they cover that so desperately needs to be filled? It’s hardly like a hospital or a school or the defence force. Purely discretionary.

    – Why do I pay for something that I don’t use? Again, not like a hospital or the defence force, if I met with accident I would still have no need for them.

    – Why does a free country need two state operated media outlets? Surely the media market and the viewing habits of the population will fill any gaps and adequately direct quality?

    Time to end this make-work program for socialists and meddlers.

  10. tomix

    4 or 5 Christmases ago, they ran a program about Herod the Great. According to the program, ole Herod may have been a tad ruthless, but he initiated a large building program and the Slaughter of the Innocents was not historically recorded and probably didn’t happen.
    Someone’s got to stick up for the Herodians.

  11. Tom

    Telling others that you sit through it is a way of setting you apart from the hoi polloi, and it costs you nothing to do so.

    And, to make it possible, those stupid bogans in their mcmansions in suburbs I’ll never visit get charged $1 billion+ per annum in taxes. Win-win.

    How quaint. Who pays taxes?

  12. They can pay for their own luxury.

    Sell it.

  13. Elizabeth (Lizzie) B.

    The ABC has a ‘nanny’ function as well as being a cost-free positional good for status aspirants and wannabes. It ‘reassures’ people that someone, somewhere, is ‘in charge’. This sense of authority and capacity to set a social and National narrative has become dangerous now that it is captive to highly-sectional interests.

  14. blogstrop

    Plibeserk is also on the panel – she’s becoming a fixture.

  15. Rabz

    Shut. It. Down.

    Fire. Them. All.

    Allocate the $1.2 billion to something more useful, or pay down some of the $340 billion plus Krudd/Swansteen/Lardarse debt we’ve been saddled with.

  16. Tapdog

    Apropos the ABC’s…

    …entrenched inability to distinguish independence from conceit.

    …some credit is due to the PM for soberly instigating some overdue and hopefully useful public discussion.

  17. Anne

    $1.2 Billion – that’s about 5000 Australians who wouldn’t have to pay tax for the next ten years.

    …and add another 5000 people every year!

  18. srr

    We all know ‘the rules’ that The Leftists play by.

    Falsely accuse The Right, the just and correct, of the very crimes being committed by The Left.

    ABC host Jon Faine compared it to President Vladimir Putin’s muzzling of Russia’s media.

    Former ABC managing director David Hill, once a Labor candidate, called it “laughable” and “dangerous”, falsely claiming Abbott was telling the ABC to “censor and withhold information”.

    The are not only lying, arrogant, greedy scum.

    The are the literally dangerous, traitorous enemies of Australia.

  19. james

    that’s about 5000 Australians who wouldn’t have to pay tax for the next ten years.

    And every year, another 5000.

    How productive a country would Australia be if we granted the wish of every tax-eating, Australia hating, smirking, snobbish, grant-seeking, constantly protesting, racism screaming, humanities graduate and deported them?

    The tax savings alone would be incredible.

    Add in the union bosses and IR lawyers and we would have a chance of being the next economic powerhouse.

    These people are parasites on our body politic and will defend their right to suck the blood of those who are productive with furious anger and unconcealed hate.

  20. Alfonso

    Forget it ….Tone thinks they’re a national treasure.
    You’ll get a new CEO, some irrelevant Board changes and …wait for it….an ABC ombudsman, whose inquiries will take a year and be unenforceable at Lateline production level.

    Their ABC merely has to wait for the next Green/Labor govt. Massive defund or privatise, anything else is a waste of time.

  21. .

    The ABC is obsolete and irrelevant. They have also destroyed their credibility in a Dan Rather style SWIFT Boat like episode.

    Sell it, give it away or sack them all, divest the assets and salt the earth. It is a pet pig gone feral and needs a double tap from a .308 in the base of the skull.

  22. johanna

    One question I have not heard discussed much is governance. I mean, what does the ABC Board actually do? It seemingly has no role in how the ABC spends its money, who it hires or what it does. So, why are they there and what exactly are we paying them for?

  23. Steve D

    Like I said in the other thread. Ministerial responsibility for the ABC needs to be separated from the ‘hardware’ aspects of the Communications Portfolio.

    At least until the next federal election campaign is initiated.

  24. Squirrel


    #1176035, posted on February 3, 2014 at 8:06 am

    Apropos the ABC’s…

    …entrenched inability to distinguish independence from conceit.

    …some credit is due to the PM for soberly instigating some overdue and hopefully useful public discussion.”

    Yes – I thought that line about conceit was an absolute bullseye.

    If people (particularly those who are inclined to support the Coalition, but without being rusted on) could be fairly confident that a thorough doing over of the ABC would not deny them access to a relatively small number of favoured programs (largely BBC imports), then I don’t think the Government would have too much to worry about come the next election.

  25. Fred Lenin

    The abc is another socialist money eater like all the new “industries”that eat taxpayers money .useless things that could be disposed of without taxpayer pain ,the indigenous industry the green industry the law industry,the political parties industry.the business regulation industry the occupational safety industry.,the trade union industry. The “ejikayshun” ( as jooliar used ta soi) industry the university industry ,the disabled pension industry the illegal migrant industrya d the overloaded administration industry .The alpbc is just part of the aparat of the next communist state ,ruled by failed lawyers,failed teachers and criminal union thugs, Long Live the Peoples Dekromatik Soshalist Republik!of Shortassia!

  26. Viva

    Ergas still thinks public broadcasting has a “civilising” role (see today’s article).

  27. rickw

    “Allocate the $1.2 billion to something more useful, or pay down some of the $340 billion plus Krudd/Swansteen/Lardarse debt we’ve been saddled with.”

    The sweet irony Abbott has at his disposal is that he could claim Leftard mis-management of the economy required the ABC and SBS be sold. If Abbott was as concerned about debt and waste as he should be, a sale would be completely justified.

  28. johanna

    I agree, Viva. Henry seems to have a soft spot for public broadcasting as a concept. I’m guessing that he supports the cultural and educational role, as expounded by Reith. I’m thinking symphony orchestras and classical music generally, that kind of thing.

  29. egg_

    Plibeserk is also on the panel – she’s becoming a fixture.

    The current promo has a quaint cameo of her actually smiling.

  30. Truth

    Are those of us with serious doubts about the ABC missing something important here?
    The ABC can be attacked, and with good reason, seven days a week – for years. Easy. But should we at least ask what feeds the internal culture of the ABC?
    This is obviously a site that is visited by Australians who hold views from a certain political perspective. There are several gradients, but it’s safe to say this is not a field inhabited by supporters of large publicly funded bureaucracies or those who believe that all wisdom resides in self-reinforcing cliques. The ABC is a very easy target, but while belting “it” or “them” it seems we fail to understand or question how this bloated collective has sustained itself and indeed flourished in the past forty years. It would simply not have been possible without a feedstock of thousands of reasonably intelligent employees who have subscribed to a certain view of their own lives and careers within this structure. How does the ABC develop and then promulgate a version of reality that remains satisfactory to these people?
    Is it money and perceived benefits of security?
    Is it some definition of power and broader influence on society?
    Does the ABC culture attract people who are insecure about themselves as individuals and are thus attracted to and then dominated by a group of outsiders who forge their own version of status and then “reality”?
    I have had many friends caught up in the ABC, and the one thing they all shared was a high to extreme degree of helplessness whenever an issue of taking on any problem that required them to think and act as individuals.
    The other was a fear of the “group” that could be strong enough to lead to a virtual paralysis of their morality and better instincts. This fear became more pronounced the longer any of the 25-30 individuals remained in the ABC system. Consequently, the most scared were the most senior – up until the point they were ready to retire. I am no expert, but I suspect the upper levels of the ABC is fraught with cowards, and their fear runs down through the ranks. This reinforces the entire culture. Anyone who believes these people represent a threat to Australia could well be right – but I doubt their danger resides in any tendency to be willing, open adversaries to the Government or anyone else. They lack the courage as individuals. All they have left is a greater fear of each other than anything they might hold for those outside.
    The place is made up of many otherwise decent, good people who have been rendered pathetic. The same could be said of many other of our tax-dependencies.
    It started life as a minor wing of the PMG. It only grew as a funded canker on Australia’s politics, topped up by dozens of rural and regional members who liked hearing their own voices on their own little wireless stations. After 80 years, let’s be honest: It’s time to let it go – for everyone’s good – not least those poor saps who remain caught inside it.
    Take a moment to imagine them, trapped and quivering as their own moral and intellectual plausibility simply washes off the deck.

  31. johanna

    Go to the Quadrant online site and look at the links – especially to the 1983 article about how Alan Ashbolt’s acolytes used classic Trotskyist tactics to take over the ABC.

  32. Jeremy

    I seldom disagree with Henry, but I do think he has lost the plot here. The ABC is fully staffed by the worst results of our corrupted Universities. He reminisces about the noble civilising aims of the ABC pioneers, but they are long gone. Many people have suggested that the ABC could be fixed if the worst people were removed. Not so! You could sack 50% of them tomorrow and they would be replaced from the universities tomorrow with people with exactly the same opinions. Arts courses no longer teach people to think but how to feel correctly. Journalism courses teach people how to manipulate the facts so as to encourage their audience to feel correctly. The ABC must be closed to ensure it’s employees are exposed to normal Darwinian forces. As long as they have a permanent wage (I won’t say employment) they don’t need to respond to the real world.

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