The ABC earns around $100 million a year from its commercial activities (mainly ABC shops). Its annual operating budget is more than a billion dollars.
The organisation would not exist without the triennial funding provided by taxpayers (not by Treasurer Scott Morrison, who this week ludicrously claimed that he funded the ABC). You can’t privatise a business that doesn’t make a profit. So let’s call the demand from last weekend’s Liberal Party Conference for what it really is: effectively a proposal to close the ABC and sell off its assets – the prime of which would be its broadcast spectrum.
But even that is hardly practical, or likely. Ironically, while the ABC-haters with their ideological objections to public broadcasting would like to see it happen, there would be little or no appetite from the commercial television sector for starters.
Kerry Packer spent more than two decades successfully lobbying Federal Governments to delay the introduction of Pay-TV – in order to protect his investment in the Nine Network.
There has been talk for even longer than that about a possible fourth commercial network. Not likely as long as the three incumbents retain their all-powerful grip on the nation’s media policy.
Free TV, which represents the commercial stations, has frequently opposed moves to see the ABC accept advertising because the revenue would have to come at the expense of its members.
Online subscription services Netflix and Stan are already putting financial pressure on the free-to-air sector, with forecasts of Ten’s demise only slightly off the radar but ready to re-emerge should new owners, the American CBS network, lose interest.
It’s taken ABC boss, Michelle Guthrie, far too long to enter the public debate about the organisation she leads. Chairman, Justin Milne, has likewise been largely out of sight. One has to wonder if it was not principally the prospect of a staff revolt that forced Guthrie to finally speak out yesterday.
But speak out she did. Quoting a forthcoming report by Deloitte Access Economics, commissioned by the ABC, which concludes it contributes a billion dollars a year to the national economy.
Another irony is the fact that outside the major metropolitan cities the ABC is actually held in high regard by everyone. So the Nationals will hardly want to be seen to part of a push to silence what for many in the bush is their only source of local news. They’re already firmly on the back foot given their complicity in the emasculation of the NBN.
The content industry is naturally flexing its muscle. The Media, Entertainment & Art Alliance has pointed out that the ABC “has never been under greater attack in its long and storied history than it is now. Almost $340 million has been cut from its base funding since 2014. Programs have been axed, locally produced drama is way down, foreign bureaux have been closed and hundreds of years of journalistic experience has been lost.”
Judging by the conversations being had at the Sydney Film Festival this past week the creative sector can be expected to come out fighting. The ABC provides one of the largest platforms for the content being created by hundreds of production companies and indirectly employs thousands of people – in addition to its own 6000 staff.
So, while the ABC is unlikely to be sold, it seems we are nonetheless witnessing a philistine-like movement that seeks to diminish the sources of broad and innovative content creation. It’s starting to look like a pattern. Under then Arts Minister, George Brandis, a series of moves adversely affecting the Australia Council raised more than few eyebrows.
Even the Prime Minister, Malcom Turnbull, has blood on his hands with his decision as Communications Minister to close down community television, which has provided training – on and off the screen – for thousands of people, including the likes of Rove McManus, Corinne Grant, Hamish and Andy, Wil Anderson and Andrew Denton, to name but a handful.
Current Communications Minister, Senator Mitch Fifield, has just offered another two year temporary reprieve to the remaining CTV stations, but this was too late to save the channels in Sydney and Brisbane.
The Government has been quick to dismiss the weekend’s bizarre motion regarding the ABC emanating from the hard core right of the Liberal Party. However, it would be naive to think that the wicked genie is back in the bottle. We can expect to see more attacks on the ABC in future. No doubt SBS will be dragged into the debate too – once the gloss rubs off its gallant face-saving of Optus and its problematic World Cup football coverage.
(Laurie Patton was the founding CEO of TVS (Television Sydney) and is a former secretary of the Australian Community Television Alliance, successfully lobbying the government to secure digital licences and station funding. He has also held senior executive roles at the Seven Network.)