Rod McGarvie: ABC and SBS reform - one billion dollars of savings

Prime Minister Turnbull, the ABC has a 36 page annual report on diversity, unfortunately it doesn’t seem to cover the most important diversity metric, that of political worldview. Why did the ABC choose not to invest in a balanced and ideologically diverse workforce?

There have been sustained calls for a number of years to either reform or sell the ABC. Unfortunately, with the lack of political will to take action many in the reform camp have lost heart and shifted across to the sell the ABC camp. The key arguments for selling would be that the ABC is of such a large size now that the political influence that it wields as a national broadcaster is not conducive to supporting a healthy democracy.

That the ABC is more focused on pet projects and issues more associated with the inner city crowd than the broader Australian community. There is also a growing consensus that the ABC has a deeply ingrained ideological bias toward the political left, which would rightly leave many believing it to be very difficult to bring about effective reform.

For such an iconic institution as the ABC to be sustainable into the future, a renewed effort is required to bring much needed reforms. To save the ABC will take an extra-large portion of political will, because a new ABC will look very different. It will need to be dramatically reduced in size and scope, plus it will require significant restructuring and transformation as our national broadcaster.

For the majority of Australians aged over 50 the ABC played a big part in their lives as the primary and sometimes only source of information and news growing up. It would be hard for my generation and older to imagine an Australia without the ABC. However for many in today’s younger generation the ABC would be almost irrelevant as they source news, information and entertainment from very different mediums. We have to seriously look at what the ABC and SBS delivers to the public at a cost of over one thousand four hundred million dollars ($1.4 billion) a year and ask whether this is a good use of tax payers money?

The technological innovations over the last ten years to the way we access information is staggering. Many of the international services that SBS has delivered over the last 30 years can now be easily accessed through the internet, with multiple news sources available from most countries. The dramatic expansion over the last twelve months to the range of services available such as Netflix will further impact our media consumption habits. A key question would be what unique services do SBS and the ABC deliver that can’t be accessed through another source or provider?

There is the growing perception that the ABC has become an organisation that focuses on promoting issues that the inner-city elites are interested in, but broader Australia is not. There is concern that the ABC is only talking to a select part of the Australian community and not canvassing the views and attitudes of a greater range of people. Understandable given a large number of ABC staff are living within the inner-city Sydney suburbs, and a disproportionate 40% of staff support the Greens Party. Why is the ABC so Sydney centric, with half the national workforce of around 2,300 staff living in the inner-city?

The ABC scoffs at suggestions that it has a left leaning bias, even though it doesn’t have any senior conservative journalists heading any of the main shows. The absence of journalistic diversity hinders the ABC’s ability to be objective or fair handed when dealing with arguments from conservatives. Conservative voters constitute over half the electorate, but their values and opinions are not represented anywhere close to that proportion.

The activist zeal with which the ABC pursues issues such as action on global warming, promoting same-sex marriage, opening the floodgates for people smugglers and would-be asylum seekers, attacks on our defence force, criticism of the Catholic church, championing United Nations initiatives, and pushing victimhood agendas has many wondering whether the ABC is just too far gone to reform. What structural mechanisms would need to be in place to help editorial staff to get the tone and issue mix right?

What would a combined ABC and SBS look like if the organisation was restructured to operate on a budget of S400,000,000 a year – a saving to tax payers of one billion dollars a year?

Which programs would Australians miss the most if they were no longer there? 

The ABC would need to get back to the basics to serve Australians from all walks of life – no longer chasing after the ratings. The bush and rural areas should be a priority as they are generally under serviced. The ABC would need to focus on areas that are not financially viable for the commercial media to pursue. There is the potential to decentralise and better staff the regions. A key would be focusing on the traditional strengths of long form news and documentaries.

Employment targets would need to be built into a new structure to ensure a healthy diversity of political views across the entire corporation, particularly for those that have input into content such as researchers, presenters, editorial staff, and management.

The ABC Charter would need to be updated to ensure the corporation is very clear about its role and responsibilities to the Australian people. The roles and responsibilities of the board and the managing director also need to be more clearly spelt out to ensure the corporation doesn’t lose its way again.

Many Australians love the ABC and want it to be part of the Australian story for generations to come. However, without serious structural and editorial reform the ABC’s positon as the national broadcaster will become untenable. It will become a growing political stench, demanding action.