Features Australia

Putting the ‘your’ into the ABC

Those who like the public broadcaster should be the ones to fund it

15 March 2014

9:00 AM

15 March 2014

9:00 AM

What to do about the ABC and its shameless indulgence of in-house ideological bias at the taxpayer’s expense?

The pragmatic Germans have already solved the problem. They have found a way for citizens who disapprove of their national broadcasting service, the catchily named Arbeitsgemeinschaft der öffentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunkanstalten der Bundesrepublik Deutschland or ARD, not to have to pay for it. Germans who are fans of the ARD provide the cash to keep it going.

Here’s how it works: ARD viewers pay a voluntary tax, collected by the government along with their income tax and passed direct to the broadcaster. Those who for whatever reason wish to disavail themselves of the ARD’s services have only to register as non-viewers or listeners and they pay nothing. This seems to suit everyone. The ARD — the second biggest public broadcaster in the world after the BBC — is publicly funded but no one who objects to its output (or just finds it boring) has to subsidise it. One consequence is that the ARD takes a close interest in the demographics of those who do not pay the broadcasting tax and designs programmes to try to attract them back. If you’ve opted out one year, you can always opt back in the next.

What a difference the German system would make to the ABC. No more poll tax to keep it on air. And even better, an ABC eager to win as many subscribers as possible might quickly revise its present not so thinly veiled contempt for those who have the cheek to challenge its self-anointed status as impartiality personified.

Before proceeding to the fine print, a quick clarification. The above, as they used to say in TV police dramas, is a true story but names have been changed, not so much to protect the innocent in this case as to make a point. For ARD substitute religious institutions in Germany. All churches in that country are financed by a tax exactly as described, which no one has to pay. And that would be the best thing we could do with the ABC.

If, once he has control of the Senate in July, Tony Abbott’s saintly patience with the ABC’s sniping should snap, he should hit the ABC’s hip pocket. Ratings show that ABC audiences never amount to more than a quarter of the nation. If every one of those viewers and listeners paid an ABC tax, it would not be nearly enough to maintain the national broadcaster in the style to which it has become accustomed. Economies would follow, but also a determined effort to bump up income by finding out what more people would like to watch or listen to, rather than what the ABC staff association prescribes for them.

A user-pays system is an extension of democracy. How could any socialist or Green, committed to implementing the Will of the People, object to that?

Leaving aside the perfectly reasonable view that there is no justification in a free society for having a state broadcaster at all, if we must have one — and it is difficult to imagine even a radical free-market government dismantling the ABC — the question of its reform is going to become more pressing. The ABC has wandered too far from the principles of its charter not to have to be reined in. Though only a Coalition government is likely to attempt this reform, the matter is no longer, if ever it was, a party-political affair. The political, cultural and ideological assumptions entrenched in the ABC, and most evident in its current affairs and news programmes, are those of a small minority of Australians. Election after election shows this.

A voluntary tax would make the ABC responsive to a wider range of opinion by tying it into a direct relationship with the community in a way it currently feels no need of. It would still have some funding of its own. It could supplement its audience’s contributions as it already does with its sundry publishing activities and ABC shops. Its endless on-air commercials for itself, which are irritating without telling you anything you want to know about or don’t already know, could be made to generate income by advertising real things, as on SBS, without any further loss of programme time.

If making the ABC dependent on a voluntary tax were not enough to induce its management to stand up to the in-house culture from which all bias and arrogance in programming spring, a change in programme-makers could work wonders. ABC news and current affairs programmes should be put out to tender. Other newsgathering organisations could bid to run them — even the Murdoch media (horrors!) might win a tender. If News Limited could do the job to the satisfaction of viewers, and bring more in, why not? And if bringing in outsiders were objected to as wasting all that staff programme-making talent and expertise we hear about from ABC apologists, there’d be nothing to stop current ABC staff forming consortiums and bidding to make the programmes themselves. Besides, much ABC non-news programming is already contracted out; so the principle is established within the corporation as it now exists. Inviting a wider range of tenders might also help lift the quality of the ABC’s drama and ‘comedy’ from its present tragic depths.

A voluntary tax would have the additional virtue of giving those who are most vocal in support of the ABC the pleasure of paying even more for their revered institution. For an additional annual amount they could be singled out for recognition as corporate benefactors. Imagine the pride Friends of the ABC would feel driving around in their elderly Camrys with ‘ABC Platinum Taxpayer On Board’ on a sticker in the back windscreen.

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  • Peewhit

    The only peoples will the ABC listeners, apart form the local radio I listen to, care

    about, is theirs.