Flat White

Want to ‘think bigger’? Switch off the ABC

24 February 2022

2:00 PM

24 February 2022

2:00 PM

Earlier this month, ABC Managing Director David Anderson delivered the startling news to a Senate Committee that, ‘Now, more than ever, the ABC belongs to all Australians, wherever they live.’

Anderson’s platitudinous refrain is as useful and potentially misleading as so much else that is said by the ABC about itself on all its platforms – but most importantly, its television platforms.

Does Anderson want us to ‘relate’ to the ABC much as we might relate to the Australian flag, the national anthem, or perhaps even to ANZAC Day itself?

Taxpayers know full well they pay for the national broadcaster – even the legions of people across this country who never engage with the broadcaster know it. Taxpayers also know the ABC stands alongside the Australian Tax Office, the Weather Bureau, and ASIO as ‘belonging’ to them. If not belonging to us – then who? The Managing Director of the public broadcaster it seems, was attempting to say the ABC means something more to taxpayers. What precisely, he never actually articulated.

Anderson went on at the hearing of the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee on February 15: ‘The ABC entered 2022 with the value of its services widely recognised and appreciated across the Australian community. Against the backdrop of a challenging year, the ABC achieved its highest reach in a decade in 2021.’

Lofty claims indeed.

Media organisations like nothing more than spruiking ‘dramatic’ and positive figures about audience reach and impact. Along with the claims about audience segmentation and market share from non-public broadcasters – audience members are right to be sceptical. Ask the right question and you’ll get the answer you’re looking for. Several people are employed at the ABC generating and collating audience data which, hardly surprisingly, is sliced and diced to be favourable to the ABC.

While the ABC’s commitment to higher staffing levels in rural and regional Australia is commendable – as is shifting some of the high-paid presenters out of their Sydney bunkers at Ultimo to Parramatta – it is on content the ABC should rightly be judged. In this – ABC television news and current affairs is consistently and comprehensively failing those who pay for it. The omission by Anderson to specifically mention ABC television current affairs in his opening remarks is itself telling.

Anderson, at no point during the hearing, revealed that ABC news rates third in Australia on a nightly basis with Channel 7 easily achieving in excess of one million viewers each night and Channel 9 not too far behind. The ABC, it has to be said, does sit ahead of Channel 10 – which astoundingly is watched by fewer people than live in the City of Geelong. (This data, which is not easy to obtain, was made available via sources that measure audience participation across Australia.)

The ABC makes much of trust. The broadcaster takes every opportunity to remind viewers and listeners how ‘trusted’ it is. Precisely how it measures this is not revealed and we are left to either ‘take it’ or ‘leave it’. Over the years 2019-21 – the ABC did increase its market share marginally, but then fell back again to 2019 numbers. Anderson failed to tell the Senate committee what the numbers are showing in 2022. In fairness, perhaps it’s too soon.

Interestingly, Anderson made much of truth and its relationship with democracy. It seems – according to Anderson’s logic – by committing oneself to the waves of verbiage from the ABC you can be sure of getting the truth, and this, in turn, builds and buttresses a flourishing democracy. Needless to say, reporters, presenters, producers, and so-called ABC ‘fact checkers’ love this notion as they can feel entirely virtuous for their role in building a stronger democracy. The ABC, so we asked to believe, is the bulwark against a sea of dangerous, unreliable junk (my words) from commercial TV land.

Audience members are repeatedly bombarded with exhortations to ‘think bigger’ by tuning in to ABC networks. Without a shred of humility, the ABC wants all of us to believe that by accessing the array of ABC platforms our minds will be expanded, our thinking deepened and presumably our knowledge more elevated. Implied also is that by tuning to non-ABC networks our thinking will not ‘get bigger.’

Some of what makes it to air on ABC current affairs television is of very high quality, but quite a deal isn’t. Foreign Correspondent is outstanding – showcasing the talent and experience of offshore ABC correspondents.

When a previously highly respected program such as Four Corners becomes embroiled in litigation and defamation action as it has over recent years, viewers rightly begin to ask if they are seeing the beginning of the end of a once world class production. It has been especially galling that taxpayers have picked up the costs in the majority of these matters.

More immediate current affairs offerings such as 7.30, The Drum, and Q&A have become formulaic, predictable, and each of them attract criticism for leaning to one side of politics over the other.

Not infrequently, such criticism would seem to be justified particularly in regard to 7.30’s coverage of national politics which has become strident, bitter, and decidedly lop-sided. That the ABC repeatedly tells its audience that these shows are ‘world class’ and ‘outstanding’ does not make them so. Viewers make these assessments, not the broadcaster.

The television current affairs model is clearly under pressure and all broadcasters – public and private – are having to rapidly adapt to survive contemporary and likely future upheavals.

Australians should both expect and demand so much more from the publicly funded broadcaster than it is currently getting. The parallel universe in which the ABC sees virtue in all that it does – minus the bloopers, barnacles, and blemishes – is no longer credible.

Something else that might exercise the minds of ABC executives and programmers is that young people are no longer accessing their news or current affairs from television.

They find the regimentation of television constraining and time consuming. In other words – the ABC’s so-called ‘flagship’ news and current affairs shows may well find themselves on a media scrap heap within a relatively short time. By the time news goes to air these days the vast majority of viewers already know it.

The rapidly changing tastes and habits of Australians, young and older, make the ABC’s vision to become the ‘most trusted digital content provider within five years’ all the more urgent and commendable.

Without a doubt, public broadcasting and digital news and current affairs provision are vitally important and Australians should be encouraged to demand of their ABC the very best that is reasonably affordable and deliverable.

John Simpson is a Melbourne based company director and a former journalist with ABC radio and television.

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