28 March 2006

The ABC: it could be worse

The ABC: it's under attack again, and if you're particularly stupid you might think this is proof of its political independence and all round superiority. I'll get to this later, but those who love the ABC as it is can take comfort from the fact that their opponents have little room to move.

It's easy to sneer at Howard for kyboshing ad revenue for the ABC to protect the revenue base of Packer and the other commercial channels. An ABC with ads should, however, be the least of our worries.

If ads were allowed on the ABC, the next step would inevitably be some form of public funding for commercial channels, similar to the electoral funding that goes to political parties or education funding for non-government schools. Which Australian media outlet (apart, perhaps, from Crikey) would attack increased revenue for embattled media outlets? Re-tooling for the digital age is expensive you know, and imagine all of those community service announcements which could be channelled to the community in a more cost-effective way. Wonderful for incumbent governments without a serious Opposition.

The culture of the ABC can get a bit monotonous if you a) listen to it a lot and b) take everything that comes from it as gospel: very few (i.e. a politically insignificant number) do both. However, think about what would happen if you wanted to undertake root-and-branch reform.

The easy option for the government would be to stack it out with Liberal Students and former staffers to the Federal Government. At best, this would produce a kind of Pravda that might please goons like of Senator Santoro but which would have no credibility in the wider community. Besides, Stan Zemanek, Alan Jones, Brian Wiltshire et al. could fairly claim that taxpayers' funds were being used to corner their market and diminish their ad revenue, the state impinging on commerce etc. How would a blatantly pro-government broadcaster compete against friendly commercial interests? It wouldn't.

The harder option is to sweep away second-rate hacks like Ramona Koval or Richard Adey and replace them with broadcasters of talent, skill and originality, whomever and wherever they may be. This would require a massive increase in funding, far above the current allocation, as people like that don't come cheap. Where is the Federal politician - in the Federal Parliament, never mind the government or Cabinet - who'd fight for that?

Who but inner-city lefties are going to work for wages far below industry standard, unless they can live in hope that they may get involived in, say, a doco on the life of the Reverend Dorothy McRae-McMahon? In the ABC you find proof of the cliche politicians love to trot out at payrise time: you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. The more you screw down income at the ABC, the more likely you are to get people who are susceptible to anti-capitalism dogma about being screwed down.

Nobody wants a government that the ABC would support. Australia could have the option I described earlier, where the ABC is run and operated by Liberal hacks. Or, worse still, run by people whose views are exactly in line with the ABC left-style line.

Imagine a Cabinet comprising, say, Phillip Adams, Kerry O'Brien, Carmen Lawrence, Moira Rayner or Clive Hamilton. Let's get Tom Uren, Whitlam, Latham or even the Reverend Dorothy McRae-McMahon out of retirement - hey, let's dig up Manning Clark and Jim Cairns for good measure. This would be an ABC News & Current Affairs wet dream, but they'd be a nightmare government. The economy would tank and good resources would be thrown relentlessly after bad to prop up corrosive and destructive policies that some minister thinks, against all evidence, might be worthy.

News and Current Affairs is the thorn in the side of the ABC. This section aside, who would argue that the ABC is excellent? The way to diminish the power of what media insiders call NewsCAff is to produce more content about science, rural issues, gardening, children - anything but news. It's these areas of the ABC that cause people to take to the barricades when the ABC is genuinely under threat. If resources were diverted from NewsCAff and documentaries to drama and comedy, nobody would complain. Defenders of the existing ABC culture would be checkmated: those with an interest in the arts would receive a shot in the arm and they'd take it, without gratitude to the government perhaps, but certainly without any wish to give anything back to the journos. Audiences would be delighted, hence so would politicians. This could be a real win-win situation. If there were any losers from such a manoever, who would stand up for them?

If the ABC starts praising the government, be afraid, be very afraid. I wish ABC TV would stop showing old British movies overnight and open the vault of Australian short films/docos - but everyone's a critic.