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The ABC will prosper with much less public funding

By Chris Lewis - posted Thursday, 21 May 2020


I agree that the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) is an important institution that informs Australians with regard to current affairs.

While Roy Morgan research shows that only 34% of Australians watched current affairs shows (public and private broadcasters) in 2018, with a September 2019 Guardian Essential poll finding that only 15% followed events in Canberra closely, I am one of the minority of Australians who regularly watches ABC shows including the 7.30 Report, Foreign Correspondent, Four Corners and Insiders.

But, in agreement with critics of the ABC about its political bias, as previously expressed in a piece for the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), I strongly believe that the ABC should receive much less public funding in this era where viewers have an abundance of news, cultural and entertainment choices.

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While the ABC relies on government assistance, representing 90% of its total revenue of $1.15 billion in 2018-19, the example of US public broadcasting proves that there is simply no need for such high levels of public funding to maintain quality.

With comprehensive 2015 data indicating that US public broadcasting only gets 27% of its total $3.04 billion revenue from government taxes and grants (federal 15.9%, state 8.3% and local governments 2.6%), the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), which produces television content and services to member local public stations, remained the most trusted American institution for the 16th straight year in 2019.

Besides my own listening which concludes that there is very little difference in terms of the tone, scope and quality of both Australian and US public broadcasting, both the ABC and Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) regularly or occasionally air many of the leading US public broadcasting shows. They include PBS shows like NewsHour and Frontline, and All Things Considered which is produced by National Public Radio (NPR) and New York's WNYC.

Of course, different polls have different findings with regard to quality and bias, which demonstrates how partisan the viewing of public affairs has become. A 2018 Brand Keys survey found that the BBC, Fox News and PBS were the most-trusted TV news brands in the US for viewers rating broadcast and cable brands they watched more than three times per week. In addition, a 2018 Gallup/Knight Foundation survey of 17 media sources rated PBS News 1st and NPR 3rd for accuracy and Fox News last, yet Republicans rated Fox News highest (-87 score among Democrats and +3 for Republicans).

Despite quality US public radio shows like Left, Right and Center, with different political perspectives debating key policy issues, a 2019 study of US viewers found that just 6% were "much more likely" and 11% "somewhat more likely" to "watch television shows whose central characters had political views which were different from theirs".

In line with the reality that political debate is often divisive, hardly a surprise in such a competitive world, the idea that any public broadcaster can appease both centre-left and centre-right supporters has long been proven wrong in both Australia and the US.

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In the US, while the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 states that (1) "it is in the public interest to encourage the growth and development of public radio and television broadcasting, including the use of such media for instructional, educational, and cultural purposes", public broadcasting soon became a forum for public affairs and journalism dominated by left wing bias, thus drawing anger from Republican Presidents from Nixon to Trump.

Just recently, President Trump proposed that federal funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the body that distributes taxpayer dollars to over 1400 local public media outlets, be reduced to $0 by 2023 and that just $30 million be provided for the 2020 fiscal year, although Congress ultimately decided on $465 million, a similar amount to what had been provided annually since 2014.

As Mike Gonzalez argues, as part of the Knight Foundation series on US public media, both NPR and PBS represent views of "the politically correct elite left" who "almost always favour government control of or involvement in everything from healthcare to the environment to the media".

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About the Author

Chris Lewis has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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