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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.


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.


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".

With regard to his belief that public funding should not fund political bias, he states:

Many if not most journalists (not just taxpayer-funded ones) echo the opinions of the elites, whom they tend to use as sources. The difference here is taxpayer involvement. Problems inevitably arise when taxpayers are asked to fund the work of journalists. Teaching children to count can be done in a neutral fashion, as can a cultural series on Shakespeare. The nature of public affairs itself, however, tends toward politicization. A documentary on the Vietnam War or climate change will by necessity involve opinion. The problems become all the more acute when one side of the political spectrum perceives persistent bias.

As noted in 1991 by Walter Goodman (New York Times), who wrote PBS documentaries, by seeking to provide "an alternative to the commercial networks", public television was "almost forced into an adversarial role" that acts as a "a rebuke to a profit-driven society". (Critic's Notebook; "Documentaries That Lean Left", The New York Times, 6 May 1991)

In Australia, the centre-right (led by the IPA and supporters) has long criticised the ABC for being primarily left of centre over the years when discussing the labour-market, the economy, border protection, the republic, multiculturalism, same-sex marriage; civil liberties, gender, Aboriginal rights, global warming, the United Nations, the environment, corporations, and energy sources.

While the ABC will always try to achieve some balance with some centre-right staff appointments, it is impossible for journalists and supporters not to express their bias with regard to key policy issues.

For example, take the February 2020 Q+A show when Hamish Macdonald pushed the Liberal senator Jim Molan on the link between human activity and global warming. With Molan suggesting that the science on climate change was not settled and that his "mind was open" on whether human caused rising temperatures, he drew heckling and laughter from the audience.

While I agree with the view that human activity is the major cause of global warming, no opposing view should ever be excluded from debate, especially when it involves public resources.

It would indeed be a dangerous and arrogant precedent for any key player in a liberal democracy to stifle debate, as proposed by The Conversation Australia on 17 September 2019 when the editorial team decided to implement "a zero-tolerance approach to moderating climate change deniers, and sceptics. Not only will we be removing their comments, we'll be locking their accounts".

The simple truth is that most policy questions rightfully will have a difference of opinion on how best to address a complex policy issue.

With regard to global warming, while I too hope that the world will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support less polluting energy sources, I also recognise that Australia has to create enough wealth in order to adapt to adverse effects that are being caused by climate change given that global fossil fuel use continues to increase.

How nations actually address such contradictory aims also reflects our own personal struggle to address one's carbon footprint, a task that is often not fulfilled from the loudest voices concerned by human activity.

No matter the question, there is often complexity that deserves greater attention. For example, while few would disagree that inclusion and diversity are important, conservatives (and even progressives) have every right to warn about the chance that some subnational groups can erode national solidarity, as argued by the Liberal Peter Beinart in his 2017 essay "How the Democrats Lost Their Way on Immigration".

It is the same bias that exists in Australia given that most academics chose to criticise the Howard government's policy record, even though it won four successive elections, thus giving others an opportunity to defend the Howard government's record given its policies were actually in line with majority public opinion on many issues, including immigration and social welfare.

While some authors try very hard to be balanced, a task more likely to be achieved from extensive research of all perspectives, most will assess policy in accordance to one's interpretation of the facts and personal views and values.

For example, just as a 2013 Sunshine Coast University survey found that 41% of ABC journalists voted for the Greens, 32% for Labor and only 14% the Coalition, so a 2014 US survey found that conservatives represented a very small portion of the audience for its public broadcasting.

The simple solution is for all broadcasters to support any bias through their own funding in a battle for the hearts and minds of citizens with regard to different issues.

While the ABC only generated 4% of its total 2018-19 revenue from the sale of goods and services, 2015 data shows that 3.12 million subscribers contributed 28.7% of funds to all US public radio and television broadcasters with business providing a further 14.1%, foundations 8.7% and colleges/universities 9.8%.

With regard to the ABC attracting non-government revenue, SBS already upholds this possibility given that advertising alone generating a substantial proportion of the $144 million that came from the sale of goods and services in 2018-19 ($282 million from government).

Interestingly, SBS was the only free-to-air network during to increase its metropolitan ratings, reaching its all-time high of 7.7%.

The idea that public funded broadcasting is necessary to inform citizens on key policy issues is nonsense, as is the holy grail of hope that current affairs journalists will ever deliver balanced views to complex issues that please all.

Supporters of public broadcasting have nothing to fear from less government funding, as long as political leaders and society are both fair and realistic about the pace of funding reform, and supporters are prepared to put their own money behind their cause.

For example, several local US public stations saw a dramatic rise in direct contributions after President Trump promoted a tweet asking why NPR still exists. This followed an NPR journalist experiencing foul language from Vice President Pompeo on 24 January 2020 after he was pressed on the administration's Ukraine policy as part of a taped interview, with the State Department Correspondents' Association, lawmakers and commentators speaking out in support of NPR afterward, including a Fox News host (Steve Hilton) who referred to Pompeo as a "baby" and a "bully".

But, rather than allow the ABC to openly preserve its bias and direct spending at its own will, governments should continue to decrease public funding and target special needs like infrastructure and local drama (including children's content) to help preserve Australian culture where ABC and SBS production already play an important role.

To conclude, the ABC can prosper with much less public funding, a reality its supporters may have to get used to given that real funding has already declined by $367 million per year since 1985/86, as Australian governments rightfully allocate more public resources to policy areas of much greater need.


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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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