The latest tactic in the Howard government's war on the ABC is to promote paid advertising as the solution to the ABC's problems. Australians who support the ABC should be very wary of such purported solutions offered by those who are trying to cripple our national broadcaster.
The most obvious flaw in the proposal is the implicit assumption that government funding of the ABC would remain unchanged after the advent of paid advertising. Does anyone seriously suggest that the Howard government would maintain the ABC's existing funding if it were to receive substantial revenue from commercial advertising? The new revenue stream would become an ideal excuse for the government to cut ABC funding even further.
More fundamentally, paid advertising would gradually undermine the ABC's role, and eventually destroy the independence which is fundamental to its ethos.
The ABC's charter requires it to "inform, educate and entertain". In fulfilling this charter it tends to focus on serving intermediate-sized markets, which are not economically viable for commercial broadcasters but which nonetheless consist of large numbers of Australians. For example, it tends to broadcast sporting events with significant community appeal but not the commercial drawing power of major sporting events like AFL and ARL games or test cricket. In rural Australia, ABC radio provides services to rural producers which are vital to our export industries but unlikely to ever be viable for a commercial broadcaster.
Inevitably, commercial influences would change the ABC's programming, pushing it more towards mass-market products, which are already delivered by commercial broadcasters. This would undermine the rationale for the ABC's existence, and incidentally undermine the economic viability of many commercial broadcasters. If the ABC is allowed to take advertising, many commercial regional radio stations will lose revenue, in what are often very limited advertising markets.
Most importantly of all, commercial advertising would threaten the ABC's editorial independence. Once the ABC is dependent upon advertising revenue, the threat of withdrawal of advertising will become a powerful constraint on its ability to report without fear or favour. Australia's commercial media is controlled by a tiny number of very powerful players. The ABC is a very important guarantee of media diversity and integrity, a point acknowledged by the government in the debate about abolishing cross-media ownership rules, and echoed by commercial media companies like Fairfax. Commercial advertising on the ABC will diminish its role as an independent voice in a highly concentrated and incestuous mass media sector.
Howard government member Christopher Pyne quite openly advocates advertising on the ABC in order to change its programming. He says advertising would "create an incentive for the ABC to broaden its appeal to the large numbers of Australians ... it is currently overlooking". This is simply code for turning the ABC into a pale imitation of the commercial broadcasters. At least Pyne is honest enough to acknowledge that advertising influences editorial content.
The ABC has plenty of flaws but it remains a vitally important national institution that enriches our cultural, sporting, educational and political spheres. Introducing commercial advertising to the ABC is simply privatisation by stealth. If the Howard government wants to turn the ABC into another commercial broadcaster, let it say so. If not, it should abandon its relentless campaign to cripple our independent national broadcaster, and ensure the ABC enjoys adequate funding and editorial independence to enable it to fulfil its functions.
The ABC is a crucial part of our social and political fabric. Ideological zealots in the Howard government are determined to bring it to heel. It is vital for the health of our democracy that its independence is preserved, and the right-wing campaign to destroy it is defeated.
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