MATTHEW RICKETSON and PATRICK MULLINS Who Needs the ABC? Reviewed by Braham Dabscheck
Matthew Ricketson and Patrick Mullins make the case for Australia’s public broadcaster.
If the title of Matthew Ricketson and Patrick Mullins’s book is a question, the subtitle – ‘Why taking it for granted is no longer an option’ – implies the answer: everyone.
The ABC is a window onto who we are as Australians, and it has been with us for 90 years. Under its Charter, as enunciated in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 (Cwth), it is required to provide:
Broadcasting programs that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and entertain, and reflect the cultural identity of the Australian community.
The ABC operates six television channels, 60 capital city, local and digital radio stations, four national radio stations, an array of online resources, and ventures in publishing, licensing and live music. Probably its most important function is to provide news and investigative journalism. However, this is not to understate the broad range of cultural, educative and entertainment programs it also produces.
During the reign of Coalition governments from 2013 to 2022, under prime ministers Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison, the ABC experienced funding cuts and was under almost constant criticism for alleged bias in its reporting. Who Needs the ABC? was written prior to the 2022 federal election and the change of government. (At the beginning of July this year the new Communications Minister Michelle Rowland pledged to give the ABC a new five-year funding term from 2023.) The book’s central thesis, however, remains compelling.
The authors, Matthew Ricketson, who assisted former Federal Court judge Ray Finkelstein in his 2012 Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Media and Media Regulation, and Patrick Mullins, have both worked as academics and journalists.
The tasks they have set themselves are to explain the context in which the ABC operates, to evaluate claims of alleged bias, and to give an overview of the ABC’s myriad functions. They begin with the rise of the internet and how the emergence of multifarious platforms for the dissemination of information – in many instances misinformation – dealt a body blow to the business model of traditional news media. Once advertising moved from print to online, newspapers suffered substantial reductions in revenue. The result was the sacking of journalists and the closing of newspapers, especially in regional areas.
By contrast, the ABC’s reach was enhanced by the online revolution and the emergence of new platforms – they had no advertising revenue to lose, and this fact is seen as a major reason why commercial news providers have mounted attacks on the ABC.
Ricketson and Mullins point out that with the emergence of so many sources of information and commentary – what they refer to as a cacophony of ‘news’ – the ABC is widely regarded as a reliable and trusted source for news and information.
The ABC is dependent on the federal government for funding and the legislation that governs its operation. Governments don’t like to be criticised. When they are, they can attack the ABC to deflect such criticism. Ricketson and Mullins examine how different CEOs and chairs have responded to these attacks. They also look at how both sides of politics tend to stack the ABC board with ‘jobs for the boys and girls’ to try to ‘control’ its operation.
They also examine funding provided by different governments. During the Hawke-Keating years (1983-1996) overall funding in real terms (taking inflation into account) increased by 24 per cent; under Howard (1996-2007) it fell by 8 per cent; Rudd-Gillard (2007-2013) saw it rise by 3 per cent, and under Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison (2013-2022) it fell by 2 per cent. Since 1983, when the ABC became a corporation (it was previously the Australian Broadcasting Commission), its overall funding has fallen in real terms by 7 per cent. This occurred during a period of immense technological change associated with broadcasting and increases in population and diversity.
Ricketson and Mullins recommend a funding model based on a five-year cycle to enable the ABC to plan ahead and avoid being a political football linked to the election cycle. They are also opposed to tied funding for particular projects, as this makes the ABC subject to government interference.
In addition, they provide information on the regulatory environment under which media companies operate, as well as the operation of the ABC’s internal complaints procedures. They compare complaints received by the Australian Communications and Media Authority about the ABC and the commercial providers from January 2010 to July 2021. There were 298 complaints against the ABC, of which 12, or 4 per cent, were upheld. This compares with commercial providers who received 364 complaints, of which 96, or 26.4 per cent, were upheld. Ricketson and Mullins ask why more attention isn’t given to the problems of commercial providers, rather than the ABC.
The ABC performs other important functions aside from news reporting. There is its role:
… as an emergency broadcaster, disseminating official information, warnings, and advice to at-risk communities across the country during bushfires, floods, and other natural disasters.
There is also its role as a recorder of and influence on Australian culture. Over its 90 years the ABC has produced film, audio and written records of events that occurred during these years. It has archived the life of the nation. The authors also point to the ABC’s role in the development and promotion of music. Many musicians across a range of genres started their careers on the ABC. Then there is the growth of children’s TV, something which has not been matched by commercial networks, and the ABC’s role in broadcasting sport on both radio and television.
Finally, Ricketson and Mullins draw attention to the crucial functions performed by the ABC in regional Australia. With the rise of the internet many commercial providers cut back their operations in regional and rural Australia. Between 2008 and 2018, more than 100 local and regional newspapers closed down. Between 2011 and 2019, an estimated 3000 journalism jobs were lost. The ABC helps to fill this gap. In many regions it is the only source of news and information. In 2019 the ABC:
… employed more than 200 journalists (out of a total of 850 employed nationally) located in rural and regional areas, it maintained 47 non-metropolitan offices around the country, its local radio services were capable of reaching 99.58 per cent of the population … It had also increased the percentage of content produced by regional journalists and broadcast on national radio and television, focused on regional issues in news coverage, and, more than any other media outlet, was the biggest provider of local news and current affairs reporting in Australia.
I have spent my life listening to and watching the ABC. I thought I had an appreciation of what the ABC does and a vague sense of the broader forces that determined its operation. Ricketson and Mullins have opened my eyes to the complex political, business and regulatory context in which the ABC operates, the broad remit of its functions and its broader contribution to Australia as a nation. Despite the frequent criticisms, funding cuts and having to walk a tightrope in its love-hate relationship with governments, the ABC, and those who have worked for it, have kept their eyes firmly on the prize and fulfilled its Charter.
The great strength of Who Needs The ABC? is how Matthew Ricketson and Patrick Mullins provide a wealth of information on the ABC’s operation through the seamless organisation of their material and the clarity of their writing. For those with an interest in the ABC, and broadcasting more generally, this splendid book would be an ideal starting point.
Matthew Ricketson and Patrick Mullins Who Needs the ABC? Why taking it for granted is no longer an option Scribe Publications 2022 PB 256pp $29.99
Braham Dabscheck is a Senior Fellow at the Melbourne Law School at Melbourne University who writes on industrial relations, sport and other things. He is a member of Friends of the ABC.
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