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Select Committee into the Abbott Government's Budget Cuts - 12/12/2014

GOLDSMITH, Dr Ben, Senior Research Fellow, Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology

MCNAIR, Professor Brian, Professor of Journalism, Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology

SWIFT, Dr Adam, Senior Research Associate, Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology

Evidence was taken via teleconference—


ACTING CHAIR: I now welcome Professor Brian McNair, Dr Adam Swift and, shortly, Dr Ben Goldsmith from QUT. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses in giving evidence to Senate committees has been provided to you. I invite you to each make a short opening statement if you wish and then, at the conclusion of your remarks, I will invite members of the committee to put some questions to you.

Prof. McNair : Sure. Thank you. All three of us are members of the Creative Industries Faculty at QUT and we all work in the area of broadcasting and other media, but we do not, as it were, represent a team or a group of researchers all working on the same project, so we have slightly different views on some of the issues that you might want to discuss. But we do have an opening statement that we all agree on and I will just go over that with you now.

First of all, thank you for the invitation to contribute to your work. We are certainly prepared to answer your questions on the rationale for and impact of the government's recently announced cuts to the ABC. This short statement references what we really see as some of the main points, or the key points, and of course we will provide further detail in our discussion with you, where required.

The first point we would like to make is that the ABC represents good financial value for the Australian taxpayer by comparison with both the costs to the consumer of access to commercial media in Australia and the costs of other public service media, particularly the BBC, which of course performs a similar set of cultural functions in the UK. The cost per taxpayer for the ABC's services, we have estimated, is about 14c per day. The ABC spends about one-ninth of the budget of the BBC on an annual basis, for one-third of the population. So we would regard that as good value, on the face of it.

Point 2: the ABC provides key cultural services to Australia and, in particular, politically impartial, well-resourced news and current affairs at national, regional and local level. It is an incubator for the nurturing of local creative talent and original Australian audiovisual content. It is important for its coverage of topics and themes which are recognised to be of importance and value to Australian society but which in some cases have insufficient audiences to be commercially viable—so, education programming, children's programming, art and culture, religious content and so on.

We also believe that the ABC provides a key service of technological innovation to the industry as a whole in so far as it develops platforms such as iview which might then become very useful to the wider industry, including commercial media companies.

Point 3: we would say the ABC is popular with the Australian public. I think the most recent polls conducted by Newspoll on behalf of the ABC showed 84 per cent satisfaction ratings with the ABC's output, with only nine per cent strongly disapproving of what the ABC was doing.

Point 4: digital investment, we believe, which appears to be the current strategy, is a very rational and indeed essential policy for the ABC if it is to retain its current role as the country's national voice, because the audiences, as we know, are increasingly moving to the internet and online, and the ABC as a public service media organisation should be there. Its digital presence should focus on supporting existing, well-established public service functions rather than going online for its own sake.

Point 6: Mark Scott has indicated in the recent speeches that the ongoing move to digital will enable the quantity and quality of local and regional content to be maintained. We would argue that there must be scrutiny on this point—legislative if necessary—and regulation to ensure that this crucial commitment on local and regional broadcasting is adhered to.

My final point is that the ending of the Australia Network contract has materially impacted on journalism and news coverage in the Asia-Pacific region, notwithstanding the ABC's proposed Australia Plus online service and the proposal to charge a subscription fee for ABC News 24. Just on that point, we believe that the ending of the Australia Network contract has materially damaged journalism and Australian news coverage of the Asia-Pacific region, as well as Australia's presence, if you like, as a cultural force in the Asia-Pacific region.

My final point is that we accept that there is lively debate as to the ABC's emerging priorities and challenges and how these can be reflected in content and production, but cuts imposed on the ABC as part of a wider austerity program should not be allowed to impact on the core public service remit of Australia's most important cultural institution. That concludes our statement.

ACTING CHAIR: That is great. Thank you very much for putting that together and also for the materials that you submitted previously.

Senator LINES: Thank you very much for the opening statement. Just looking at your submissions, I note, Professor McNair, that in your submission is a piece that you wrote on 19 October 2014 under the heading 'ABC feels the pain of broken promises'. In the seventh paragraph, you say:

Several pledges went AWOL after the election. But in this case, the incoming government appeared sneaky and duplicitous, not to mention vindictive …

Can you elaborate on what you mean by 'vindictive towards one of Australia's most loved institutions'.

Prof. McNair : In the sense that there was a prehistory of criticism of the ABC from the coalition and certain politicians. There is a sense, I think, of less than good relationships between what used to be the opposition—and is now the government—and the ABC. Although I do not assume that the budget cuts are vindictive, there is a sense that there has been a debate around that issue and whether or not these cuts are some sort of signal to the ABC or some kind of punishment for its perceived bias in political coverage.

Senator LINES: The other point that you make in this same document is that you want to move away from the current hotbed that is the ABC—the cuts from government and the subsequent cuts to programming—and look at what sort of ABC we want to leave to our grandchildren. You acknowledge, as we do, that programs change, audience tastes change, new platforms come online and so on. But how can you separate out what I perceive to be savage cuts to the ABC and the future ABC that we leave for our grandchildren? Isn't there a relationship there?

Prof. McNair : Of course there is a relationship between the budget which the ABC has to spend and its potential to develop with a strong public service remit, but we cannot just assume that a cut will immediately have an equally adverse impact on outputs and performance, because many of the new technologies and new processes that are being introduced across the media, including the ABC, do have cost-cutting implications and enable more to be done with less in some cases. So, I think the issue is that rather than arguing over every single cut, particularly at a time when the country as a whole is experiencing cutbacks, the bigger question really is: what should people be expecting from the ABC going forward? What is the long-term objective of a public service body like the ABC in a country like Australia, given the media environment we have and given the technologies that are emerging?

So, my comment in that article was simply to say that yes, the cuts are here, they are important, and we must discuss them, but the bigger question is: what is the ABC for, and why do we want to support it, and how much should we give it? It seems to me that those questions are related. We have to adequately resource the ABC, but we have to decide what it is that we expect the ABC to do. And we are now in a period of some change around that, because of all the technology influences that are coming around.

Senator LINES: And do you think that the type of ABC that we may have in the future is beyond its charter? Is it time to review the charter? Or do you think the charter is one thing that sets out its mission, if you like, but it is a matter of how that mission is delivered? Is that more what you are talking about?

Prof. McNair : Yes. The charter can be revised and renegotiated periodically, but there is a set of public service values and commitments which historically have governed the work of the ABC and other organisations overseas. And they were drafted in the context of a very monolithic culture where you had only one broadcaster, with very few channels, and no internet, while we now have different media platforms and many more options for consumers. We do still need a public service media, I strongly believe, but it might be that its purposes and its remit have to be revised in the light of current conditions. That was really my point there. Perhaps I could just say that Ben Goldsmith has joined us now, if you would like to direct any questions to him.

Senator LINES: Thank you. The comments you made around the Australia Network, Professor McNair—that great loss—have been made by other commentators this morning: Quentin Dempster, and I think the unions made reference to their loss as well. My concern is that we then start to rely on other news outlets and that we also miss the kind of unique stories that the ABC did bring us, particularly from the Asia region. And of course we lose that opportunity to develop up journalists and camera people and other technicians.

Prof. McNair : I will pass on to Ben in a second. I just think part of the role of public service broadcasting and the ABC is to, if you like, project a cultural identity, a positive presence and image, of Australia overseas. And in the Asia-Pacific region I think it is agreed that this is quite an important strategic need—cultural diplomacy, soft diplomacy. And the Australia Network in a sense could be seen as a big part of that, and in that sense its loss is potentially quite concerning for Australia's reputation and profile in that region. But I might ask Ben to talk.

Senator LINES: And I think the Media, Entertainment Arts Alliance made that point quite strongly, too. But yes, it would be interesting to hear from Dr Goldsmith.

Dr Goldsmith : I guess the key point that the article I wrote earlier this year about the Australia Network is trying to make is not necessarily about whether or not it should be the ABC that is doing this but about the fact that the contract was taken away from the ABC and the fact that a certain number of journalists have been laid off. And that has materially affected coverage, not only of the Pacific in Australia—in particular, the Asia-Pacific in Australia, but I was thinking particularly about the Pacific region—but also, because of the way in which the ABC had negotiated rebroadcasting rights with certain other countries, such as the Solomons and Vanuatu, where the Australia Network was broadcast on free-to-air and became a source of additional news diversity in those countries, its loss meant a loss of news diversity there. I think this goes back to the point that Brian was making, to some extent—that is, the loss of journalists who are based in the region and covering the region, in the Pacific in particular, will undoubtedly dramatically decrease the coverage of news in the Pacific, at least for breaking news as it happens. You will not have journalists on the ground as quickly; it will have an impact on the kind of coverage that we get of stories about the Pacific.

Senator LINES: I mentioned this morning that if you look at the career of someone like Sean Dorney, he has been an amazing correspondent, particularly in PNG. I just wonder about your comment, Professor McNair. If soft diplomacy is part of the role that the Australia Network played or can play, and that comment has also been made by others, wouldn't you agree that it does matter who provides that? Don't we want to be assured that if soft diplomacy is part of that role that it is presented in an independent way?

Prof. McNair : I would agree that the public service broadcaster is the best organisation to deliver that function in the Australian context because of its reputation and its legal requirement for impartiality. It is not seen as a government body or an ideological committed body, whereas the obvious risk with a commercial media broadcaster, even if it is a very good quality one, is that there will be some perception of bias or private commercial interest getting in the way of the job that the broadcaster is doing. That would be my response to that.

Dr Goldsmith : The vast majority of similar services around the world are run by public service broadcasters—BBC Worldwide, Deutsche Welle and so on. They are run by public broadcasters but while obviously both are, to some extent, arms of government they are also, as Brian has said, independent; they often have a charter responsibility or a legal responsibility, a legislative requirement, that they present news impartially and without necessarily considering the commercial impacts or the popularity of what they may doing. And while there is no question that Sky News, the competitor in the ABC's case, is an extremely good news organisation, the fact that it is a commercial news organisation counts against it in this regard.

Senator LINES: Dr Swift, did you have anything to add in that area?

Dr Swift : Not in that particular area. I just concur with what Brian and Ben have both said.

Senator LINES: Professor McNair, in one of your articles—I am just trying to find it—you certainly give Mr Scott a tongue-lashing. It is the one: 'Is this the beginning of the end of the ABC as we know it?'

Prof. McNair : Yes, I have that one here in front of me.

Senator LINES: My concern here starts with the cuts the government has made, but we have heard evidence this morning, particularly from the unions, that the ABC is cutting further than is necessary. What is your view about those points?

Prof. McNair : It is very difficult to make a judgement as an outside observer of an organisation and to second-guess make management decisions about financing. As we said at the outset in our statement, we do believe the ABC is financially good value and provides an excellent service at relatively low cost, which means that it does not have a lot of waste and it does not have a lot of padding if we wish it to maintain quality. Therefore, the cuts, if they are necessary, should be absolutely minimal. As we also said in some of those articles, by all means look for those kinds of non-essential ancillary and support services that can be contracted out without damaging the quality of content. It may well be that these cuts will affect content in a material way. I would not want to say yes or no to that. It is entirely possible and it is a very legitimate concern.

Senator LINES: The title of your article is 'Is this the beginning of the end of the ABC as we know it?' That is also a point that the CPSU put this morning. What, for you, is at risk here?

Prof. McNair : If the pessimistic commentaries are reliable, what is at risk is the quality and diversity of regional broadcasting. The tendency to concentrate in the big cities is a genuine concern. The more media production focuses on Sydney and Melbourne, the less the ABC can truly represent the very diverse and geographically disparate country of Australia. So what is at risk is localism and diversity of production. In general, the idea of serving the public at every level of Australian society—not just the big cities but also the rural areas and the remote communities—is part of the public service remit. If that goes as a result of these cuts, that would be a very damaging outcome.

Dr Swift : We have been talking to focus groups around the country. We are getting feedback about the importance of the ABC for people to receive information and news about politics in general and particularly during elections. My concern is that, with the loss of local and regional news, federal issues that play out at a local level will not get the coverage they deserve and local audiences will only be able to interpret federal issues as they come out of the Sydney and Melbourne newsrooms.

Senator LINES: Can you give us any examples?

Dr Swift : We did a focus group in Toowoomba. The issue that always comes up in Toowoomba is the crossing on the road from Brisbane to Toowoomba and, for a while there, the airport was also an issue. That sort of coverage was occurring on Stateline. Without that reach, those issues are not played out for the locals.

Prof. McNair : I have another example of this, and it comes from a PhD thesis that I happened to be reading. There was a controversial case of child abuse in Tasmania in 2009, involving politicians, which was reported very extensively by the local ABC—the Friday evening show in particular. That struck me as a good example of why it is important to have well-resourced local journalism with a current affairs/investigative remit as well as talking about local traffic and weather. A serious news organisation with a local public service brief is very important.

ACTING CHAIR: I have asked a few witnesses this afternoon for their view on the concept of efficiency as it applies to public broadcasting, especially when it is a concept of efficiency that appears to have borrowed most of its language and its metrics from the commercial broadcasters. I just wonder if you would care to share your thoughts—anybody who has strong views either way—on whether we are applying the right lens to a public broadcaster or whether we should not be at all surprised that, if you roll that kind of efficiency lens that is brought from the commercial world into a public broadcaster, you end up with exactly what we are seeing.

Prof. McNair : I will invite my colleagues to comment on that, because it is a very interesting question. Public services, I believe, should be efficient and should be economically transparent and accountable, and that is for the benefit of the public service. The public want to feel that their money is being well spent and that it is not being used to pay inflated salaries or unnecessary perks and so on. That is all very reasonable, I think, and therefore it is incumbent on the broadcasting organisation to demonstrate that it is using public funds well. But that does not mean to say it has to be beholden to straightforward profit and loss motives. The beauty of public service media is that it can make mistakes, it can experiment, it can innovate and it does not have to worry about whether it is going to have profit for its shareholders at the end of the year. As long as it can say to the taxpayer, 'We have spent the money in the best way we can to fulfil our remit to you,' that seems to me to be honourable. If efficiencies can be made, of course that is very relevant. All public service bodies should be efficient, and I think they all have a duty to try to be as efficient as they can. Ben?

Dr Goldsmith : I think Brian has covered one angle of that question, which is the point that public service organisations obviously have a duty to be run as efficiently and as economically as possible. The other side of that—and again this is the particular position that public service broadcasters are in, and I am sure you are well aware of this, Senator—is that public service broadcasters, by their nature, are required to do things that are not driven by commercial motives. They are required to cover either areas of content or geographical areas or other aspects of Australian life, in the ABC's case, that are not conditioned by whether or not what they are doing is economically efficient. It is more a question of its social value and of its relevance to the cultural and social life of Australia. So, in that sense, the general imposition of an economic framework built around a notion of finding savings and efficiencies in what they are doing does not quite work, because the kinds of things that the ABC is doing are not calculated or not measured, if you like, in that way. To some extent, of course, they are, because the ABC has a fixed budget—it has a certain amount of money and has to decide what to spend it on—but many of the vast range of things that the ABC must do are not able to be calculated in the same way as if it were a commercial provider.

ACTING CHAIR: Which makes me wonder whether in fact they have not been set up to fail or at least set up to centralise and do exactly the sorts of things that we are seeing them do. I do not know that it was addressed in the pieces that we have been provided with from The Conversation, but the idea was floated in the Lewis review of a statement of expectations—that the minister at the start of every year would write some kind of directive, which we presume would not impinge on the independence of the broadcaster, but some kind of statement of expectations. Would any of you care to comment on what you think of the merits of that idea.

Dr Goldsmith : Yes. I saw some of Mr Scott's appearance this morning before you, and I know he addressed this question. I presume you may have asked it of other witnesses as well. I think the point that he has made and that has been made by the ABC board and more generally is that the minister has mechanisms by which he can communicate views, government policies and so on to the board, but the question then becomes: to what extent should those determine the judgement the board makes about what the ABC does? A statement of expectations is all very well as long as it is not a statement of obligations—as long as it is not something that the ABC is expected and required to follow. That would substantially challenge the idea that the ABC is an independent, arms-length public broadcaster, not an arm of government and not an arm of the minister. It is not the minister's call to determine what the ABC does. That is very much a fundamental aspect of the way the ABC was set up and the way that it has always run.

ACTING CHAIR: Quite a bit of evidence we have heard—and a certain amount of what you have written collectively and what we have heard today—has revolved around the transition that is already underway within the ABC, and SBS to an extent, towards the delivery of services online. It is controversial on a variety of levels; nonetheless, there is no question that it is happening. Some of the specific decisions that have been made, where they are forced into a position of budget scarcity, transfer resources internally from some regional services and plough them into online services. Do you think that is the right call, or would you do it differently?

Prof. McNair : I would give my response to that in the following terms. The technology of the internet can allow the creation, the sharing and the distribution of material in ways that are more efficient, quicker and cheaper, so there can be positive benefits in using more digital tools than, say, local content production. The concern, I think, that I raised earlier on is more to do with infrastructure. If you remove all the infrastructure from the local regions in order to cut costs, your core journalistic resource is damaged. The internet and the digital tools are extremely valuable and extremely important for the ABC to remain a leading organisation in Australian media terms, and they will improve the service in many ways, as they have already done. But there are still core elements of a quality public service organisation that have to be kept in place. It is infrastructure and it is human beings—bodies on the ground in these remote locations who are actually on the scene when stories happen and who can report authoritatively on those stories. That would be my response to that. Ben?

Dr Goldsmith : Yes, I would concur with what Brian is saying. My take on this is slightly different, in that the concentration in much of our discussion, understandably, has been around news provision and the impact on regional Australia. I want to raise two points there. One is that the redirection of resources from one area of the ABC to another does not only affect regional news coverage, and it does not only flow from broadcast to online. We can take perhaps the example—I do not know whether it has come up at all today, and the ABC probably has not mentioned it itself—of ABC Splash, which is the education portal, which is something that I have a particular interest in. Part of the funding for that comes from the Department of Communications; part of the funding comes from the ABC. In the Lewis report, there was an indication that the ABC would not be funding ABC Splash any further. It is a digital portal. The diminishing of educational programming and broadcast services on the ABC is easily documentable through ABC annual reports over time. They no longer report on the amount of educational broadcasting on television and they have recently switched most of that broadcasting, such as it is, onto ABC. Remembering that education is an area that is specifically mentioned in the ABC's charter as a responsibility of the organisation, ABC Splash is fulfilling, to a great extent, that educational responsibility, and yet there are questions about its future because its funding runs out at the end of this year.

The other point I wanted to make about digital services—which, again, may not so much be the ABC's concern but should be a concern for those of us who are analysing and thinking about the ABC from the outside—is that one of the big changes from a free-to-air radio or television service to an online service is that additional costs are borne by the user of those services. In order to access ABC online services, a user must have either a mobile phone or a broadband subscription. You must have other equipment. There is a substantial cost attached to that. As we know, and as recent figures from the ACMA and the AIMIA have shown, many Australians have broadband connections, and many Australians have relatively high-speed broadband connections. There is still a cost involved in receiving online content which does not apply to the receipt of free-to-air television and radio content. While we would support the move towards digital service provision, it is something that needs to be borne in mind as a core responsibility of the ABC.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you. I do not believe anybody has raised that point in quite that way since we started. Unless my other colleagues have questions, we will let you go. Thanks to all three of you for coming online for your expertise. Please keep publishing and writing spiky stuff and getting it out there.

Prof. McNair : Thank you very much.

ACTING CHAIR: Thanks for your energy this afternoon.