|Issue No 107||17 August 2001|
ABC and the Knowledge Nation
Tony Moore looks at how the national broadcaster's fortunes are closely linked to the Knowledge Nation Agenda
Labor's Knowledge Nation statement commits a Beazley Government to rebuild the national broadcaster so that it can fulfil its charter and become Australia's premier cultural institution. The fine sentiment in the report of the Knowledge Nation taskforce shows Labor at its best, but the specific recommendations about the ABC - little more than a restoration of funding - also expose a traditional weakness - the ALP's uncritical approach to the reality of how public institutions like the ABC operate. We need an imaginative policy response to the challenges facing public media in the twenty-first century. Nothing less than widespread structural reform is is needed to free the ABC to be the cultural catalyst envisaged by Labor
The conservatives are a known quantity - the Howard government has been a vindictive vandal, hell bent on terrorising the ABC. Since coming to power the Coalition has used savage funding cuts, political bullying, a stacked board and a hand -picked Managing Director to purge the national broadcaster of many program -makers, corporate memory and the ethic of public service. ABC television has never looked worse, and Johnathon Shier has failed on his own criteria of ratings, which are in free fall, dropping by 20% in June. Rather than proceeding from the bottom up and encouraging program makers outside and within the ABC to invigorate on-air content, Shier has played corporate war games, shifting Generals around his big board, replacing the old commanders with his own loyalists, and then replacing them when his 'big board ' didn't work. He is absolutely caught up in old models of control and has strengthened the top down management culture -albeit on higher pay. A great opportunity to reform the ABC from the ground up has been squandered in a game of executive roulette, while we endure yet another repeat of Fawlty Towers.
I think we can expect more of the same from the Conservatives.
ALP party policy pledges a Beazley Government to restore 'adequate' funding on a triennial basis to ensure quality is maintained and Australian content levels are maintained at an 'appropriate level'. Good stuff and necessary if the ABC is to recover from the Coalition's savage cuts and comprehensively serve all Australians, but not very visionary - more like the Adequate Nation. The platform's promises - that Labor will not introduce advertising or sponsorship and the ABC will be kept free from political interference - while comforting, are all about conserving the status quo. The past record of the Hawke and Keating Governments suggests we need to be very cynical about both funding and fuzzy guarantees of independence
But Knowledge Nation places the ABC in a paradigm of cultural change, a key driver of the knowledge economy and a nation builder. The ABC is "the quintessential Australian portal" :
"To be an intelligent country, boundaries have to be pushed and the conventional wisdom challenged. Commercial networks do not seek to do this, and the ABC cannot do it well enough in its current emaciated state."
However fine ambitions to challenge conventions are diminished by an uninspired policy mindset: "The task requires the existence of a well-funded and independent national broadcaster. The most effective way to achieve this is to adequately fund the ABC."
I disagree that simply turning the funding tap on will transform the ABC into a catylist for the Knowldge Nation. Labor policy is silent on how a conservative bureaucracy like the ABC suddenly becomes boundary pushing, or diverse, or more importantly how independence from government is achieved. A future Beazley Government needs to boldly grasp the opportunity and join with the community that clearly values the ABC in re-making the National Broadcaster, reforming its structure to enable it to be as relevant and inspiring for citizens in a new century of audience and information. diversity.
While Shier and the Coalition have wounded the ABC, it is no secret to those of us who have worked there that the organisation suffers from long term problems that have hampered its ability to live up to its potential, to reflect a changing and diverse society and to win the hearts and minds of new generations. I write as a former member of the ABC Advisory Council and an ABC TV program-maker of nine years who agitated through my union for change within the ABC culture. The problem is a hierarchical industrial age management structure that closes the ABC off to cultural change in the broader community and even among its own workers. Sundry managers exert too much control over content, wasting scarce resources and stymieing creativity. The ABC chain of command defies corporate gravity - obtusely vertical and hierarchical after a decade of information industries moving to flatter management. Meanwhile a paternalist public broadcasting culture blinds gatekeepers to audience diversity and to new grass roots cultural energy.
The effects are worst in TV, reflected in choice of programs commissioned, and the middle brow and monocultural standards to which they aspire. ABC Television's failure to win significant youth audiences, now extending into adults up to 40 threatens the ABC's long term viability. For people under 40 the electronic media are absolutely central to the formation of a sense of belonging to a national culture at all. ABC TV's inability to engage younger citizens threatens our sense of national cohesion.
The ABC's problems are bigger than the Coalition and Shier and will outlast them unless Labor, perhaps in cooperation with the Democrats and Greens act with vision. It is important that Labor, and the broader left, is not just reactive to assaults from the right but run with a positive agenda attuned to our changing society. Labor governments traditionally put great faith in the institutions of the state, but they could do with a bit of scepticism about Qangos like the ABC. All institutions need constant inspection to determine if they are still fulfilling their purpose. The ALP, because it cares about public institutions, should be interested in how they can better achieve social democratic goals. Imaginative reform of public institutions like the ABC is the radical alternative to the crude dualism of market forces or a sentimental clinging to the status quo. Labor must ask two questions: is the ABC as an institution fulfilling its charter; and, if we are serious about being a knowledge nation, what might be a better paradigm for public media in the future?
From Industrial to Information Age Institutions
Any reform of the ABC by a social democratic government should adhere to the principles of democracy, diversity, creativity, accountability and efficiency. In the past, Labor's instincts have been authoritarian, many of the ABCs structural problems stemming from the cult of managerialism that gripped many public institutions under the Hawke and Keating governments, only to be exacerbated under the Coalition. This is a kind of internal privatisation that combines internalised market forces and costs savings with a top down re-structure that gives all power to bureaucrats and accountants. Rather than producing lean, mean machines responsive to consumers, the result has been intensification of the old-fashioned civil service hierarchy under the new corporatism, but with the quality of service and public accountability often reduced. ABC radio, while not immune to managerialism, was exempt from the worst excesses because of the hands-on and immediate nature of its medium. But in television the combination of an old- style public service nomenclature with managerialism's elevation of the accountants produced an infertile hybrid not unlike the Soviet Union in its dying days.
The managerialism that infests the ABC must now be undone and a greater degree of trust and power be extended to both content producers and audiences. Having so dramatically committing itself to shepherding Australia into the new information economy Labor must jettison its own attachment to industrial age models.The challenge is rethinking the public sector from the midst of the information revolution. Industrial age corporations entering a new century have to change the top down way they have traditionally controlled their assets.This is the creative policy detail so far missing from Knowledge Nation.
Summary of measures
Overall Labor should consider a fully public inquiry along the lines of the Dix Inquiry that set up the current corporation in the early 1980s. Is a Board selected behind closed doors the best or only way to involve citizen's in the National broadcaster's decision making process? Why should either the government of the day, or a managing director and an appointed board be able so wilfully to toy with a basic public asset? Surely this is a matter for Parliament or a proper public inquiry where the ABC's stake holders - the public - can debate the issues?
I don't claim to have all the answers but a program for structural and operational reform might include:
The most important change is to ensure that the ABC is not simply a plaything of the government of the day and that the Managing Director operates as a democratic public servant and not an autocrat. This requires a change in the appointment of the Board and in the powers of the managing director.
* the Board should be chosen by two-thirds vote of parliament to break the political cronyism that currently infests appointments.
Board members should be assessed on their media experience and commitment to the principle of public media. Given the current Senate Inquiry into the selection of the ABC Board, the Labor Opposition's position on this matter will soon be explicit.
* the powers and profile of the ABC National Advisory Council should be increased.
This is the place for community representatives without media experience who represent the audience. Accordingly the Council's selection process should be made transparent and egalitarian. The State Advisory Councils , abolished in the early nineties, should be re-established.
* The powers of the managing director need to be decisively curbed, and the role of editor -in-chief be delegated down.
What is the Managing Director doing pulling a Four Corers episode? Its like the ehad of Kellogs worrying about every packet of Corn Flakes. There is an extremely professional Executive Producer and a Head of News and Current Affairs and a Head of Legal to make these decisions
Despite Alan Ashbolt's description of the managing director as a king, he or she is simply administering the ABC in trust for the future. A tyranny, whether benevolent or despotic, is an inappropriate form of management for a creative cultural institution.
* flatten senior and middle management and re-invest the money saved in creative and production staff.
As a precursor to reform the new Labor government should conduct an audit of the increase in senior and middle management and the dramatic increase in SES salaries as compared with program -makers and content budgets under the Coalition's watch. SBS runs perfectly well on a small and efficient executive service and so can the ABC.
oa diminution in the control its senior and middle management exert over in-house content creation by creating autonomous program-making units.
The production of content should not be a matter for the Head of television or the SES but be up to Executive Producers and Producers who should be trusted to do their job. At their best Four Corners and Double Jay, had freedom within their budgets to do their own thing and the results were fantastic. The best content comes from creative friction between program makers and management.
Many ABC managers, famous within the organisation for frustrating programming, actually do see themselves as Hollywood execs - moguls in cardigans. The ABC spends a lot of time and money making its TV boring : chopping, changing, re-cutting and rejecting Television is not a hospital - no one will die if risks are taken. Radio is a case in point where the nature of the medium -low tech and immediate - escapes meddling and the results are good.
* a greater accountability to audiences by program-makers. Meaningful indicators are needed to measure the ABC's success with different audiences rather than executive's instincts or crude ratings designed for advertisers.
The audience should be central to what the ABC does - it isn't. There is no formal obligation on ABC management and program makers to consult the audience about the trends of its programming or to test particular program options. Taxpayers and consumers have a right to say how their cultural dollars are spent. Currently these institutions are run as if they are the property of the managers who impose their own tastes and definitions of 'quality'.
Consultation across audience demographics must be made mandatory on television program makers during the program bids process and after programs go to air. The ABC needs to understand the interests and tastes of its audiences in their diversity rather than in mass numbers. Audience testing should be a transparent process, carried out against agreed benchmarks. The audience research section of the ABC should be boosted to carry out this task.
Audience research can sharpen programming. In the late 80s I consulted widely for the ABC National Advisory Council on Attracting a Youth Audience, and the findings confounded the instincts of program makers. Youth is wrongly homogenised by boomer youth-niks, but is in fact a diverse group and more so today. Young people don't just wish to watch programs about youth -in fact, like adults they actually enjoy genres - as our friends in Hollywood well know. Young males, for example enjoy war and action , crime/thrillers, horror and sci-fi. Hence Hollywood blockbusters like Gladiator, Crouching Tiger and Tomb Raider. When did the ABC last do a horror story?
* a move by television to a narrow casting approach that perceives the audience in its diversity.
The audience should not be imagined as a mid 20th century mass market, but as a diverse group of interests, views and aesthetics. Less Howard's mythical mainstream and more a delta. The ABC remains a fairly monocultural, middle class, middle-aged Anglo-Celtic institution. This is what John Howard meant when he slyly referred to the ABC as: 'Our enemies talking to our friends'. As well as contravening the ABC charter, this narrowness stultifies our public culture. The ABC needs to genuinely reflect Australia's cultural diversity - in terms of class, generations, regions, aesthetics, ideas and especially ethnicity in both programming, on air talent and recruitment.
* This necessarily entails more than one TV network and an appropriate funding increase.
There are five radio networks. ABC TV cannot serve Australia's diversity with only one TV channel. Labor is right to champion the ABC as a player in the multi-channel digital environment.
o widen the ABC's recruitmnet base through a federally funded traineeship program open to school and university leavers annually from a wide variety of back grounds.
Much ABC employment is through a contract system where diversity principles and advertising requirements are ignored in favour of a 'mates' system that limits the talent pool. A program for Indigenous trainees under David Hill provided space to a new generation of Aboriginal film makers.
* complete transparency and diversity in program outsourcing
Intersection with outside community is a good thing, but with independent film makers and storytellers and not just with the commercial sector. But outsourcing needs to be governed by legislated rules and benchmarks and be transparent to the public and parliament. It matters less where and how programs are made than that the public commissioning is spread equitably and those taking the money are accountable.
The rigidity of the in-house system has meant that working outside, as an independent, is often the only way to get together an appropriate team with different ideas. Outsourcing is usually held up as a panacea but outsourcing often delivers more of the same from the same small talent pool The broadcasting and film -making industry is very incestuous, creative, journalistic and management personnel swishing around the various quangos - ABC, SBS, FFC, Film Australia, AFC and into and out of the big commercial operations. These days the cultural energy is in the cottage industry.
* in addition to guaranteed triennial funding, special hands off Federal grants for special initiatives, such as TV Dramas about Australian history, or Online Initiatives.
Government initiatives can make a difference. With the Whitlam government's encouragement, ABC radio embarked on a radical experiment to create a contemporary music station for young people. The station was to give space to overseas, and especially Australian music not given airplay by commercial radio locked into top 40 play lists and advertising. The station sought to recognise diversity among young people, and to intersect with the independent music sector. It is now a matter of record that 2JJ was at least midwife to the vibrant Australian music scene of the 1980s and 1990s, and as 2JJJ was an agent of cultural renewal for generations of young Australians in the areas of comedy, art and politics.
... Recycling and repackaging of ABC owned content within the community, through the internet, educational institutions, ABC retail outlets and other vectors so that the ABC and taxpayers realise a true value on investment.
The ABC spends millions on programs, which then wallow in the archive rather than being re-packaged for other uses by the Australian public. Many critically acclaimed ABC-produced documentaries have never been repeated. At present the middlebrow criteria employed by ABC enterprises ensures that only the most obvious material is merchandised, while the smart content sought by the Education sector is shelved.
The new ABC Content Rights unit should implement strategies for recycling and niche- marketing intelligent ABC content (including research, interview transcripts and camera tapes) to the education sector both here and in the Asia/Pacific through internet study guides, videotapes, CDs and books. The ABC should also make its extensive back catalogue of programs available to the public on a fee to view basis through a museum of sound and image.
ostrengthening ABC Online as a legitimate network through Charter amendment and additional funding.
The public newspaper Labor has always wanted and a vital resource for a Knowledge Nation.. A Beazley Government should explore specific grants for internet projects to ensure that the public sector maintains a leading edge in the medium that may well dominate this century.
Vision for a Post-Broadcast era
Partisans from right and left are locked in an ideologically-driven struggle about old-fashioned models of mass communication, at a time when we need to be considering far-reaching reform aimed at re-invigorating the public media for changed times. Given its ambition, the Knowledge Nation taskforce is strangely silent about the challenges facing Australian media. In the case of the ABC, Labor has so far failed to articulate an alternative vision of how public media might operate for a changed Australia, in which diversity is the central fact of life.
We are entering the post-broadcast age, where broad-casting to mass audiences is being replaced by narrow-casting to niche interests. In the post-broadcast world, the coerced majorities of broadcasting fragment. The industrial model with its two standard products, 'high' versus 'low' culture, is already starting to split up. (2) What you now get is cultural multiplicity
All the evidence shows younger people are watching less and less free to air TV. What they are watching less of is mass model media, that looks to common denominators. A multiculture is not so much about ethnic difference a subcultural difference. The old 'quality' public sphere, massaged into being by the broadsheets and the ABC, does not really hold for younger people and is unlikely to a sthey enter middle age.The big problem for the ABC is less about 'youth' than how it caters for younger adults up to age 40 who are different. The 'loyal' ABC viewer is making way for the discriminating conditional viewer, who makes an individual choice from the array of media options at their disposal - the internet, books, videos, games, pay TV, radio, cinema, chat lines, magazines, and commercial TV- on the basis of personal interests and passions. Media that seek to treat the under 40s as one group, to attract them on the basis of what they are assumed to have in common, will have no audience - its about serving and providing access to the public as diverse groups. Its also about being playful with the medium of TV, in the way that SBS, 2JJJ, Foxtel and even Channel 10 are. Sadly, ABC current affairs and documentaries still believe they can use television to reveal hidden truths, whereas younger audiences see the media as part of a landscape of untruth.
The ABC is narrow in its treatment of class and ethnic difference. The ABC remains the great defender of British culture in Australia and persists in maintaining a colonial deference to the BBC as the benchmark for quality. More generally, ABC culture adheres to an old idea of Australian nationalism, where white Australians speak for the nation, and migrants and 'ethnic' Australians speak for their own groups and usually only about migrant and 'multicultural' issues.
The opposing view argues that Australia is now ethnically diverse at its core, and the idea of what is the national culture is being contested - an unfolding story that the ABC, despite the existence of SBS can no longer ignore. Likewise the ABC is good at exhibiting working class individuals and communities as subjects with problems to be diagnosed or eccentricities to be celebrated, but always they are presented as 'the other' to an assumed middle class audience.
The trouble for the Labor Party is that the ABC gives most of us what we love - sober, abstract discussion of public affairs; BBC dramatisations of classic literature; truly intellectual radio programs; and bucolic soaps that buy into our childhood memories. But it is important to think about our fellow citizens who are left cold by this model of broadcasting. Surely it's not post-modern pretentiousness to suggest that we take into account Australians with different tastes, icons, knowledge, humour and dreaming?
Kim Beazley's emphasis on the 'Knowledge Nation' makes getting public media right in our own policy a priority. While a reform agenda for the ABC may not seem like a vote winner, once we return to government the vandalism of the Howard years will make rebuilding the ABC a national priority. As we rebuild it is imperative we look forward rather than backwards.
Tony Moore is Publisher of Pluto Press
A version of this article is published in For The People, Labor Essays 2001
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Media: ABC and the Knowledge Nation
Tony Moore looks at how the national broadcaster's fortunes are closely linked to the Knowledge Nation Agenda
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