|Issue No 64||28 July 2000|
Unchaining the ABC
By Tony Moore
- publisher, Pluto Press
The ALP needs to rethink our public institutions to determine how they might better deliver the ends for which they were originally established.
The ABC is a case in point. Putting aside the ravages being perpetrated by the Coalition -Labor must ask is the ABC as an institution fulfilling its charter, and, if we are serious about being a knowledge nation ,what might be a better vision for public broadcasting in the future. Many younger program makers who have worked at the ABC were opposed to the creatively stifling Hill/Johns corporation and are clamouring for changes to block the bureaucratic constipation of the ABC so that it might better reflect 21st century Australia and draw on the talent of its citizens.
So many Australian stories are not being told in this important public space. When I criticise the ABC, especially television it is as a friend - someone who sat on the ABC advisory council and had the privilege of working in the ABC as a doco maker for nine years and of agitating through my union for internal reform.
While the neo-liberal right, the Coalition, and indeed sections of the Labor Party have run an often dogmatic privatisation agenda, the left side of politics has taken on the role of conservative, fighting a rearguard action to 'conserve' vital public institutions from being sold to shareholders. But in the process we abdicate the reform agenda to people who believe market forces are the universal panacea. While the left correctly saw that there are areas of service and production that are simply unsuitable for market control, the campaign has too often become a sentimental defence of quangos, corporations, boards and commissions that are in fact in dire need of reform. In opposition the ALP has tended to succumb to nostalgia about public institutions - defending them against the ravages of the coalition without questioning if they are still delivering.
It is because public institutions have often treated their consumers and workers in a shabby fashion - both the CES and Telstra come to mind -that the privatisation rhetoric gets a toehold with the public. Organisations can become bureaucratic and lose sight of their reason for being. A particular group may capture an organisation and use it for sectional ends. The social conditions in which public services were established have undergone rapid change. Reform is an ongoing process if institutions are to continue to fulfil their charters. Labor - because it cares about public institutions - should be interested in how they can be improved to better achieve social democratic goals such as equity in health, education, justice, information and creativity for all citizens in our changed times. This is the radical alternative to the crude dualism of market forces or a sentimental clinging to the status quo.
Thinking about our public institutions has a fine lineage on our side of politics. A century ago pioneers of public service and the welfare state like Sidney and Beatrice Webb, GDH Cole and William Morris who during the hight of the indutrial age wrestled with how to balance the interests of producers and consumers and whether state ownership in itself was enough to best deliver the good society. The challenge for us today is rethinking the public sector from the midst of the information revolution. Industrial age corporations entering a new century have to change the way they have traditionally controlled their assets, to move away from top down coercion. They must find personalities who can manage these businesses without stifling their potential. That's the challenge for the broader cultural industry as well: moving away from a control model. The state funded culture 'industries', particularly the ABC are still operating with out-of-date industrial models.
The industrial era was very much about hierarchies within hierarchies. There would be elite and popular broadcasting, there would be broadsheets and tabloids,. It was just assumed that one was better than the other. A cultural divide was institutionalised that was inherently anti-democratic, but it was also the enemy of real excellence. 'Quality' became just a matter of class prejudice, rather than something that had to be tested.
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 break up and fragment. The industrial model with its two standard products, 'high' versus 'low', is already starting to split up. What you now get is cultural multiplicity. Technological developments make narrow casting whether digitally, through cable, the airwaves or the internet both possible and affordable, but it is the diversity of audiences which is driving the process.
Simultaneously new technologies reduce the costs of creative production and make obsolete both the factory systems and the corporate hierarchies that characterised television production -both private and public -in the second half of the twentieth century.
While rightly defending the principle of public broadcasting in the face of the Coalition's attacks the ALP fails to notice how even under the last Labor government the ABC was far from living up to what should be principles for a social democratic vision for public media.
So from the inside what did Labor do with the ABC
The ALP in government has often run a warmed over version of the right's privatisation agenda - either selling off the public's assets outright, or imposing 'managerialism' on public utilities such as the ABC, a kind of internal privatisation that combined fake market forces and costs savings with a top down restructure that gives all power to the bean counters. Rather than producing lean, mean machines responsive to consumers the result has been an intensification of old fashioned civil service hierarchy under the new corporatism but with the quality of service and public accountability often reduced.
Under Labor the ABC was subjected to just such a managerial make-over, bureaucracy and central control was strengthened and the organisations capacity to encourage creativity and reflect a changing Australian society greatly weakened. The growth in bureaucracy and management control over product was disguised by David Hill's energetic maintenance of funding under Labor. Keating's; dissatisfaction with Hill's ABC was seen in Creative Nation, which directed new funds for innovation to SBS where the money was less likely to fall victim to bureaucratic inertia. ABC radio, while not immune to managerialism, was immune, though the hands-on and immediate nature of its medium, from the worst excesses. But in television the combination of an old style public service nomen clatura with managerialism's elevation of the accountants produced a mule not unlike the Soviet Union in its dying days.
If Hill was an autocrat instilling paranoia Brian Johns was the well meaning Gorbachev. Despite the wiff of glasnost on his ascension Johns proved unable to starve off the Howard government's massive cuts to ABC funding and political attacks alleging anti-coalition bias and immoral material offensive to mainstream Australia. ABC management's response - an unprecedented downsizing of production staff in tandem with a "One ABC" re-structure that actually increased the number of senior and middle management; intensification of management's control over production; and a conservative programming and commissioning policy that provoked a flight of younger programme makers amid an orgy of British costume and police drama, hight arts and rural escapism to the delight of the good burgers of Mosman and their middle brow comrades in Balmain.
With the Coalition in power a not unreasonable desire by Johns and Mansfield to open the ABC's doors to the wider outside creative community as had been happening for years with the independent documentary makers became an ideologically driven obsession by management to outsource programme making to the big commercial players even less in touch with Australian creativity than the ABC. When the rushed and secret Mansfield inquiry failed to uphold the allegations of bias or argue for commercialisation the Coalition contented itself with natural attrition on the board and the end of John's term .Now with Shier at the helm there appears to be an agenda to dumb down ABC TV even further, to make it more like commercial television
Today I'm less concerned about what the Coalition is doing to the ABC than about the long term structural problems that allows a public asset to be so easily destroyed, and about how the ALP might re-imagine public media
Benchmarks for Labor should be:
- fair dinkum reflection of Australia's cultural diversity - in terms of class, generations, regions, aesthetics, ideas and especially ethnicity in both programming and recruitment; and
- real openness to and support for creativity and innovation, from both in house staff and from the wider community in order to enhance our creativity of our culture.
-training and nurturing of new talent and experimentation in technology and craft skills.
- accountability of cultural producers to taxpayers who fund it and consume it in their diversity. Measurements a bit better than a subjective idea about 'quality' or crude bums on seats -the ratings.
-internal work place democracy
The basic problem with the ABC for a social democratic party is that its corporate structure leaves it struggling to be creative and to respond to the diversity that now lies at the heart of Australia's social reality.
The ABC remains a fairly monocultural, upper middle class, ango-celtic institution. As well as contravening the ABC charter, this narrowness stultifies our public culture. The ABC can never be all things to all people, but it can be the means by which different Australians talk to each other. At the moment its the channel through which one section of Australia talks to itself- while a tremendous creative energy in our community -one that will always be ignored by the commercial sector - remains disenfranchised.
In practice the ABC charter and those of many other public cultural bodies is usually ignored for a sectoral appeal to the Anglo-Celtic upper middle class. The problem occurs when terms like 'public interest' or 'quality' or 'non-commercial' are masks for personal taste or class prejudices or outmoded aesthetics. Tax payers and consumers have a right to a say in how their cultural dollars are spent. Currently these institutions are run as if they are the property of the nomenclature who are in fact our servants. It is a far cry from the sort of cultural democracy that we should be promoting.
Even if many of its stars and managers are fashionably republican 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 a 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 ABC television ignores in favour of the usual suspects. This monoculturalism flows in part from the staff make up, the result not just of incumbency, but from a far from transparent recruitment process that continues to favour Anglo Australians and British immigrants.
The ABC's class bias towards the private schooled educated is shared with other private media industries, but they are not the concern of a social democratic government. 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. As I was told on starting work at the ABC in 1988 on a doco called Nobody's Children :
"remember mate, your making films to titillate Pymble."
In Sydney it is rare for the ABC to consider the audience in the western suburbs where most of the population live. Or as Mike Carlton reported on taking the job as announcer on 2BL - "my manger told me to imagine I was talking to my neighbour over the fence in Epping." I don't recall, a member of the production staff or management that lived in western Sydney and anthropological trips 'out their' were generally the subject of snobby jokes - as was my own origins in Wollongong.
Ironically, though, the ABC is also loosing the younger middle class who live the inner cities whose tastes might be described as lowbrow/high brow Apart from 2JJJ, and radio National the ABC is too literal, pompous and well, middle brow and lacking in irony and sense of humour. The ABC has long suffered from a generational constipation that has seen younger programme makers within and outside the ABC either ignored or ghettoised in so-called youth programmes while an aging cohort continue to control 'serious' programmes in current affairs, the arts and drama.
The Gangland thesis has been well debated, but it remains true that the 60s generation who pioneered current affairs television have been loath to allow subsequent generations to meddle with the formulae or try new aesthetics or ideas with glorious exceptions like Beat Box. In fact the same people who invented cheeky, maverick programs like TDT have used their used managerial incumbency to enforce their revolutionary experiments as rigid dogma - so shows like the Simpsons now have more to tell us about our changing world than Four Corners.
What I mean is that ABC docs and current affairs continue to generalise about simplistic trends learned from 70s sociology - running trains down well worn tracks when many of us want to explore the interesting tangle of back lanes and clear new trails. This generational myopia extends to the choice of 'talking heads' where television,(unlike radio) persist in ignoring the diversity of new commentators who have been educated in our universities over the past twenty years- it's as if the world stopped in 1975.
The ABC has always played an important incubator role in discovering and fostering new talent, but it is hopeless at looking after that talent and allowing it to mature within the ABC's mainstream, which remains enslaved to old ideas of 'quality'. So the problem is not with youth programming, but in allowing a diversity of adult programming. Meanwhile the creative energies of several generations of talented Australians talks to itself in ejournals, independent and scholarly publications or beats a path to Foxtel or Channel 10 where younger ideas and aesthetics are appreciated. Public institutions have been blind to cultural change before -one only has to think of fate of the Angry Penguins modernists in the 40s- but Labor need not accept this conservative tendency.
Real porosity with the diversity of our creative community and audiences is not necessarily easy. Everyone supports innovation, but real innovation often offends or angers or leaves one underwelmed. Similarly with 'quality' - one person's quality may makes no sense to another person - appreciation may take particular cultural literacies which now days are not shared by a community criss crossed by aesthetic and attitudinal divides . This is the real challenge of multi-culturalism - and indeed a long lived population - that Australia is still to deal with.
The trouble for the left is that the ABC gives most of us what we love - sober, abstract discussion of public affairs, dramatisation of classic literature, truly intellectual radio programmes, the occasisonal sassy inner city comedy and bucolic soaps that buy into our child hood memories. But for us - unlike the Liberals - it is important to think about our fellow citizens left cold by this model of broadcasting. Surely its not postmodern wankery to suggest we see beyond our own personal interests and take into account other Australians with different tastes, icons, knowledge, humour, dreaming. Public broadcasting has always sought to identify the tastes of the tertiary educated upper middle class with a universal notion of 'quality'. A diverse society with many different ways of seeing de-stabilises this once sacrosanct notion of 'quality', throwing open the parameters to a wider, not narrower range of ideas, aesthetics, personalities and stories. Labor activists engaged in the debate about the ABC need to be culturally sensitive to the different tastes and positions in the community , and mindful about enthroning their own tastes as inherently superior.
The reform of a public asset like the ABC is too important to be left to the whims of this or that managing director .Perhaps Labor should look to another Dix style inquiry I don't claim to have all the answers but some issues to consider are:
o why should either the government of the day or a managing director and an appointed board be able to so wilfully 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. Despite Alan Ashbolt's description of the MD as a king, the MD is simply administering the ABC in trust for the future. A transparent process of perhaps 10 yearly public inquiry should be written into the relevant legislation and the powers of the MD decisively curbed.
oflatten management and re-invest in creative and production staff.
oABC management must stop over controlling both from senior and middle management. The ABC spends a lot of money making its TV boring, chopping, changing, recutting, rejecting TV is not a hospital - no one will die. Radio is again a case in point where the nature of the medium - low tech and immediate - escapes meddling and the results are good.
onarrow-casting - perceive audience in its diversity - a guiding principle should be understanding that ethnic diversity is not a side order tabouli salad, but the key unfolding story of contemporary Australia .
omulti-channel environment There are 5 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 multichannel digital environment.
oOutsourcing 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 this public commissioning is spread equitably and those taking the money are accountable.
Intersection with outside community is a good thing, but with the cottage industry and not just with the commercial sector. These days the cultural energy is in the cottage industry -this is where the indie docos are made and the explosion in short films, zines and web sites has come from. In the information age this growing area of cultural enterprise is re-making the conservative model of a small business.
-the ABC should range outside TV industry as well - Australian writers, film makers, performers, internet writers and designers.
oABC online - the public newspaper we always wanted - defend it at all costs
omeaningful indicators to measure the ABC success with different audiences rather than Executive's instincts or crude ratings designed for advertisers.
Rather than use ratings as absolute numbers as a benchmark for the ABC, it would be far better to use the spread of demographics as a measure of its success or failure. Something for the old, something for women, something for the country, something for Perth
orecruitment -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 gene pool. The so-called shadow army is a privileged group that hampers ABC ability to reflect Australia.
oThe current system of internal accounting is inimicable to the reality that the best TV and radio is created by teams that work well together. Bureaucratic convenience and accounting dogma mean that ABC TV employs an assembly line mentality that gets in the way of creativity. The rigidity of the in-house system has meant that working outside as an independent is the only way to get together an appropriate team. Can the ABC harmonise fiscal responsibility while allowing producers to assemble teams around projects as the do outside. About autonomy for programme
Structural change does matter. Under the Whitlam government ABC radio embarked on a radical experiment to to create a contemporary music station for young people. The station was to give space to overseas, and especially Australian music not given air play 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 mushrooming independent music sector. It is now a matter of record that 2JJ was at least mid wife to the vibrant Australian music scene of the 80s and 90s, and was an agent of cultural renewal for generations of Sydney-siders in the areas of comedy, art and politics as well as music. 2JJ succeeded largely because it was given autonomy from ABC management, to do its own thing. What we would now call teams - at the time they were collectives- for a time ran the station almost independently of the ABC, and while management ultimately re-imposed authority, the 2JJJ retains a measure of freedom within the ABC Corporate structure.
ois a board of government appointees the best way to run a public corporation? Are there supplemenrreay ways of involving a diverse community in the decsion making and not least commissioning process. I was involved in consultation with young people for the ABC National Advisory Coucil and it at least endorsed the policie sthen being pushed by some left fioeld maveriks in the place. How can the current advisory council sytem - themselves appointed- be democratised and expanded as a public voice within the ABC and a checkon the board?.
At the time of writing Johnathon Shier has made some right noises - encouraging creativity to break through the bureaucracy; bringing an increased audience to the ABC as 'light' consumers rather than playing to a dedicatedupper middle class club- but he has taken the wrong actions :
trashing the only TV program devoted to ideas and debate and employing old fashioned commercial producers and executives steeped in corporate hierarchy. The craven hierarchical structure that makes the ABC a plaything for who ever sits as Managing Director is itself the problem. Simply changing the people who wield control in a top heavy corporate hierarchy will not change things, especially when these personalities are 'veterans' of 70s and 80s commercial TV - the high watermark of formulaic 'mass taste'.
Beazely'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 its best we look forward rather than backwards.
This paper was presented at this week's Unchain My Mind forum in Melbourne
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