In a world where support for fully government-funded, independent public broadcasters is declining, Australia is fortunate to have a new federal government that recognises the importance of the ABC. But, says former ABC Managing Director Geoffrey Whitehead, now is the time to consolidate the ABC’s role permanently by enshrining the national broadcaster, through an all-party Declaration, as an institution that’s integral to our democracy and to which all citizens have a right.
The ABC: time for all-party support
By Geoffrey Whitehead / 21 October 2022
With the world at another of its historic tipping points, and since foreign policy essentially begins at home, it’s timely for Western governments to start building all-party declarations to the world that they see their traditional national public service broadcasters – like the 90-year-old ABC – as important democratic institutions having a focus on serving their people’s needs as citizens rather than their wants as consumers, and so helping us meet the new challenges we all face.
I say this as a former journalist with 20 years’ experience in Britain, mostly spent as a Westminster and Whitehall political correspondent, firstly reporting events in Britain to the world for Reuters news agency and then reporting them to its own people through BBC radio and television.
Having spent this first half of my working life in the northern, land-dominated hemisphere of the world, I then spent the second half as a public service chief executive in the southern, ocean-dominated hemisphere.
On a visit to Washington DC early in my tenure as chief executive of Radio New Zealand I noticed that the map of the world, as a background to a news briefing room, was from its usual northern hemisphere perspective with New Zealand (almost) slipping off the bottom right-hand corner. When I returned to my new base I bought half a dozen maps of the world based on the 180 degree longitude meridian instead of the traditional 0 degrees longitude running through Greenwich, London, and had them posted to our top overseas correspondents – without comment. They soon got the message and began to send reports acknowledging this different global context.
After I became the first chief executive of the ABC under its new 1983 legislation changing from Commission to Corporation, I took with me a small delegation of journalists plus a sales and marketing director, and also a draft agreement of co-operation between the ABC and our Chinese opposite number based on others we already had with other organisations. Before we left Beijing I signed a letter of intent to complete such an agreement in the near future. This was to take place by the time of the return visit from China, which was planned for some two years after my premature departure from my post.
In the last few years the world has witnessed China’s wishes to extend its sphere of influence beyond the disputed South China Sea to encompass a greater presence in the South Pacific. This has happened in tandem with the global digital revolution which, itself, now calls for the definition of public broadcasting to be strengthened and broadened to include commercial-free ‘public cyber casting’, funded by taxpayers and available to all.
This would be consistent with the United States response to China’s developing policies which has, in any event, been re-focussed on what it and its Western allies have re-labelled as ‘the Indo-Pacific’, and its call to them to stand up for their beliefs in the present global crisis.
(It is noticeable, though, that both China and India have stood back from supporting Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin in his efforts to redraw the boundaries of eastern Europe through his invasion and annexation of approximately 15 percent of eastern Ukraine to consolidate his 2014 takeover of Crimea on the Black Sea).
The other major international event of recent years has, of course, been the COVID-19 pandemic which has yet to run its course and which has led to protests within the United States, and spread by social media to other countries, against government efforts to enforce vaccinations by mandate. This is now being echoed in candidacies for local government elections in some countries – a democratic issue which will have to be addressed.
All of this on top of a distortion over the last 40 years of the previous symmetrical balance between values-driven, and market-driven, media entities. This entrenched asymmetry has led to political parties of both the right and left becoming seemingly less certain about the present and future roles of their national broadcasters.
There will be different answers in different countries, but since 2018 the ABC has been living under the shadow of a policy resolution from the Liberal Party’s Federal Council that it should be privatised1; similarly, Canada’s CBC, a country with a framework of policies I often think of as a model for others, is right now facing a campaign by the country’s Conservative Party to ‘de-fund’ that organisation; Britain’s BBC has secured a funding agreement but faces an uncertain future over whether or not its licence fee system of funding will continue in the future.
Governments of these and other Commonwealth countries should surely recognise that values-driven – not market-driven – national public service broadcasters are a growing asset in the current re-shaping of the world order.
While the ABC did secure a funding agreement from the out-going Liberal government shortly before the last election, it is encouraging that this has since been strengthened by commitments from the new Labor government and which are expected to be entrenched in its first budget.
It’s my view that, compared with some other countries which rely more heavily on imported television programming, Australia’s case is one where a sharper definition of the ABC’s role can be achieved by fine tuning. For the prize of the achievement of all-party support, though, it would seem to be an essential pre-condition that the Liberal Party’s 2018 privatisation policy should be rescinded on the grounds that it is now contrary to the wider interest. That would clear the decks for inter-party talks on what is needed to make sure that my proposed declaration that the ABC is an important democratic institution would have sufficient force to gain credibility both at home and abroad.
Perhaps this could be achieved relatively simply by an amendment to ABC legislation setting out this declaration in its ‘purposes and principles’ clause, coupled with an affirmation of Australia’s commitment to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) with an emphasis on its sections on democratic and civil rights (s.13) and on freedom of expression (s.14).2
If the political willpower is there from all parties this package could be achieved quite quickly in the current ‘slack water’ of politics, between two general elections, and so make an early impact on the shifting global scene.
So the time to start is now.
Geoffrey Whitehead was the first Managing Director and Board member of the ABC under its 1983 Act, from 1984-86. He has a Diploma in International Affairs (London) and a Masters Degree (merit) in International Relations (University of Victoria, Wellington). He is the author of ‘Inside the ABC’ (Penguin 1988) and of ‘Tending the flame of democracy’ (iUniverse 2004).
1 At the Liberal Party’s Federal Council in July 2018, party members voted overwhelmingly in favour of a motion calling for ‘the full privatisation of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, except for services into regional areas that are not commercially viable’. The parliamentary Liberal Party distanced itself from the idea, but the motion has never been rescinded.
2 Australia is the only western democracy without a Charter or Bill of Human Rights, which in other countries would be an option for incorporating a Declaration as suggested by the author.