Money Finance News Why we should be boosting ABC funding, not cutting it
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Why we should be boosting ABC funding, not cutting it

abc funding cuts
As commercial models struggle, we need stronger, not weaker, public broadcasters. Photo: AAP
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It’s ironic Communications Minister Mitch Fifield has difficulty communicating. But don’t worry, I’m here to help: cutting the ABC’s funding makes perfect sense – if you’re pre-empting your own inquiry into competitive neutrality and doing One Nation and media mates a favour.

Fresh from making an undocumented hash of explaining the taxpayers’ $30 million gift to the Murdoch Empire’s Foxtel, Senator Mitch Fifield is now at sea justifying the $84 million cut to the ABC’s budget.

“I am not going to pre-empt the outcome of the efficiency review,” he told ABC news – but that’s precisely what the funding cuts do.

And in the same interview he also gave a strong hint of what he thinks the competitive neutrality inquiry should find: “The ABC has greater funding certainty than any other media organisation in the nation.”

Holding the inquiry was a condition for securing Senator Pauline Hanson’s vote for the government’s media ownership changes, as well as a response to Murdoch’s anti-ABC campaign – a campaign in which News Corp has enlisted other commercial operators.

The “competitive neutrality principles” hold that a government-owned business should not have an advantage over commercial competitors simply by virtue of being government owned.

There’s already a vehicle for deciding such things – the Productivity Commission’s Australian Government Competitive Neutrality Complaints Office.

But the government will pay a former Productivity Commission economist, a former commercial television lobbyist and a former ABC director-cum-commercial television executive to weigh the issues.

Again, I’m here to help. While public submissions are invited and hearings will be held, we can save time and money by cutting to the inquiry’s inevitable conclusion: yes, minister, the operations of the ABC and SBS breach competitive neutrality principles and will increasingly do so.

And we are bloody lucky that’s the case. A principled government would accept that reality of media disruption and move on.

There are three dogs in the fight against the ABC’s Big Ted: the ideological pitbull of the Institute of Public Affairs and its fellow travellers, believing the government has no role in anything the private sector make money out of; the snarling mongrel of vindictiveness sooled on by One Nation and other politicians who hate the ABC’s reporting on them; and commercial media’s limping poodle of financial envy.

While ownership of the three dogs overlap, it’s the commercial poodle that provides the official excuse for the inquiry and could in turn become the excuse for sharper cuts to ABC funding and activities.

Australia’s commercial media is collectively on a highway to hell as commercial disruptors gobble up their revenue.

“It’s just a race to cut costs faster than revenue falls”, a board member of one major player admitted to me.

It’s a lame effort to try to blame the advertising-free ABC for stealing that revenue. The ABC does take eyeballs that might otherwise go to commercial outlets, but it’s not a shortage of readers that’s eating legacy newspaper companies’ lunch – it’s predominantly the miserable and falling price of online advertising, followed distantly by readers’ reluctance to pay for what they’re offered.

Ditto commercial television, under threat not by old Aunty and tiny SBS, but subscription streaming services.

As commercial media’s revenue shrinks, they have less to spend on quality Australian drama for broadcasting and quality journalism in any medium. Fewer journalists required to do more end up being able to properly cover less.

In this environment, the ABC’s secure funding is indeed a competitive advantage so it would be easy to reinstate and maintain “competitive neutrality” – just keep cutting the ABC’s funding so that its quality and capacity deteriorate as much as commercial media’s.

That’s not what the nation needs. As the commercial models wobble, stronger, not weaker, public broadcasters and online information providers are required.

The problems facing legacy commercial information providers create an argument for increasing ABC and SBS funding, not cutting it.

With our newspapers shrinking shadows of their former depth and breadth, public journalism is more important than ever.

If over-paid commercial TV executives overlook the occasional Handmaid’s Tale that goes to SBS, that’s their own fault. Don’t blame SBS for being there to pick up their scraps.

If Foxtel and Channel 7 can still find a quick $1.2 billion for a deal that will result in most Australians being unable to watch most cricket, they don’t deserve any government sympathy, let alone handouts.

Tell us the one about our $30 million given to Foxtel again, Mitch.

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