Kim Dalton blasts “inconsistent”, “unpredictable” ABC
Kim Dalton has worked in the industry since 1973. He produced dramas and documentaries at the Australian Film Finance Corporation and worked at Beyond International on the financing, production and distribution of both series and features. As CEO of the Australian Film Commission, Dalton was responsible for overhauling its development programs, and as the director of ABC TV from 2006 to 2013 he took ABC TV into the digital era, significantly expanding its broadcast and online services. Below, he outlines the measures which could transform the ABC’s Australian content output and its relationship with the independent production sector.
This is an excerpt from the conclusion of Dalton’s new Platform Paper 'Missing in action: The ABC and Australia’s Screen Culture', published this week by Currency House and available at https://www.currencyhouse.org.au
The ABC itself will resist any attempt to impose a framework of policy requirements and outcomes. And it will be supported in this opposition by a broad range of loyal and well-meaning supporters. The debate around the ABC for the most part is binary and sterile. One side claims that the ABC is simply underfunded and that any suggestion of imposing on it a set of expectations and outcomes is a threat to its independence. The other side focuses only on the news and current affairs output and claims that the ABC is politically biased and overfunded.
What I set out to establish in this paper is the profound disconnect between the ABC and its public policy settings concerning Australian screen content, and its contribution to Australian culture and identity. What we have seen consistently is that our most significant cultural institution is vulnerable to unilateral internal change, contrary to stated government policy and in the absence of any public discussion or review. The ABC’s management and Managing Director, working to a politically appointed Board that lacks depth of experience – in broadcasting and screen content creation in particular and the arts and 59 journalism more generally – is able autonomously to reset the priorities of the ABC.
To achieve its public responsibilities our most significant cultural organisation requires a governance structure within which its public purpose is clearly articulated and set by Government, where certain outcomes are clearly established and where the normal high standards of public sector accountability and transparency are mandated and adhered to. At present the ABC’s self-proclaimed and all-encompassing independence causes it to exist in a state of isolation, untroubled by discussion and debate about its role within the Australian broadcasting and cultural sectors.
When the ABC was established in the 1930s Australia looked to the BBC as a model. When television was introduced in the 1950s once again Australia looked to the BBC for guidance. As we move into the digital era we could do worse than look again at how the UK Parliament over the years has resourced the BBC and has protected its independence; but also made a number of important policy-based interventions.
The Australian Parliament’s statement of the ABC’s public purpose is essentially its much revered Charter – less than four hundred words written more than a quarter of a century ago that comfortably fit within a single A4 page. In contrast, the UK Parliament reviews and renews the BBC’s foundation document, its Royal Charter, every ten years. This Charter sets out in considerable detail the BBC’s Public Purposes including ‘To show the most creative, highest quality and distinctive output’ and to ‘support the creative economy across the United 60 Kingdom.’ However, it also reviews and renews what is described in the Charter as a Framework Agreement between the Minister for Culture, Media and Sport and the BBC. This sixty plus page Agreement establishes the requirement for an open and transparent Public Interest Test if the BBC should contemplate any significant change to its services that may affect its Public Purposes. It also requires the BBC to establish performance measures and targets in relation to its Public Purposes and, further, it authorises Ofcom to independently establish performance measures and to collect information as required to assess the performance of the BBC. The Agreement also imposes requirements on the BBC in relation to original programs, regional production and independent production; and provides a very specific instruction to the BBC to ‘develop and publish a film strategy’. As noted earlier, the UK Parliament has mandated an agreement between the BBC and UK independent producers designed to ensure fair terms of trade and to support the sustainability and growth of their sector. For all of this, the UK Parliament demands very high levels of transparency and accountability.
Elsewhere in the world – Canada, Ireland, South Korea – we also find governance and regulatory measures being applied to public broadcasters to deliver public policy outcomes in relation to both local content and and its creation. The Australian Parliament could and should do the same.
Australia has developed over more than forty years a policy framework to ensure there is a diverse range of Australian-produced programs on our television. Furthermore, we have also developed a policy framework to ensure an independent production sector has the capacity to participate in the production of these programs. Our commercial television industries are large in economic terms and the impact of a local television production industry on our broader creative industries is significant.
And then there is the ABC: Australia’s national public broadcaster. Its output of Australian content at times sets the benchmark in quality but its volume is inconsistent and unpredictable. In terms of governance structures and its own operations and culture, it stands outside the policy frameworks we have in place. And its track record in developing and maintaining a productive partnership with the independent production sector is for the most part poor.
An opportunity exists for our industry associations and guilds, and more generally supporters of the ABC, to jointly develop a coherent policy for the ABC and promote it to our political parties and Parliament. My proposed agenda is:
1. The Liberal Party, National Party and Labor Party develop comprehensive and long-term policy agendas for the ABC as part of their arts and cultural policies. These policies should:
• Commit to establishing governance measures that ensure the ABC broadcasts high levels of Australian screen content across all genres and in particular minimum levels of Australian drama, children’s and documentary content.
• Acknowledge the importance of the relationship between the ABC and the independent production industry, propose the introduction of independent production quotas including regional quotas, and the development of an independently adjudicated terms-of-trade agreement between the ABC and Screen Producers Australia.
• Commit to mandating a high level of transparency and accountability in ABC reporting to Parliament.
2. The ABC’s Charter be amended to include a commitment to Australian screen content and support for the growth and sustainability of Australia’s screen production industry and creative sector.
3. A governance mechanism be developed through the Charter, in the form of a Ministerial Statement of Expectations or an Agreement administered through the Government’s independent regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, that addresses:
• the ABC’s volume and diversity of Australian content, in particular the genres of drama, documentary and children’s programs.
• the ABC’s engagement with, and support for, the growth and sustainability of Australia’s production industry and creative sector.
• full and open transparency and accountability in ABC reporting.
4. The ABC and Screen Producers Australia develop a Terms of Trade agreement, overseen by an independent referee such as Screen Australia, that supports the growth and sustainability of the independent production sector.
5. Eligibility for membership of at least half the ABC Board include some level of experience and understanding of the screen content creation sector.
The need for action
The changes we are seeing in our media landscape are profound and fast moving. However, in the area of screen content, these changes are largely about the business models that underpin the production and distribution of content and the technology that enables its consumption. The nature and the importance of the content itself remains largely unchanged. Long form, professionally produced, content continues to dominate our screens and what we watch.
When the medium of television arrived in Australia we developed a policy framework to ensure that our Australian stories, Australian faces and Australian voices were given some space. That framework has served us well and we have developed a vibrant commercially and creatively successful television industry that produces the most watched programs on our screens. However, that framework will increasingly be challenged by advancing digital technology changing how we receive and view our television content.
The ABC as a public broadcaster is in the privileged position of being able to engage actively and innovatively with the new digital landscape, free from commercial constraints. Its role as a provider of Australian stories and as a supporter of our local production sector can only grow in importance. But it has entered, and is operating in, this new landscape without the protection of any public policy framework to ensure a commitment to Australian content and the production sector that creates it. And it has already shown its disregard for this content, disdain 65 for the production sector and disrespect for the adult and children’s audiences that like to watch Australian programs.
The evidence before us clearly demonstrates some urgency for action and an agenda for change.
As I conclude this paper, the ABC’s managing director, Michelle Guthrie, has announced a plan to redirect funds from management and establish a ‘content fund’. The immediate point to be made is that for an organisation whose core business should be content to feel the need to have a special ‘content fund’ speaks of a fundamental disconnect. Beyond this, and without wanting to sound churlish, this initiative is symptomatic of the fundamental concerns I have raised. It is another management plan conceived entirely within the institution and with no reference to the broader cultural and creative industry context in which the ABC operates. There is no detail or transparency about how it supports broader policy outcomes or indeed how its success or otherwise will be measured or reported. It does nothing to detract from the point that the ABC is operating outside of a broader public policy framework and that measures are required to correct this situation.