ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie today fiercely defended the public broadcaster and rejected calls to privatise the organisation.
Addressing the Melbourne Press Club, Guthrie derided the vote by the Liberal Party’s federal council meeting in Sydney demanding the privatisation of the ABC, except for its regional services.
Guthrie suggested the commercial sector would not welcome competition from a new advertising behemoth. Australians regard the ABC as one of the great national institutions and “deeply resent it being used as a punching bag by narrow political, commercial or ideological interests,” she said.
She stressed that transmission costs account for a large part of its $1 billion annual funding and that 92 per cent of its budget is spent on making content, supporting content makers and distribution.
Underlining the ABC’s commitment to local drama, she said 800,000 viewers watched the recent Sunday night premiere of Bunya Productions’ Mystery Road in preference to the Seven Network’s interview with Barnaby Joyce.
“Who knew Australians would choose a well-scripted and produced drama over the kitchen-sink exploits of a politician?” she said. “Well-told local drama remains a priority for the ABC and clearly provided a welcome option for many Australians that evening.”
Although Communications Minister Mitch Fifield and other senior ministers insist the ABC will not be sold, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has warned Liberal Party members will put pressure on Malcolm Turnbull and his Cabinet to act.
Karina Okotel, a Liberal Party vice president who voted for the motion, told Fairfax Media: “The private sector produces content faster, cheaper and more efficiently, and to ask them to compete against the government is completely unfair.”
Next week the ABC will make its submission to the government’s competitive neutrality inquiry looking at how the ABC and the SBS operate alongside their commercial counterparts.
“I’m confident we are operating in accordance with our Charter and the principles of competitive neutrality as they apply to public service broadcasting,” Guthrie said in her speech entitled ‘Value, Investment and Return: Why the ABC and public broadcasting is vital to the community.’
“We invest in material that is distinctive and original and which is of both wide appeal and specialised interest. And, alongside Nine, Ten, Seven and Foxtel, we provide an independent alternative.”
Boasting about the ABC’s reach, she said 12 million Australians will watch ABC TV this week and nearly 5 million will listen to ABC Radio.
Guthrie revealed the ABC has commissioned Deloitte Access Economics to measure the ABC’s worth and its report will be released next month. It shows the ABC contributed more than $1 billion to the Australian economy in the last financial year – on a par with the public investment in the organisation.
Deloitte calculates the ABC is helping to sustain more than 6,000 full-time equivalent jobs across the economy. It means that for every three full-time equivalent jobs created by the ABC, there are another two supported in fields such as local artists, writers, technicians and transport workers.
The research shows that the ABC helps to sustain 2,500 full-time equivalent jobs in addition to the 4,000 women and men who are directly employed by the broadcaster.
That equates to more than 500 additional jobs in production companies, more than 400 jobs elsewhere in the broadcast sector and nearly 300 full-time equivalent jobs in the professional services.
She obliquely criticised suggestions by Fifield that the ABC can easily accommodate the latest 1 per cent efficiency divided required by the government.
“It ignores the accumulation of efficiency takes by Canberra over the past four years and the fact that these efficiencies rob the ABC of its ability to finance new content and innovation,” she said. “This whittling away of our funding represents a real opportunity cost and, in the end, serves only to punish those audiences.”
And she repeated her point that the ABC’s per capita funding has halved in real terms in 30 years despite the introduction of new platforms and services such as the ABC News channel, iview and triple j Unearthed.
She predicted that Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google will be among a handful of media giants which will soon create and distribute the vast majority of the world’s content in both news and entertainment.
That would mean original Australian content and Australian voices will be more valuable than ever and that the pressures facing commercial media companies in Australia will increase.
She concluded: “As a nation, we could choose not to have the ABC; or we could hobble it so that it becomes the market failure organisation it was never intended to be. Inherent in the drive against the independent public broadcaster is a belief that it can be pushed and prodded into different shapes to suit the prevailing climate. It can’t. Nor should it be.”