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Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The ABC remains sustainable in the long term

Performing: ABC MD Mark Scott at a
Senate estimates hearing in 2011.
The savaging that Alan Jones has taken since the end of last month demonstrates how important it is when you operate in the media to operate sustainably. Jones' problem is that he plays to a small, conservative demographic in Sydney. So when he went too far he was attacked mercilessly by the community's progressive element and this animus quickly spread to people who sit in the centre of things. The explosive episode shows us that Jones' radio show can be unsustainable when he steps outside the boundaries of what is acceptable speech. It's clearly not a good tactic to alienate women, who comprise half of the community. While it looks like he will survive this current impasse, he'll be careful of what he says for a while.

The ABC is very aware of how it appears in the public sphere. In addition to the public, the ABC has to be mindful at all times of the power that the serving government has, to affect its operations. The ABC's current managing director, Mark Scott, came into his role at the end of the previous, Liberal government's, tenure, in 2006. He would always have been mindful of how, in 2003, that government's communications minister, Richard Alston, complained about bias in ABC radio coverage of its ridiculous and illegal Iraq War. The war founded on a lie. But the Howard government had already, in 1996, cut funding to the ABC. Then, in 2006, that government effected a restructure that abolished the role of staff elected director. The Left complained. However, instead of keeping his head down, under a Labor government Scott has expanded ABC services, most notably by setting up the ABC News 24 channel to deliver round-the-clock programming focused on news and current affairs.

Nevertheless, on his appointment to the managing director role, Scott took steps to address the issue of perceived bias that had long dogged the broadcaster. New editorial guidelines established in early 2007, before the federal election that removed the conservatives from power, note that the ABC must express "a full range of views in opinion-based programs" and that opinion should always be marked as such. This explains why, when The Drum op-ed website was set up the word "opinion" is nowhere shown; instead, designers opted for the less loaded term "views". This sensitivity also explains why programs such as the TV version of The Drum, a weeknight panel discussion show, err on the side of excess when selecting guests to appear on air. An Independent Australia survey demonstrates that over the period of a year (June 2011 – June 2012) The Drum gave more time to conservatives on the show. Yet accusations of Left bias continue to appear from time to time, especially from died-in-the-wool conservative media culture warriors, the growly penmen. People in the community also air similar views on occasion, but those views can appear unlikely. (I once came across an older gentleman online who told me the News Ltd tabloid, the Courier-Mail, belonged to the "ALP media". Given the trenchant conservative bias of the News Ltd proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, that person must stand accused of drawing a particularly long bow.)

The ABC's audience tends to be older and better-educated. So it's no wonder that the measured, in-depth stories the ABC prefers are sometimes taken amiss by people who like their information short and ugly. If your thought processes tend to sound bites ("Turn back the boats," "This bad tax," "Go back where you came from") then listening to a radio segment on the ABC's AM program, a program that has been airing since the 1960s, that includes the views of a wide range of people, will probably be hard to do. Especially if you're, say, driving a car at the same time. Some people will always prefer the enervated slapstick of commercial radio, and it's these people who listen to hosts such as Alan Jones. The fact is that people who prefer depth and complexity - indeed, are even able to tolerate these things in the first place - tend to also be people who sit on the Left side of the political spectrum. Scott's problem is that such people are in the minority. To his advantage is the fact that such people are influential, intelligent, and can string two sentences together without suffering a cerebral aneurism.

Mark Scott has an important job and he's performed his role with imagination and dedication. The additional programming on TV and the new websites are all popular with his core demographic. He is serving his constituents. But Scott will always be looking behind his back. In 2013 there is a federal election and by current indicators it promises to be a close-run thing. Scott is not a political appointee. He is in the way of a public trustee, and must manage a wide range of stakeholder relationships in order to be successful. The verdict from this commentator is that Scott has acquitted himself with aplomb, and has worked to ensure that the ABC remains sustainable in the long term.

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