Saturday, February 1, 2014

Is the public interest served by public broadcasting?

IN the past couple of  months several news articles and print media discussion pieces have assessed moves against the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) the national public broadcaster. Late in January, the ABC's journalism was called into question by the Prime Minister Tony Abbott, for its coverage of refugees seeking to escape into Australian territorial waters from Indonesia. Abbott statements

It was a nationalist-centric set of comments, is notable for the way it constructs the ABC's role as one that should offer preferential reportage of Australian interests:

"Prime Minister Tony Abbott has berated ABC News, arguing that it is taking ''everyone's side but Australia's'' and that journalists should give the navy the ''benefit of the doubt'' when it comes to claims of wrongdoing."

Following this outburst, and a somewhat less subtle one last year from Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who asked if the ABC was promoting the national interest. Bishop the role of public broadcasters has become a hot target for conservatives. The ideals of a public broadcaster like the ABC are independence and criticism, hallmarks of the modernist model of society.

The ABC is about to be reviewed by the Federal Government in an "efficiency study," following several accusations that the broadcaster if biased against the country and towards the left. Efficiency study  (In this scenario, the political left has been effectively  reconstructed in the public imagination by conservatives as liberal, creating the impression that liberalism - tolerance - should be strongly contested, even overturned). This case has been been promoted by conservative think tank IPA - an Australian privatisation protagonist, with close associations with Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation. Together these two institutions have  created a pincer movement influencing public opinion. It hardly qualifies as public opinion though, and needs to be  redefined when the opinion is singular or mono-tonal in its views.  Comment from IPA  

Inevitably, the ABC (and its privatised partner Special Broadcasting Service, SBS) will survive, having been suitably disciplined.

The move to curtail public broadcasting has not been restricted to Australia, with a 10% cut to National Public Radio (NPR) late in September 2013. NPR 10% staff cut  In the US there is consistent drip of negative commentary and political action against NPR and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), resulting in the steady loss of public funds from Congress for the broadcasters. Endless campaigns for donations and sponsor advertisements have become part of the flow from public broadcasters in the US. Symbolically, the public is reduced by the campaigns to endless requests for support of itself, to tell its non-commercial stories, to investigate, critique and report. One exception being college radio stations.

The moves against public broadcasting opens two related perspectives, which are obvious and will not be considered in detail here:
1. The public interest aspect of public broadcasting;
2. Organised private interests as opponents of public broadcasting

There is a larger point for media and communication scholars and users:  How to make sense of public broadcasting in the era of privatization.

This discussion is engaging for public interest theorists who believe in and support liberalism's core ideology, tolerance. The irony is that liberalism as applied to public broadcasting has shown itself to be a complicated beast. The tolerance that is at the centre of public broadcasting - the ideal of a diverse society fully represented and sustained by the national broadcaster, to paraphrase the founder of the BBC, Lord Reith - allows the intolerant to reject tolerance. In the public broadcasting present, tolerance for divergent views is treated with intolerance by opponents of tolerance.

This is a larger issue that hardly gets to the core of contemporary political economic theory, much less democratic visions of the relationship between the state and its citizens. The point is that any certainty about public broadcasting as a public good is open to questions that are driven by the private economic interests of for-profit media owners and political interests who (frankly) are intolerant. of diversity and difference.

The arguments are of interest to those people who seek to understand the new media and communications order in the internet era, because many of the arguments against public broadcasting emerge from internet-based libertarians. Namely, the Internet is a superior source for all news and information, it is ubiquitous, universal and open to all. Why take tax payers' money to fund public broadcasting when commercially viable internet providers can offer the same services?

Here is the IPA line, taken from the article cited above, which mirrors a News Corporation line:

"If there was ever a case for a taxpayer-funded state broadcaster, it doesn't exist today. Australians have at their fingertips access to more news from more varied sources than ever before. Online, every niche interest and point of view is well covered. And as private media companies continue to struggle with profitability, the continued lavish funding of the ABC only serves to undermine their business model further." 

Readers of this blog will be familiar with this line of argument from News Corporation. When the Australian Independent Media Inquiry (Finkelstein) recommended in February 2012, a News Media Council to offer a review of journalistic performance, News Corporation was keen to offer the argument "the Internet is the solution."  (Final Finkelstein Report)

Margaret Simmons from The University of Melbourne, Centre for Advanced Journalism offered a constructive summary of Finkelstein - which indicated key points in the debate. Yet her summary like many others failed to mention the gorilla in the room, the ideological master stroke of those people and organizations opposed to public broadcasting  - the Internet. (Margaret Simmons Summary). To add to this "gorilla" are questions about the nature of the public interest in a society without public broadcasting alternatives. More works needs to be undertaken to explore this ideological shift - that is, the Internet as private provider and a mechanism used to anchor arguments against public interest institutions. It is an important and complex discussion.

At other conjunctures, it is pretty simple. This brings News Corporation in its news configuration, not its television side, to the table. John Birmingham writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, 12 December, 2013, generated the headline "Simple as ABC: Murdoch out to crush ABC." Simple as ABC

Always always always there is power and money to be considered; the power of a conservative government in the short term, the wealth, power and interests of the Murdoch family and their media properties over the long arc.