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Kicking at the cornerstone of democracy The State of Press Freedom in Australia 2012

PUBLIC CONCERNS: ABC and SBS By Quentin Dempster The appointment of James Spigelman AC QC, the former chief justice of the NSW Supreme Court, as the next chairman of the ABC comes at a crucial time for public broadcasting in Australia. He takes up his duties as the Gillard government completes its “convergence review”, with a new media regulatory regime for what is called “the digital economy” expected to change the way content can be produced and exploited. In media, convergence merges broadcasting, telecommunications and broadband/internet to smash national boundaries, empowering domestic audiences to browse and access text, audio and video content from any URL in the world. You can now beam your digital TV at your Wi-Fi modem and watch television from anywhere in the world at no additional cost – even downloading it to a hard drive for more convenient viewing at a later time. While this is exciting for consumers, it’s fraught with danger for Australian content producers. Remember, we would not have a local TV production industry without the 55 per cent local content quota imposed by legislation since the start of television in 1956. The current broadcast licence system imposes news and other content creation obligations on licensees. Those financiers seeking to claw back the massive debt they took on buying commercial free-to-air TV licences in Australia are pushing the federal government towards what they call “regulatory parity”. That could be taken as code for the same regulation for all platforms or simply for no regulation at all. The interim convergence review recommended that the allocation of a broadcast licence “should no longer be a precondition for the provision of content”. The principle underpinning this change is said to be “that individuals and enterprises should be able to communicate freely in a converged environment… If regulatory obligations are to be imposed, they should be imposed consistently, irrespective of the delivery platform.” What do they mean: IF? Australians at work in the local content industries, and those imagining future careers in the sector, should now be praying to our political and regulatory masters that they do not stuff this up. There are always the ABC and SBS to save local content creation, you might argue, but that only works if they are adequately funded for the task. Already the ABC has an internal problem sustaining current levels of multiplatform output with already inelastic operational funding. And there has been a dispute about a management strategy to outsource to the commercial TV production sector all drama, all documentary and most features programming. In Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia, local ABC content creation – including local sports coverage – is being destroyed. Public broadcasting supporters want a genuine mixed production model where the ABC retains a critical mass of the intellectual property and the archive, instead of surrendering all copyright to vested interests in return for a first-time showing with some repeats. This model of commissioning content is commercialising ABC TV programming, with coinvestors (state and federal screen and film financiers and lotteries funds, etc) only signing up to a program if they consider the business plan to be bankable. That is why more and more ABC content seems to be mimicking commercial Underbellystyle formulaic fare. In one laughable episode of a recent Underbelly derivative, a fictionalised tattooed thug was lacerated to death by fake tropical stingers in a Cairns swimming pool. With one or two exceptions audiences are underwhelmed by the ABC’s junk outsourced drama. Think undertainment. The ABC has made itself totally reliant on this external funding model, and the ABC board has expressed no concern whatsoever about the de-skilling of the broadcaster and centralising production in Sydney and Melbourne. So much for our commitment to training, finding and developing fresh creative talent. There needs to be an audit into this external funding model to see exactly to whom the work and the money has gone. There is no transparency in this contentious process and no formal report on the productivity and cost efficiency of the model published in the ABC’s annual report to parliament. Why is this so? Inside the ABC we are expecting substantial staff redundancies unless the broadcaster can persuade the government to increase operational base funding. But with both the federal treasurer, Wayne Swan, and his opposition counterpart, Joe Hockey, outpromising each other in rapid deficit reduction, the pressing needs of the public broadcasters are unlikely to get a look in. SBS’s current funding position is dire. SBS has been interrupting TV programs with incessant low-rent ads, but this strategy has not built the broadcaster into Australia’s fourth commercial TV channel. SBS ad revenue 2010–11: $50 million. Audience loyalty: destroyed. The federal government so far has failed to heed the pleas of SBS supporters to rescue SBS


2012 Press Freedom Report  

The Annual Media Alliance summary of press freedom issues in Australia