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After last month’s stinging attack on the BBC by News International’s James Murdoch, the Director of Australia’s ABC, Mark Scott, has provided an interesting different viewpoint.
For those of you that don’t know, the ABC is effectively Australia’s Beeb. It’s publicly funded (by direct taxation, rather than a licence fee) and has no advertising. They even call it “Auntie” there! Like the BBC it provides a wide range of programming and services and has commissioned splendid programming which might surprise those UK readers used to a diet of Aussie soaps or memories of Skippy.
However, it differs from the BBC in one very important respect: it does not in any sense dominate its market. Its shows seldom if ever top the television or radio ratings. It is there to sustain the public good, to provide things that ought to be there but (and I really don’t mean this offensively) in national life, it matters less than the BBC does here. A pity and Australia is the poorer for it (but the richer for having an ABC at all).
Of course, not having a licence fee to create income, the ABC is considerably less well off than the BBC and the technical aspects of serving such a vast country are very costly. Australia did once have a licence system but it was abolished over thirty years ago. (In the earliest days of Australian radio, you even bought different sets, each tuned to one station and then “sealed”, with some of the income from the sale going to a particular broadcaster. One of the wackiest broadcasting funding solutions I’ve ever seen!)
However, one strength of the licence system is that it is robust; it gives the BBC a good income which they can spend on good services, plain and simple. The ABC is just one of many things all begging for government money in Canberra; and broadcasting is bound to come down the pecking order when competing with things like healthcare, defence and education.
So it was very interesting to read a report (on the ABC’s own excellent website) of a speech made by the ABC’s Managing Director Mark Scott, at the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association. In it, he defended the role of broadcasters like the BBC and ABC and had the courage to say that James Murdoch’s real agenda was “less about making a contribution to public policy than it is getting rid of the BBC's services, effectively destroying the BBC as we know it - a tragedy for the UK - a tragedy for the world”.
Quite right, Mark. Next time there’s a vacancy for Prime Minister Down Under, I hope you’re in the running. Actually, you might fancy giving it a go here in Britain instead…….