Thursday, 10 September 2009

Broadcasting: ABC Defends BBC!

If you get the chance, take a look at

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…….


  1. Good stuff, great to see Mark Scott speaking out on this.

    But can I just comment on:

    "it (the ABC) matters less than the BBC does here."

    I think that's a little subjective. Popularity and ratings don't necessarily equal "matters".

    For instance, a hard-hitting programme like the ABC's Four Corners might never win the ratings, but it's extremely important to have such investigative journalism.

    Educational programmes like Behind The News might be watched by a fraction of those watching other shows, but play an important role in informing children of current events.

  2. Perhaps my use of the word "matters" gave the wrong impression here (and I did preficx the phrase with "and I really don’t mean this offensively").

    The difficulty with lower viewing and listening figures is that it fewer people use (watch, listen, read) your services, then you make less of an impact nationally.

    I certainly wasn't decrying any of the ABC's services (far from it, as the reason for the post makes clear). Perhaps my meaning is better conveyed by saying that the ABC has les "impact" nationally, than does the BBC.

    And I say again, I wish very much that we in the UK had more opportunity to see ABC programmes, because they would very much appeal to a UK audience used to the cerebral but entertaining likes of "Coast" or "Who Do You Think You Are?".

    It grieves me that the term "Australian Television" here is synonymous with soaps.

  3. "Less impact" might be a better way of putting it, yeah, though a number of the ABC's programmes rate as well as the least-watched commercial programmes.

    We got the BBC's "Who Do You Think You Are" here on SBS. I don't suppose the SBS local version made it back there. (At least it was better than SBS's version of Top Gear...)

  4. I didn't know the SBS had sone one and no we didn't get it here. The CBC did a version in Canada (as ours had been shown there and proved popular), I understand.

    Did the UK version get shown in Australia?

  5. Yes, the UK "Who Do You Think You Are" did air on SBS Australia, followed by a local version.

    A followup to your post, another speech by Mark Scott of the ABC giving his views on Murdoch.

  6. There's recently been a new series of WDYTYA so if that's not already aired there, then I think it will only be a matter of time.

    I've just had a look at Mark Scott's other speech (even though I ought to be getting ready for a job and starting on my overdue tax return!). It makes splendid reading and - as before - I agree with every word.

    I really have been struck by the depth of feeling that Murdoch's remarks have brought forth both there and here. It's also underlined the amazing similarity between the BBC and the ABC, even more than I'd thought.

    Indeed, there are very few such "true" public broadcasters left; all the more reason to cherish them.

    Does the ABC have political enemies in Canberra in the way that the BBC does at Westminster, though? There is some debate (nothing concrete, just speculation) about what might happen to the BBC in the event of a Cameron government being elected here.