Value, Investment and Return: Why the ABC and public broadcasting are vital

Michelle Guthrie tackles ABC critics at Melbourne Press Club.

• The ABC would fetch a high price, but does the public want a new media organisation that compromises quality and innovation for profit?

• Deloitte Access Economics research indicates the ABC is helping to sustain more than 6,000 full-time equivalent jobs

Below are highlights from a speech delivered by ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie at the Melbourne Press Club on Tuesday.

Last year, I attended the opening of the NSW Chapter of the Australian Media Hall of Fame, a fantastic initiative by this forum to bring to a broader stage the great traditions of journalism and the women and men who, as journalists and storytellers, have left their mark on the fabric of Australia.

I’ll demonstrate just a touch of ABC bias here. I was thrilled at the roll call of our journalists who were among those honoured that night: Mark Colvin, Ian Carroll, Caroline Jones, Alan McGilvray, Chris Masters, and Kerry O’Brien.

They, and others acknowledged by the Club, have made an indelible contribution to our collective understanding of Australia and the world.

We know and applaud their attributes and achievements: their deep knowledge of audiences and the issues that are relevant to the lives of the community; their relentless drive to ensure that the institutions and processes, which are the foundations of our democratic system work to the benefit of that community; their determination to provide a voice for the powerless, the weak and the intimidated; their ability to shine the light on malfeasance and corruption.

In a complex world it is too easy for the powerful to do their work in dark corners: to cynically use so-called narrowcasting messages that have a direct appeal to certain targeted audiences, while conveying an entirely different message to others; to rely on rhetoric that doesn’t match actions.

Good journalists call that out. Today, I want to channel some of that skill and emphasise some real facts in what has become an increasingly febrile debate over the value and future of the ABC.

ABC’s Ultimo HQ (credit: EQRoy / Shutterstock)

I am proud of the ABC. I am proud of the work we do, the privileged position we hold in Australian history and our way of life, and of the value we bring, not only to audiences, but to the wider citizenry.

My aim in this speech is to demonstrate that value and to dismantle some of the arguments that are being used by critics to attack the national public broadcaster.

The anti-ABC case has been crystallised in two recent developments – the launch of a tome by two people associated with the IPA calling for the sale of the national broadcaster, and last weekend’s policy motion at the Liberal Party federal council meeting in Sydney demanding the “privatisation” of the ABC.

What price do you put on public trust in an independent, commercial-free news organisation at a time of fragmentation and disruption? As the Prime Minister himself noted at the Liberal Party council meeting, it is difficult to establish the facts in a disputed media landscape full of echo chambers and “fake news” outlets.

What price do you put on an ABC devoted to serving the nation – across its vast expanse and through a myriad of services, with quality and distinctiveness as a hallmark? This, at a time when the pressures of the new landscape are forcing our commercial colleagues into a relentless focus on their profitability.

What price do you put on an almost 86-year history of service that has the ABC as one of the most respected and trusted institutions in the country? An institution that provides valuable diversity to the media sector and, through its innovation, one that has driven many of the platforms and services that we know and take for granted?

The public regards the ABC as a priceless asset, more valuable now than ever in its history. I can appreciate that the ABC would fetch a high price in a commercial market. But does the public want a new media organisation that compromises quality and innovation for profit? Does the commercial sector want a new advertising behemoth in its midst? I think not.

For those who prefer an abacus-type approach to this debate, I have some fresh information. How do you put a price on the value of the ABC? In pursuit of that answer, the ABC has commissioned Deloitte Access Economics to do some research. Its report is still being compiled and will be released next month. The early findings are interesting. They show that the ABC contributed more than $1 billion to the Australian economy in the last financial year – on a par with the public investment in the organisation. Far from being a drain on the public purse, the audience, community and economic value stemming from ABC activity are a real and tangible benefit.

Of that $1 billion, more than a third is economic support for the broader media ecosystem. Far from being Ultimo-centric, the ABC is boosting activity across the country. Recent examples include the filming of Mystery Road in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia, and the production of Rosehaven outside Hobart.

Judy Davis and Aaron Pedersen in Mystery Road (photo: John Platt)

Deloitte calculates that the ABC is helping to sustain more than 6,000 full-time equivalent jobs across the economy. It means that for every 3 full-time equivalent jobs created by the ABC, there are another 2 supported in our supply chain – local artists, writers, technicians, transport workers and many more. In hard figures, the research shows that the ABC helps to sustain 2,500 full-time equivalent jobs in addition to the 4,000 women and men who are directly employed by the public broadcaster.

When broken down this equates to more than 500 additional jobs in production companies, over 400 jobs elsewhere in the broadcast sector, and close to 300 full-time equivalent jobs in the professional services.

This financial year, 92% of the ABC’s budget will be spent on making content, supporting content makers and distribution. This is a result that we are very proud of and I suspect many of our commercial counterparts would aspire to.

It is the direct result of strategic management and the paring back of non-content related support costs. Thirty years ago, the ABC had five platforms and 6,000 people working around the country. Today, Your ABC has two-thirds the number of people operating six times the number of platforms and services with half the real per capita funding.

ABC News Channel, iview, triple j Unearthed and Double J are just some of the services created from an ongoing drive to identify production and back office efficiencies and to pour that money back into content, rewarding our audiences. It was the strategy we employed so effectively last year, generating efficiencies that financed our content innovation fund and regional investment.

Amid [global media] upheaval, Australia has a strong, independent public broadcaster driven by women and men who create original, distinctive and high quality Australian content every day, all over the country.

triple j’s breakfast team – Brooke Boney, Ben Harvey, Liam Stapleton, Gen Fricker and Dylan Alcott

It’s an organisation that contributes as much as $1 billion annually to Australia’s creative and broader industries; that directly employs 4,000 Australians and helps to sustain jobs for 2,500 more; that provides the only Australia-wide platform for our national conversations, culture and stories.

It isn’t by luck that this exists. It is thanks to the collective vision of Australians nearly 86 years ago. They decided to create a public broadcast service to operate alongside the commercial media, increasing the diversity available for everyone. So much has changed about our world since then, but the basic premise for the ABC remains the same.

And the facts show Australians overwhelmingly value the outcome of this foresight: 82% of Australians look to the ABC as their trusted source of information; 78% cite the ABC as an important contributor to our national identity; and critically, 77% of Australians think a healthy ABC is essential for Australia’s future.

As the charter requires, we take into account the services commercial broadcasters provide. We invest in material that is distinctive and original and which is of both wide appeal and specialised interest. And, alongside Nine, Ten, Seven and Foxtel, we provide an independent alternative.

I was one of the 800,000 viewers who chose to watch Mystery Road a few Sunday nights ago instead of an interview with Barnaby Joyce. Who knew Australians would choose a well-scripted and produced drama over the kitchen-sink exploits of a politician? Well-told local drama remains a priority for the ABC and clearly provided a welcome option for many Australians that evening.

Read the unedited 3,000 word speech here.

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