Split the ABC in Two to Give the Bush a Fair Go

About 10 per cent of Australians live in a town with a smaller population than that of the ABC’s ­Ultimo studios in the centre of Sydney. About 1208 journalists (or “content makers” in the corporate jargon) are employed there. Why does the ABC employ 40 per cent of its journalists in Sydney when only 20 per cent of Australians live in Sydney?

Is it any wonder that the ABC has kicked regional Australia in the guts over the past few years? Prime exhibit was the Four Corners story on the live cattle trade, which found plenty of time to broadcast vision from Indonesia but hardly focused on how important the trade was to northern Australia. Just 5 per cent of ABC journalists are employed in northern Australia.

By concentrating so many people in inner-city Sydney, the ABC is failing to meet its charter obligation to “contribute to a sense of national identity” and “reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community”.

Smartphone apps are fantastic, shiny, bright things but they are no replacement for meeting real people in a real street. It is no wonder that so many ABC shows ­report through green-tinted specs. You are likelier to meet a man in a koala suit on the streets of Ultimo than a man in an Akubra.

Perhaps a new chief executive can change things, but I am not hopeful. We are exchanging one chief executive from Sydney for another chief executive from Sydney, via Singapore, reporting to a board almost all based in capital cities. It is hardly a recipe for the “murmur of the breezes” and the “plains extended” of the bush to penetrate the “fetid air” and “houses tall” of the city.

Instead, it is time to consider splitting the ABC in two. An ABC Urban could be left to pursue green, lefty crusades to their heart’s content while an ABC Rural could get on with presenting stories from the bush.

Such a structural change would make sense if broadcasting laws were changed to allow metropolitan and regional private TV broadcasters to merge. Present laws guarantee a space for WIN, Prime and Southern Cross. In the digital age these restrictions are increasingly outdated and if they are to be abolished there will no longer be broadcasters dedicated to regional Australia.

An ABC Rural could fill that void. For more than 30 years SBS has provided a voice for multicultural Australia and there is no reason that an ABC Rural could not provide a similar service for the voice of regional Australia.

The two organisations would run in parallel but could co-operate where that makes sense. While ABC Rural could take over the running of the regional TV and radio broadcasters, and dedicated regional programs, content could be licensed between ABC Urban and ABC Rural, just as WIN and Channel 9 share content now.

ABC Urban and ABC Rural would have separate boards but could share corporate services to keep costs down. Indeed, there are already proposals for the ABC and SBS to do that. Any costs of the separation could be met out of the $5 billion already budgeted for the ABC across the next five years.

There would be a pay-off in greater diversity as ABC Rural could more readily reflect the unique character and needs of Australia’s rural and regional communities. Two separate ABCs also would make publicly funded broadcasting more accountable to the parliament and ultimately the people of Australia.

As it stands, the only direct way the government and the parliament can hold the ABC to account is through the appointment of the board and the setting of its overall budget.

These tools are too blunt to deal with particular concerns over services in regional areas. For example, the parliament cannot even control how much money the ABC devotes to regional broadcasting.

Once its budget is set, it is up to the ABC how it spends that. That is particularly galling for regional-based politicians when the ABC cuts regional services, such as Bush Telegraph, spends the money on digital ser­vices, then has the hide to ask for more money to spend in regional areas.

In August the ABC’s PM program spent 10 minutes reporting on the Federal Court’s decision to set aside approval of the Adani Carmichael coalmine project ­because of a bureaucratic bungle involving the ornamental snake and the yakka skink.

The mine is a $16 billion project, would create 10,000 jobs and is front-page news in central Queensland. Yet the ABC could not find one person from central Queensland to talk about the mine. It found ministers, green politicians and even a journalist from India, but no one anywhere close to the mine, or perhaps someone who actually might have seen an ornamental snake or a yakka skink first-hand.

All of this despite the ABC having a great team of journalists based in Rockhampton.

Many ABC regional stations do fantastic work but they are starved of resources from an inner city-run bureaucracy. Two separate ABCs could change that.

This article was originally published in The Australian on 28 December 2015.

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