We shouldn’t be surprised that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is in the news. It's our most important cultural institution, and therefore by its very nature at the heart of contest.
Those who want to change the country – or those who want to resist change – must deal with the national broadcaster. The past couple of weeks have been a high-water mark in the more or less perpetual battles that surround it.
Once again, the ABC is in crisis. Yet, at the same time, it's doing well. Thanks largely to the dedication of the staff, the ABC is mostly doing a good job. Eighty-six percent of Australians believe it plays a valuable role – and that figure has remained steady for years. The percentage of Australians who describe ABC news and current affairs as “balanced and even-handed” has bounced around between 77 and 80 per cent during the past few years. No commercial news service gets anything close to as good as those figures.
Given its importance, it's surprising how little time is spent in serious discussion or strategic thinking about the organisation’s present and future. Instead, we have bogus allegations of bias and shameful mismanagement by government and the ABC board.
The present government has trashed the board by ignoring the recommendations of the independent process for making appointments in favour of handing out jobs for the boys and girls.
You would think ensuring quality appointments would be a high priority. Apparently not so.
And what does this compromised board do? One would hope that it would engage in strategic planning, but insiders have suggested that for the past decade or so, various political ideologues on the board have used the precious time to chew over the predictable chestnuts.
It is a great misfortune that in the past year, we had a particularly poor combination, with a chairman in Justin Milne who fundamentally misunderstood his role, and a managing director in Michelle Guthrie who was not up to the job.
Running the ABC is one of the hardest media jobs in the country, requiring a combination of management smarts, media knowledge and political acumen. Given the changing nature of media and the hostility of the current government, the best MD in the world would still have had trouble. But Guthrie fell far short.
It was no surprise to ABC watchers that she left early. The manner of her leaving and its aftermath, fuelled by her use of spin doctors to leak her version of events, is nothing short of catastrophic.
We must now hope for a rapid renewal of the board, starting with the appointment of an excellent chair, and the appointment of a good managing director.
But more broadly, what is the justification for a taxpayer-funded media organisation in a time, it might be argued, of media plenty? We have multiple channels, cheap music, mobile media, quality drama on cheap subscription services and the foreign news outlets more accessible than ever before.
The barriers to entry to the media business have been brought low by the internet web, and there are many new players. Meanwhile, the legacy media outlets struggle with broken business models.
There is no industry changing faster than media. A moment’s reflection on our own habits tells us this. Once, there were queues outside newspaper offices at midnight because people wanted to access the news – or more likely the classified adverts – hot off the press.
Once, families gathered around a single television set to watch the evening news – and then were more likely to stay together for the family-oriented fare that followed, which was designed with a view to pleasing everyone.
Now, we sit in front of our individual screens accessing, and sometimes creating, our individual content. The idea of waiting for the presses to roll to get our news is antiquated. And who needs classified adverts any more to find a job, a home or a car?
How does this affect the national broadcaster?
The rapidly changing nature of media was one of the issues behind former ABC chairman Justin Milne’s emphasis on Project Jetstream – which, so far as anyone can tell, was a big infrastructure project to take all ABC content online.
It anticipated a future in which traditional broadcasting will have ended, and all our media consumption will be through the internet. Most agree that this day will come – but not for a while.
Meantime, there are good reasons to be suspicious of Milne’s plans.
There are many telco companies who have hungry eyes on the valuable spectrum taken up by public broadcasters and are keen to push them out before audiences are ready. Milne, with his background working for telcos and tech companies, may have been continuing to serve that agenda.
A digital future
This is the challenge for the ABC, though. There is no argument that it needs to move into the digital future – but how fast? How, given its limited funding, can it continue to serve the ageing audience and at the same time meet the needs of younger audiences online.
It's commonly claimed that modern media – particularly social media – encourages us to live in bubbles and silos, never encountering views with which we disagree or news that challenges our prejudices. The moral panic runs ahead of the evidence. The debates tend to be conducted as though there was an era in which young people avidly read broadsheet newspapers, when in fact they've never been big consumers of news. In fact, there's evidence to suggest that young people are consuming a wider range of news on their mobile devices than the previous generations did through broadcast and print.
But it is true that in the age of media fragmentation, the news and content we consume is a vital part of national cohesion.
The difference is that now, through social media, the choice about what we see and hear is made not by us, but through opaque algorithms that serve content on the basis of what has previously been sought and consumed. Google and Facebook are the dominant publishers of the 21st century. They hold a power that is new in human history. Alongside them, Murdoch looks puny.
In this climate, I think the key justification for a taxpayer-funded national media organisation is as an engine of national cohesion.
It seems that the key political division of our time is not between left and right – whatever those words mean these days. Rather it is the divide between Insiders and Outsiders – those who have agency and voice, those who feel included in the national conversation, and those who are excluded and angry. Internationally, there are those who vote for Trump, and those who abhor him. Those who want Brexit, and those who don’t.
We are not in Europe or the US. We are here, in our English-speaking wealthy country on the edge of Asia. And in our national broadcaster, we have an asset that could make our trajectory different, and better.
In the age of media fragmentation, the news and content we consume is a vital part of national cohesion.
I think this is a core aspiration that should be used – across drama, documentary, chat, information, music and news – to guide the discussion of what the ABC should become in a time of change.
There will always be a need to balance the niche and the popular, the different audiences and their different priorities and needs. All must be served, or we lose the reach and with it the potential. There must be the entertaining and the educative. There must be the private spaces, and the town square.
If it can do all these things, the ABC represents the possibility that we might be able to make the 'Inside' bigger, and that there will still be times when we come together, and that we will not be surprised by the ideas and opinions of our fellow citizens. This is the rubric against which we should measure the ABC’s success.