Speech: Senator's bill seeks stronger commitment by ABC to regional communities
Tuesday, 1 December 2015
Pic source: ABC Radio Australia
Senator McKENZIE: The Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Rural and Regional Advocacy) Bill 2015 seeks to clarify
the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's (ABC) mandate in its role as a public broadcaster.
In particular, the Bill implements guiding principles, reporting requirements and practical mechanisms for the
Corporation to be able uphold this mandate.
The ABC is a public broadcaster and in turn, is expected to provide services to certain areas and to certain
community groups with reference to community service and local relevance. To be more explicit, as a
public broadcaster, it is expected to pay greater attention to market-failure principles and serve the areas and
demographics where commercial companies would fear to tread.
As ABC Managing Director, Mark Scott, noted in late November this year, "the key to success in the digital era
is to be true to your audience." Sadly, regional Australia is losing its ABC voice and the ABC is not looking to
project regional ideas, culture or journalism.
Over the course of many years, we have witnessed a systemic de-resourcing of our regional services and our
regional communities and the art of journalism itself is suffering as a result. These include communities where
the ABC is the only comprehensive provider of news, weather forecasts and entertainment.
We are told that cuts mean they have to pick on the regions first, whilst Ultimo balloons to over one thousand staff.
It is perplexing that the digital age is not exponentially improving regional media services, but that management
choices are focusing on an already competitive format in the form 24 hour news and also iview. Wonderful
ventures in their own rights, but whose launches collectively required the plucking of $20 million from other
ABC endeavours. This is about priorities.
Not only do regional communities feel short-changed with the consolidation of resources toward east coast
capitals, but regional journalists, producers and other media staff cannot comprehend why the ABC has chosen
to centralise in this way. In the digital age this simply does not have to be the case.
In the context of the ABC being trusted and polling well, Australians have responded overwhelmingly in
Newspoll after Newspoll (recently 84%) that the ABC performs a valuable role in society.
However, the overall trust and respect the ABC enjoys with regional residents cannot be taken for granted,
particularly when there are fewer local media providers to begin with in the bush. Rural and regional Australians
want media services that add value to their daily lives and which assure them of their connectedness with their
local communities, weather forecasts and greater surrounds.
What many people have noticed is that the ABC's funding is being used to help it compete in commercial territory.
Territory that once entered and conquered could help the ABC generate its own existence on its own two feet. Is
this what we expect of a public broadcaster? No. We expect that a public broadcaster will go where no commercial
broadcaster would see a business case, simply to ensure that those communities receive vital social and public
This Bill seeks to provide the ABC Board with the appropriate tools to govern the organisation in a manner which
reflects the expectation the community has of public broadcasters. This Bill seeks to call the ABC to account
and states in unambiguous terms what the ABC needs to aspire to when servicing our regions. This includes
a physical presence and embeddedness that allows journalists to facilitate discussion and well-connected and
informed rural and regional communities.
Mr Scott also recently said, "there's no commercial model that could sustain a Radio National, or that would
make the kinds of investments in dramas that we are doing, or have the regional footprint full of local voices
and local news the way we invest." Well, Mr Scott, regional and rural Australians would beg to differ on your
claims of investment in their backyards.
We see the reduction of bulletins under the guise of allowing journalists more time to gather local stories. However, with two-thirds fewer bulletins within which to fit all that supposed extra content and the plan to
broadcast them only in the early morning, of course regional Australians are suspicious and disappointed.
Regional journalists affected by the changes were asking for more resources to cover the news, not more time
to find it and dramatically less time to broadcast it.
Rural and regional Australians have an expectation of regular and relevant news. Not yesterday's news. Stories
break, local emergencies occur – local content is more than just telling stories. The ABC is the organisation that
provides rural and regional families, businesses and communities with the information they need and trust.
Given the diminished physical footprint of the ABC in regional Australia in recent years, this Bill will provide
the Board with a clear mandate and impetus to direct greater investment towards rural and regional Australia.
This investment would facilitate the local physical presence, training and knowledge required to support and
sustain a regional media culture that is reflective of and enriching to its audience.
This Bill removes ambiguity as to ABC's mandate in regional Australia and reinforces the expectation that as
a public broadcaster, its mandate is not to compete for breakfast news ratings, but rather to prioritise service to
our regions with a civic purpose in mind, not a commercial one. As a public broadcaster, no economic rationalist
need be brought to the table when arguing about the provision of basic services to our regions. The digital age
should be expanding horizons and narrative choice, not creating local media black spots.
Leave granted; debate adjourned.