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Emma Alberici and the ABC have lost authority

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Emma Alberici and the ABC have lost authority

Emma Alberici has  lost the authority that should attach to her position by aligning herself with the economic equivalent of the anti-vaccination movement, writes Nick Cater in The Australian.

What would viewers be prepared to pay for a subscription to the ABC? How about $275 a year?

That is what Brits are forced to pay for the cornucopia of caprice known as the BBC. Admittedly they get a superior service to that provided by Australian public broadcasters, but the BBC is a public broadcaster nonetheless, with all the waywardness that entails.

The BBC licence fee went up to £150.50 ($267.85) last week. Every viewing household is obliged to pay the fee upfront, even if they never watch the BBC, since those are the rules in a highly protected market. Prosecutions for failing to pay the fee account for about 10 per cent of the criminal cases heard in Britain. Some plead poverty; others take a stand on principle. A small but growing number of television viewers is exempt: those who use only pay-per-view services such as Netflix.

If broadcasting were a free market, the phenomenal growth in subscription video on demand would be the death of the ABC.

At least four out of 10 Australians live in Netflix-subscribing homes, according to the latest Roy Morgan data.

ABC 1, the public broadcaster’s “flagship” service, was watched by barely 10 per cent of viewers on any given night in the five major capital cities last week. Even if you add the ABC’s three other digital TV offerings, the audience is barely a third of those with Netflix.

Were the ABC to charge for its programs, it is debatable how many Australians would pay $17.99 a month, the cost of a premium Netflix subscription.

Why would they? Netflix carries Doctor WhoDeath in ParadiseCall the Midwife and enough David Attenborough shows to last you a lifetime.

And that’s before we get on to Netflix originals such as The Crown, a historical drama painted on a larger canvas than anything produced by the BBC or its pale Australian imitation.

There are some things Netflix does not offer, such as live sport, a field the ABC has virtually vacated. Creative free-to-air broad­casters have found other ways to stay in the game, developing genres such as competitive cooking, competitive dating and competitive renovating that become part of the national conversation. The ABC’s latest quiz shows, Think Tank and Hard Quiz, are as dull as their titles.

Practically the only market in which the ABC can fight is news and current affairs. Which brings us to Emma ­Alberici, and the brand damage she has caused at a time when the ABC needs friends.

Why the ABC’s economics correspondent felt the urge to share her incomplete understanding of corporate tax with the nation is somewhat puzzling of itself.

Suffice to say Alberici has ­irrevocably lost the authority that should attach to her position by aligning herself with the economic equivalent of the anti-vaccination movement.

By denying the broad economic benefits of corporate tax cuts, Alberici has become a member of an exclusive club. Its members consider themselves smarter than the experts in Treasury. They have nothing but disdain for the editors of The Australian Financial Review, The Australian and other journals that are apparently under the spell of Powerful Vested Interests.

The tax cut rejection movement is larger than one may think. Their opinion pieces, long on conspiracy and short on evidence, appear frequently in Guardian Australia,The Sydney Morning Herald,The Conversation,The New Dailyand other barely profitable online publications.

Why, only at the weekend, ­Elizabeth Farrelly was warning Herald readers that “vested interests are destroying our cities and our country from the inside”. Since one can read the grassy knoll stuff free (the Herald appears to have given up trying to monetise it), it is not entirely clear why the same conspiratorial line should be supported by public funds.

The ABC has a proud track record of uncovering government and corporate malfeasance.

Yet Alberici’s efforts are hardly in the same league. If she wishes to condemn Goldman Sachs as “the great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood ­funnel into anything that smells like money”, she’ll need a better source than a nine-year-old Rolling Stone article by the author of Insane Clown President.

If she thinks it relevant to explain that Malcolm Turnbull once worked for Goldman Sachs, she should tell us why. We’re paying her salary, after all. This is where the ABC has been allowed to drift by a management team that took two days to summon up the courage to take down Alberici’s bile.

Alberici’s bosses appear incapable of admitting that her ­appointment to the important role of economics correspondent was a mistake. In standing by her, they have surrendered a little bit more of the ABC’s authority.

The ABC has shuffled further from “the middle of our ­national life” where postwar chairman Dick Boyer said it should stand, “solid and serene … running no campaign, seeking to persuade no opinion, but presenting the issues freely and fearlessly for the calm judgment of our people”.

An ABC that strived to be the impartial clearing house for ideas Boyer once imagined could justify its public funding today just as surely as it could in 1945. The pity is that it won’t. More than ever, we need a public broadcaster prepared to serve as “a centre of national unity” at a time of a widen­ing cultural and political divide.

In rejecting that path, the ABC has condemned itself to greater ­irrelevancy and dwindling audi­ences. That’s how it is in an age of broadcasting abundance. Just because we have to pay for the ABC doesn’t mean we have to watch it.

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