Editorial [P.P. McGuinness], The Australian Financial Review, March 13, 1985, p. 12.

No one, of course, has the slightest expectation that the present Federal Government would consider for a moment a proposal to sell the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Indeed, there is grave doubt that anyone would want to buy it, in its present form.

But the recent initiatives of that giant sink of public funds must raise speculation about future commercial directions which can only lead to a consideration of the basic justification, if any, for retaining any kind of publicly funded and owned broadcasting organisation. As the Financial Review’s media columnist, David Solomon, pointed out yesterday, the insertion of half-hearted imitations of commercial advertising in the format of the new ABC television news program, The National, must raise the question of commercial sponsorship for ABC programs generally.

Indeed, once advertising clips of any kind are included in ABC programs, any responsible government ought to start considering whether it is getting full value from the time thus devoted to commercial messages. Clearly, the cost to the public purse of maintaining the ABC could be greatly reduced by selling some of its airtime to advertisers.

At present, the ABC runs advertising for its own publications and programs, to the exclusion of advertising for its competitors’ products, or for any other commodities. The taxpayer is entitled to ask whether these programs are worth the very large implicit cross-subsidy involved in devoting expensive airtime to them — and why such a source of revenue is being wasted on the ABC’s promotion of itself.

Once commercials came to be acceptable to the ABC and its owner, the government, a greater degree of independence would be possible. Revenue from advertising is an alternative to the vote of monies by the Parliament, and in periods of budgetary tightness would allow that body a greater degree of autonomy than it at present enjoys. This line of thought is clearly attractive to some of the ABC’s top management, and it may be that the “advertising” spots in The National are a first step in this direction.

But attractive as a modicum of financial independence may be to the ABC, not to mention the taxpayers, why stop there? There is no good reason why the greater part, if not all, of the ABC’s broadcasting activities should not be run on a commercial basis. If there are listeners or viewers who are so precious in their distaste for advertising that they cannot bear a few minutes per hour of it, let them finance their own broadcasting agencies directly.

Moreover, if there is a case, as indeed there may well be, for the dissemination over the airwaves of good music, high culture and news bulletins not carrying advertising slots, there is no reason why the government should not, in an accounting sense, buy time on a commercialised ABC network for these good purposes.

But it must be noticed that the argument for the dissemination of favoured types of program without advertising support is an argument against chasing the ratings, the game which the ABC management now seems to be engaged in. For what is the purpose of chasing the ratings? It is simply to attract advertising support from companies and other entities which wish to maximise the exposure of their products. A large audience is a prerequisite for the sale of advertising time; if that is not necessary to a broadcaster’s survival, why not compete on the basis of pure merit, and let popularity wander where it will?

Of course, the weakness of that line is that it can lead to the kind of boring preciousness which has too often dominated the ABC in the past, when programs of no interest to anyone and no merit have been maintained because of vested bureaucratic interests.

So due credit should be given to the new management of the ABC for at least recognising the imperative of any media organisation: communication. Hobby areas in the ABC remain, of course, mainly manned by the ageing relics of the student movement of the sixties; they are best seen as employment creation for otherwise unemployables.

But the reorientation which has begun at the ABC has much wider implications. Once commercial breaks are conceded, and ratings are pursued, it is a small step to the proper sale of commercial time, and financial independence of government. Once that stage is passed, the privatisation of the ABC must be considered to be on the political agenda.

In Britain, the Thatcher Government has recently sold off British Telecom in a massive flotation which was designed to maximise the spread of small shareholdings. The political significance of this is that the reversal of the process would be extremely unpopular, especially if Telecom should prove to be a profitable investment. If it does not so prove, of course, the value of the shares will fall on the market and it will be exposed to takeover bids and all the panoply of sanctions which private share ownership visits upon the poor performers and lazily managed companies. In other words, the owners will not have to continue to finance it or see their assets eroded in value.

The Thatcher Government has not yet sufficiently followed its logic to propose the privatisation of the sacred cow of the BBC; but that, doubtless will come as that body continues to shuffle and trim, misrepresent its own performance, and close down popular programs like Dr Who in order to bring funding pressure on the government.

But it would be a good idea for the Liberal Party and others, and indeed the more flexible intellects in the Labor Party, to start thinking about the possibilities of selling off the ABC to the Australian public, so that it would be controlled not only as at present by bureaucrats who answer to nobody except themselves and the occasional government minister, but also by the owners — the interested taxpayers.

The would at least give them a direct sanction — sale of their shares — which they do not possess at present. It could well make the ABC management far more genuinely responsive to the wishes of the public than they are at present.

Nor is there any reason why such a sale should put undue strain on capital markets. Commonwealth bonds are, in theory, a claim on the assets of the nation. But they have become a rather unpleasant joke for the most part. Why not give the public the chance of a direct stake in the real assets, identifiable and disposable, of specific public enterprises?

The ABC, if it were to be a viable commercial organisation, would have to change its ways drastically, perhaps spending more of its funds on production, and less on a Byzantine administration.

It might even be able to get ratings with quality news, public affairs, information, and cultural output. But it would have a much harder time peddling low grade propaganda.

(in order of appearance on Economics.org.au)
  1. Where Friedman is a pinko
  2. The Economic Guerrillas: A lecture in honour of Maxwell Newton
  3. The Libertarian Alternative
  4. Libel laws block insider's revelations of Australia's industrial mess
  5. But perhaps the merchants of doom have a point
  6. The Origins of Paddy McGuinness
  7. The Itch for Influence
  8. LA safe from religious poverty
  9. Aunty should hang up her boots in face of premature senility
  10. Warning: health is a budget hazard
  11. New ABC Tory chief won't rock the boat
  12. Time to sell the ABC
  13. Youth victims of the welfare con
  14. Paddy McGuinness on class sizes (1991)
  15. More teachers won't solve the problems in our schools
  16. Paddy McGuinness on Catholics and wealth distribution
  17. Paddy McGuinness proposes inheritance tax equal to handouts received by deceased
  18. Let them swim nude
  19. Time to legalise heroin
  20. State-sponsored sports rorts
  21. The blight of the baby-boomers
  22. To reduce the problems of crime and corruption, legalise heroin
  23. We should ban Olympics
  24. Evidence shows heroin policy is not working
  25. Wowsers deny society while killing children
  26. Will Australia compete?
  27. Canberra's social revolution
  28. Paddy McGuinness in 1994 on the 2012 class size debate
  29. Why not pay for the ABC?
  30. Paddy McGuinness on David Stove
  31. Sometimes the truth hurts
  32. Paddy McGuinness on compulsory, informal and donkey voting, and breaking electoral laws
  33. Thomas Sowell, McGuinness, Aborigines and other minorities
  34. Genocide with kindness
  35. Hyde, McGuinness and Sturgess on Chaining/Changing Australia
  36. Paddy McGuinness defends comparing IQ of races
  37. Do-gooders should glorify smokers
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