Privatising the ABC could be Fairfax’s salvation
By David Kehoe
Long before news and commentary focused on the fact that the ABC has been working with Fairfax publications and Guardian Australia to research and uncover perfidy in public life, I raised with a senior Fairfax executive this odd union.
In a discussion after a Fairfax staff meeting, I asked why Fairfax Media continued its close relationship with the ABC when the ABC’s rapidly expanding internet presence was undermining Fairfax Media’s own attempts to grow its internet business to compensate for its shrinking market in print publishing.
This de facto marriage — seen recently in the ABC and Fairfax conducting joint investigations — extends to the ABC interviewing Fairfax writers for comment on news and events, and Fairfax instinctively publishing ABC staff in print whenever it can.
I put it to the executive that it was in Fairfax’s financial interest, if not a matter of survival, to work to restrict the ABC’s Internet news gathering and commentary. Given that the ABC was undertaking a government subsidized attack on Fairfax’s market, while Fairfax had to earn its own living, then the least Fairfax should do was to argue for the privatisation of the ABC to create a level playing field.
My proposal was met with a quizzical stare which could have meant that the executive could not understand the point, was afraid to admit its truth (as the meeting was about the future prospects of the company) or she had never heard such an argument before.
The ABC now has a real-time word-based news service on its website front page — which often beats the ponderous Fairfax Media website for breaking news, especially The Age in Melbourne. There is also news commentary through its Drum page, and numerous ‘lifestyle’ web pages. Add to all this, the ABC’s national urban and rural radio and television network, also fed from the teat of government funding.
Fairfax Media, on the other hand, to back up its web presence has only three major mastheads — The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian Financial Review along with a small network of provincial dailies and weeklies and a slightly larger network of inconsequential and dying weekly community newspapers to add to several radio stations, and all this has to be paid for from money harvested in the jungle of market competition.
Divide and privatise
Many conservatives would rejoice if a federal government closed the ABC on account of its obvious bias to the liberal agenda in all of its manifestations. But this is unlikely for all the obvious reasons evident in Australian political and cultural life – fear of censorship of free speech, National Party concern for rural broadcasting, and the like.
If a federal government, however, were to split the ABC’s urban services from its rural arm and privatise the former, then it would be more difficult for lovers of the ABC to easily control the argument for the defence: citizens outside the commentariat would be inclined to see no reason why the ABC should not stand on its own two feet, as private sector workers and businesses have to do. If what the ABC has to sell is so attractive and useful for society, then it will garner the funds to operate from private investors and from buyers in the market.
A government could simply hand the ABC over as a gift to its current employees.
As it is likely that no right-minded business executive entrusted with shareholder funds would want to take the risk of buying out the ABC, a government could simply hand the ABC over as a gift to its current employees. Doesn’t the government already supply the ABC a free gift in funding every day? Weaned from the government teat, the ABC would be confronted with a real ‘self-realisation’ project much as it urges upon others in their quest for wellbeing.
For Fairfax Media this would create a level playing field in its unstated but real competition with the ABC — as they say in the trade — for the eyeballs of the liberal commentariat. If Fairfax takes its shareholders seriously, it should editorialise for the privatisation of the urban-based ABC. Of course, this will not happen as Fairfax and its audience hold as a tenet of its liberal progressive faith that a state-funded ABC, even if it’s the cuckoo in the nest, is crucial to the maintenance and spread of this faith – it’s as if a religion was to lose one of its central beliefs.
Liberal progressivism, as many readers of this blog well know, is a world-view as all-encompassing in giving meaning to life as any religion. It’s this religious nature of liberal progressivism that blinds Fairfax Media to the commercial danger that lies in its marriage to the ABC and blinds the ABC to its bias in favour of left-wing issues. This is even the case when both the ABC and Fairfax try to be balanced – similar to Islamists believing in democracy when what they unconsciously mean by democracy is a vote and freedom only for Muslims.
This blind spot is graphically portrayed in Fairfax and ABC writers, presenters and editors’ exasperation with anyone who questions global warming theses – the latter are to pitied as they cannot accept without question the faith of green religion. At the same time, Christian and other long-lived religions are excoriated for blind faith – a reason to reject belief in any deity. Meanwhile, liberal progressivism sees life from one all-encompassing perspective taken to be self-evident. As with all religions that cannot reconcile full reason with their belief system, the religion of progressivism ruling the ABC and Fairfax rejects other world-views when to give them a proper, equal hearing would compromise central tenets of their own religion.
If the Abbott government, or any future federal government was to try to privatise the urban arm of the ABC, then the move would be met with all the Talibanesque fury that any attack on a religion would excite, including from within the Liberal Party. One can conjour up images of Malcolm Turnbull as the warrior-Pope, Julius II, riding to slay the privatisation dragon.
Nevertheless, from little things big things grow, and the Abbott government should take whatever opportunity to help the ABC grow up and make its own way in the world, and Fairfax Media’s share price might rise as it develops into a more viable publishing venture.