The ABC Charter is outdated and inadequate and should be updated with better accountability and include a commitment to Australian screen content, according to former ABC Director of TV Kim Dalton.
Dalton was Director of TV from 2006–13 during its transition to digital broadcaster, before being succeeded by Richard Finlayson.
Today he says there is a “fundamental disconnect” between the ABC and its public policy settings concerning Australian screen content, and its contribution to Australian culture.
Dalton questions current CEO’s Michelle Guthrie’s plan to divert management funds into a special ‘content fund’ by an organisation whose core business is content itself.
“It is another management plan conceived entirely within the institution and with no reference to the broader cultural and creative industry context in which the ABC operates,” he says. “There is no detail or transparency about how it supports broader policy outcomes or indeed how its success or otherwise will be measured or reported. It does nothing to detract from the point that the ABC is operating outside of a broader public policy framework and that measures are required to correct this situation.”
Dalton’s criticisms of ABC form part of a new Platform Paper Missing in Action: The ABC and Australia’s Screen Culture, published today.
He argues that over the last sixty years, Australia has developed an effective public policy framework that embraces Australian broadcasters, screen content and the independent production and the creative sector.
“Yet today the ABC operates outside this framework. Using its status as an independent statutory
authority it disregards transparency, accountability and engagement with policy objectives, and instead pursues an internal agenda and its own priorities.
“The Australian Parliament’s statement of the ABC’s public purpose is essentially its much revered Charter— less than four hundred words written more than a quarter of a century ago that comfortably fit within a single A4 page. In contrast, the UK Parliament reviews and renews the BBC’s foundation document, its Royal Charter, every ten years,” Dalton observes.
He outlines a policy he wants industry associations, guilds, and ABC supporters to support:
1. The Liberal Party, National Party and Labor Party develop comprehensive and long-term policy agendas for the ABC as part of their arts and cultural policies. These policies should:
• Commit to establishing governance measures that ensure the ABC broadcasts high levels of Australian screen content across all genres and in particular minimum levels of Australian drama, children’s and documentary content.
• Acknowledge the importance of the relationship between the ABC and the independent production industry, propose the introduction of independent production quotas including regional quotas, and the development of an independently adjudicated terms-of-trade agreement between the ABC and Screen Producers Australia.
• Commit to mandating a high level of transparency and accountability in ABC reporting to Parliament.
2. The ABC’s Charter be amended to include a commitment to Australian screen content and support for the growth and sustainability of Australia’s screen production industry and creative sector.
3. A governance mechanism be developed through the Charter, in the form of a Ministerial Statement of Expectations or an Agreement administered through the Government’s independent regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, that addresses:
• the ABC’s volume and diversity of Australian content, in particular the genres of drama, documentary and children’s programs.
• the ABC’s engagement with, and support for, the growth and sustain- ability of Australia’s production industry and creative sector.
• full and open transparency and accountability in ABC reporting
4. The ABC and Screen Producers Australia develop a Terms of Trade agreement, overseen by an independent referee such as Screen Australia, that supports the growth and sustainability of the independent production sector.
5. Eligibility for membership of at least half the ABC Board include some level of experience and understanding of the screen content creation sector.
But Dalton also knows any attack on the ABC will be met with fierce debate.
“The ABC itself will resist any attempt to impose a framework of policy requirements and outcomes. And it will be supported in this opposition by a broad range of loyal and well-meaning supporters.
“The debate around the ABC for the most part is binary and sterile. One side claims that the ABC is simply underfunded and that any suggestion of imposing on it a set of expectations and outcomes is a threat to its independence. The other side focuses only on the news and current affairs output and claims that the ABC is politically biased and overfunded,” he continues.
“The ABC’s management and Managing Director, working to a politically appointed Board that lacks depth of experience —in broadcasting and screen content creation in particular and the arts and journalism more generally— is able autonomously to reset the priorities of the ABC.”
Kim Dalton is the founding Chair of the Asian Animation Summit and a board member of Screenrights and December Media.
Screen Producers Australia CEO Matthew Deaner said:
“Kim Dalton is a respected leader in our industry. He has deep breadth of experience in the industry including as CEO of the Australian Film Commission and Director of ABC TV. In writing about the unique position the ABC occupies in Australian screen culture, Mr Dalton brings an authority to the subject that very few possess.” Mr Deaner said.
“Mr Dalton’s paper is a well-written, well-argued and well-substantiated account of the ABC’s unique role over time in the Australian film and television industry. The release is timely. As the commercial broadcasters ask the Government to remove specific obligations to local industry, as international platforms such as Netflix, and soon Amazon, rapidly establish themselves in Australia, as the UK Government increases regulatory oversight on the BBC’s local content obligations and its impact on competition; it is important that industry and Government give deep consideration to the ABC’s role, the type of oversight it should have, as well as its commitment to the local screen
“I commend Mr Dalton’s paper.”
Missing in Action: The ABC and Australia’s Screen Culture is published today by Currency House.