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Australian stories – culture, identity and the importance of our cultural industries

Address by ABC Managing Director David Anderson
La Trobe University
15 March 2021

INTRODUCTION

Good afternoon everyone. It’s a pleasure to be here.

I would like to acknowledge that wherever we are today, we are on Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander land.  I acknowledge the Elders of those lands past and present and also pay my respects to any Indigenous people listening today.

Thank you to La Trobe University for this opportunity and for the introduction from the Vice-Chancellor, Professor John Dewar.

And thank you to Dr Andrea Carson for your ongoing scholarship into investigative journalism, the media’s role in democracies and the fight against fake news. I’m looking forward to our discussion shortly.

Today, I’d like to talk about Australia’s culture, our national identity and the importance of the ABC to the nation.  Australia’s identity cannot ever be just one thing, in fact it’s a great many things.

It begins with the world’s oldest living continuous culture who have cared for and been at one with this ancient land for over 65,000 years, our shared history of what has happened over time and how we choose to confront and acknowledge the past and the present, and strive to do better, together. We need to close many gaps and close them fast.

Today, our identity is made up of many cultures: from the city to the bush, across our towns, suburbs and streets. Understanding our differences and celebrating our shared values helps us achieve social cohesion.

As the national broadcaster, it is the ABC that has the capacity to reach Australians no matter where they live.  It is the ABC that is uniquely placed to provide the forum for important national conversations.

And it is because we are independent and we have a statutory obligation to impartiality, that Australians look to us to celebrate what it means to be Australian and to explore the tough issues that confront us all.

History tells us that the most successful nations don’t lose interest in themselves.

We are a great country, with strong democratic institutions. A vibrant multicultural society that offers economic opportunity and a unique natural environment.  It is no wonder millions of immigrants have arrived on our shores since the end of the Second World War.

In the Australia Talks survey that the ABC ran in 2019, 70 percent of respondents agreed that Australia is the best country in the world in which to live.

We must celebrate who we are and acknowledge we can still improve. Achieving equality of opportunity needs to be a top priority. At the ABC, we are looking introspectively and working proactively to ensure that we have diversity across the organisation that is representative of the community.

For nearly 90 years, Australian governments have recognised the vital role that public broadcasting plays in the social, economic and cultural life of our great country.

While commercial broadcasters play a role, it is only public broadcasting that provides a universal and essential service in the public interest for its citizens.

It is public broadcasting that is also uniquely placed to play a unifying role in Australia, particularly during emergencies.

At the ABC, our only agenda is set out in the ABC Act.   We provide trusted news and information and we tell the Australian stories that advance our national identity, that strengthen our democracy and nurture our cultural wellbeing.  Beyond our shores, we inform our neighbours about events in Australia and Australian attitudes to international issues.

The nation has been through an extraordinary and challenging period, with a devasting bushfire season, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the 2019/20 summer bushfires, the ABC’s emergency broadcasting provided critical information that saved lives.  Many individuals, communities and governments, too, have acknowledged the importance of our role.

This pandemic has posed – and still poses — major challenges to Australia.  Under pressure, as a nation, we have had to think hard about our priorities and about what really matters to us.  It has led us to think critically about what drives us, what makes us feel connected and what defines our cultural identity as Australians.

We have discovered and reinforced some important aspects of life. The value we place on science and facts. Our commitment to caring for the most vulnerable in our community.  Our readiness to work together and make sacrifices for the common good.  Our distinctive geographic and regional differences. Our talent for innovation and adaptation in a crisis.

We have taken our own uniquely Australian path through this pandemic.  No one would say it’s been perfect. Despite all efforts, many lives have either been lost or adversely affected, and we have learnt and adjusted along the way.  And the world is applauding Australia for its democratic and ordered management through these tough times.

Again, the ABC is playing a vital role in this Australian story.

As the nation’s most trusted source of news and information, we have been hard at work to help Australians navigate their way through complex information, understand choices and consequences and make sound decisions.  We’ve helped people and families feel less isolated, part of a wider, supportive community.

From Norman Swan giving us the medical facts, to Casey Briggs explaining the data in meaningful ways, to special programs developed with state education departments for home learning support.  The economic challenge, the impact on business, the threat of unemployment and the ongoing roll-out of vaccinations.  The ABC has been a clear and trusted voice.

The BBC recently commissioned a survey across 11 countries asking participants to rate the main TV channels and video-on-demand (VOD) services in terms of importance to local audiences.

Compared with commercial channels and VOD giants like Netflix and Prime Video, the ABC topped the list with 84 per cent of Australians saying that the ABC is important to the nation.

No media company in any of other nation was rated more highly by their citizens.

And yet, we are an organisation that will command a mere 0.12% of total Commonwealth outlays this year.  Think of the value that the ABC provides for that 0.12%.

How do we put a value on what is priceless?  Can you imagine an Australia without the ABC?

Last year, I outlined our plan to protect and strengthen our role in life of the nation over the next five years. Our priorities include the delivery of personalised digital experiences that will make the ABC available to our citizens anywhere, anytime.  We will continue to be Australia’s best and most trusted source of news and information.

We will strengthen local connections, so that we can better respond to and reflect the needs of outer-suburban, rural and regional Australians.  And, in a world of abundant choice, we always put the emphasis on excellence, prioritising quality over quantity.

An independent news voice

Let me say a few words about the ABC’s core role in our national culture as Australia’s most trusted source of news and information.

This was highlighted again recently when global social network and media giant Facebook decided to block Australians from viewing and sharing news on its platform. This had an immediate impact on traffic to Australian news websites.

But in the midst of Facebook’s withdrawal, we also saw something else: Australians seeking and finding alternate ways to the news they need. At the ABC we saw a spike in traffic coming directly to the ABC NEWS site and a significant increase in the number of people downloading the ABC NEWS app.

In fact, prior to the Facebook ban, the ABC NEWS app had gained an average of 3600 new users a day. On the day of the ban, this increased tenfold to 36,300 and continued at that level for a week. In total, 244,000 people started to come directly to the ABC.

Negotiations between the Government and Facebook continued, the ban was overturned and the News Media Bargaining Code is now law.  But this does not guarantee that a large digital platform won’t turn its back on Australian users again at some point in the future, prioritising profits to shareholders overseas above the needs of any Australian.

This is a clear reminder that Australia needs to be vigilant in the protection of the free and unfettered access to the public interest journalism that underpins our democracy.

We must protect our independence in news and information and ensure that trusted and credible news is always easy to find and freely available to all. That is the ABC’s core role.

At the ABC we respect the fact that Australians use services like Google and Facebook to follow their interests and stay connected. We also believe that trusted ABC stories should be available to improve their experiences on these platforms. So, we will continue to work with search and social media companies to improve the availability of Australian news and information.

We do not know yet if negotiations with Google and Facebook will result in agreements to pay the ABC for content. Discussions are ongoing.

But if such agreements are reached, and we hope they will be, any additional funds the ABC receives will go directly to public interest journalism where we believe it is currently needed most: regional Australia.

The ABC is, of course, already a valued service in regional Australia, where it operates from 48 locations.  Our local radio network alone reaches more than 3 million Australians outside the capital cities each week.

The economics of commercial media in regional Australia have been difficult in recent years. So many local media providers have either withdrawn from regional Australia or closed down altogether. Some places are at risk of becoming “news deserts” and the economic and social fabric of any community can soon fray under such conditions.

We do not want our culture to evaporate as a result.

Addressing this problem will be good not only for the wellbeing of affected communities, but it will also have a broader benefit as we make those stories available to the nation.

As the ABC continues to strengthen and personalise our digital offerings, we will be including more options for audiences to obtain news from the specific locations that interest them. So, if you are living in inner city Melbourne but you have family in Warrnambool, you can keep up with the latest news directly affecting those you care about.

The more shared knowledge we have about what’s going on across our big, sprawling, diverse nation, the more we can appreciate and understand each other, and work together more effectively.

The fake news challenge

The ABC has always provided trusted information and news across Australia.  Today, there is an additional role: to combat a comprehensive deluge of misinformation and fake news.

Recent research by Dr Carson, here at La Trobe, has found that the global spread of online misinformation can erode the very foundations of modern societies. Social cohesion, public health and safety, political stability and democracy are all put in jeopardy by the dissemination of false information.

The negative consequences range from emotional and physical harm to individuals, to wider damage to communities through adverse health outcomes (such as from anti-vaccination campaigns) and the pernicious undermining of democracy, particularly during elections.

Long-term social consequences potentially include: a reduced public trust in news media and politics; a low- quality discourse in the online environment; and a reduced capacity within the general public to distinguish fact from fiction.

These are not just theoretical problems, or an insignificant matter of perceptions out on the fringe. The attack on the Capitol building in Washington showed the potential real-world consequences of online conspiracy-theory making.

The ABC is a vital bulwark against misinformation.  We are independent, trusted, available and increasingly accessible to Australians anywhere at any time.

Even amidst a pandemic, it’s also our job to hold those in power to account, to ensure the public has access to accurate and critical information about decision-making processes and the way we are governed.

To ask the tough questions of our leaders on behalf of all Australians.

People rely on and trust what the ABC provides. ABC NEWS has been the nation’s number one digital news brand every month for the past 12 months.

And ABC NEWS’ average daily digital audience is up 79 percent on 2019 to 2.2 million people, while the average monthly audience is 38 percent higher at 12.5 million.

Given recent events globally, particularly in the US, the argument for a strong, independent public broadcaster – a broadcaster that counters misinformation and that plays a unifying and public service role – has never been greater.

Showcasing Australian culture 

Let me now turn to our support for Australian art and culture more broadly, where many voices tell many Australian stories in many different ways.

No media organisation does more than the ABC to promote and provide a forum for the arts and artists in Australia.  Our ongoing commitment to arts and culture during COVID-19 and in the year ahead includes Radio National’s The Stage Show, The Art Show, The Book Show, The Music Show, The Screen Show, The Bookshelf, Lost and Found, Blueprint, Stop Everything! and Indigenous program Awaye!

We work in partnership with Australia’s incredibly talented creative sector.

During the COVID-19 crisis, the ABC partnered with Australia’s premier cultural institutions to deliver productions by Opera Australia, Bangarra Dance Theatre, the Australian Ballet and the Sydney Theatre Company on ABC iview.

The ABC’s rebranded second channel, ABC TV Plus, is also showcasing art and culture content in primetime, including documentaries and live performances. They include the documentaries Designing A Legacy and Getting Their Acts Together, plus upcoming films on Midnight Oil and others.

In July last year, as part of our COVID-19 response, we announced our support for numerous Australian productions and new content ideas through our $5 million Fresh Start Fund, a direct funding injection to help creative artists and industries reeling from the impact of the pandemic.

The Fresh Start Fund has helped supercharge more than 200 projects, providing lifeblood to local creatives when they need it most.

You can’t talk about ABC content without mentioning a certain blue dog.  Australia’s favourite canine Bluey achieved a unique audience of over 90%, making it the top ABC program ranked by proportion and mass audience for 2020.  The kids of Australia have spoken, but so have overseas awards juries, including at the international Kidscreen Awards and last year’s Emmys.

Kids, don’t miss the Bluey Easter Special premiering on the morning of Easter Sunday.

Meanwhile, 2.9 million Australians over the age of 16 listened to this year’s triple j Hottest 100 live on triple j. And 6.9 million Australians over 16 said they engaged with the Hottest 100 in some way.

Telling Australian stories through the many voices that contribute to our varied national culture is central to the ABC’s purpose: we are the nation’s largest commissioner of new Australian scripted content.

In the five years before COVID-19 disrupted Australian production, the ABC invested more than $468 million in the independent sector on productions worth a total of $971 million. This investment generated 1477 commissioned hours. The content produced includes Australian drama, comedy, Indigenous, arts, factual and children’s content.

In 2018/19, the ABC invested in more titles than Seven, Nine, Ten and SBS combined.

Such a commitment to Australian storytelling is more important now than it has ever been.

We are in an era of revolutionary change in the way Australians access their news, information and entertainment. We know the costs of TV production will remain high; and meanwhile there’s an avalanche of entertainment competition into Australia by domestic and international streaming services.

Increasingly, important genres like drama, children’s and documentaries are moving behind the paywalls of subscription VOD players.

On these services, Australian content can be hard to find.

Last year, the Government made changes to the Australian Content quotas for commercial broadcasters to assist them to adjust to the changing media landscape.

Under the amendments, commercial broadcasters are not required to produce any children’s content.

They also created a stronger incentive to commission bigger budget drama, which is more likely to be sold globally rather than only be seen in Australia.

All of this means that providers of distinctively Australian content and Australian stories are faced with an increasingly challenging scenario as they look to the future.

Make no mistake: this matters.

It is a matter of strategic consequence to Australia that we keep on reflecting the nation back to itself with all its diversity, sharing who we are with the world.

High quality, uniquely Australian content will remain free for all Australians on the ABC’s broadcast and digital platforms.

The organic development of our national identity must be encouraged and promoted and treated as a national creative priority.

The Media Reform Green Paper released by the Government in November last year has generated a much-needed discussion regarding the sustainability of the sector. It was, however, surprising that it proposed Australian content obligations on the public broadcasters.

Generally speaking, you impose obligations on organisations to ensure they do something you fear they might not otherwise do. In this case, however, the Green Paper acknowledges that the public broadcasters are significant commissioners of Australian content. I sense it’s a solution looking for a problem.

The amount of Australian content that the ABC commissions is a function of its budget, not a matter of intent.

And there’s another issue here. Applying Australian content requirements to the ABC would represent a subtle but clear amendment to the ABC’s Charter and an incursion into its independence.

Setting a minimum level of expenditure for television production would reduce our flexibility to appropriately and independently allocate funds across all ABC activities, including news and regional services.

It could set a precedent for further interventions in the allocation of the ABC’s budget.

Essential to the perception of the ABC’s independence and impartiality is the reality that we are independent and detached from government direction.

It is in no-one’s interest to see any erosion in the ABC’s independence.

Taking Australian stories to the world

In this content-rich new world, exactly where and how audience watch Australian stories is less important than the fact that those stories are being told; and that, once they exist, they can travel around the world.

2020 clearly demonstrated the value Australian audiences see in our ABC digital services: ABC Kids is the No 1 channel among children, achieving a share of 53% of all children up to 4-years; ABC Kids is also No 1 among 5–12s during daytime, with ABC ME in 2nd place.

And note this, too: 15 of the top 20 ABC TV programs in 2020, across broadcast and ABC iview, were Australian. As a nation, we want to experience our own stories.

But Australians should be proud to see those stories shared far and wide, such as Indigenous-led drama Mystery Road on US streaming service Acorn TV.

Television production costs are already high and rising.  And yet despite budget pressures on the ABC, our commitment to high quality productions remains a priority.

Productions like Total ControlAftertaste, Mystery Road and Jack Irish resonate well with audiences and again prove the point: Australians crave their own stories, their own characters.  There is a depth to our screen culture that goes well beyond reality TV.

There is an audience outside of Australia barracking for Guy Pearce as Jack Irish in a colourful Melbourne setting, just as they are barracking for Aaron Pedersen’s Detective Jay Swan striding across the outback in Mystery Road or Deborah Mailman as Senator Alex Irving in Total Control.

CONCLUSION

Let me conclude.

Through our history, as the nation has changed, and our national identity has evolved in different directions, so has the ABC’s focus and remit under our Charter.

That adaptive capacity is increasingly embedded in the way we tackle the issues that matter.  Where technology changes, we will adapt. Where the media landscape changes, we will sharpen our focus and mission.  Where our audiences go, we will move with them.

We will always inform, educate and entertain; provide content that others don’t or won’t deliver; and offer programs of wide appeal and of specialist interest.

We will continue to embrace and reflect Australia’s diverse communities, including our First Nations people across the cities and towns and throughout rural and regional Australia.

Through wars, economic downturn, natural emergencies, political and social upheaval, we have helped Australians reflect on the bad and celebrate the good.

We have also facilitated the space in-between, the sometimes difficult discussions about where we have come from and where we are going.

It is that most human of things to develop and learn stories, to retell them to understand ourselves and each other.

It is a uniquely human endeavour – it defines who we are and the communities we are part of.

It is at the heart of what we do at the ABC: our shared commitment to discovering and sharing our unique Australian stories.

The question I ask is this:  if not for the ABC who will tell the Australian stories in the future, who will hold the conversations that matter to us as a nation, and who would you trust to independently provide news and information and hold truth to power?

Thank you

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