A refutation of Ms. Alcorn’s “Dominant ABC hurting the commercial sector”

Ms. Alcorn’s entire article in The Age “Dominant ABC hurting the commercial sector” is based on an unstated premise that a publicly funded broadcaster, operating within a publicly defined and transparently managed charter to provide unbiassed news and information, is somehow “competing” on the same playing field as commercial organisations whose ultimate goal always is to make money for shareholders. These are not comparable, and to put them onto a “level playing field” is a straw man argument of the simplest kind. On that basis alone I think the argument fails, but there are many more reasons why it’s flawed.

Let’s look at Ms. Alcorn’s article in more detail.

She starts by using a specific commercial start-up apparently as a test-case for her argument. When we read further it turns out that the failure of this organisation isn’t, in fact, supposed to represent a case for the thesis at all, but let’s look at the facts.

The PolitiFact Australia organisation, started in 2013, is presented as a first-mover start-up, which is then followed by similar, publicly funded equivalents. The intent is clear – here’s a commercial organisation trying to make an honest buck, which is driven out of business by others who don’t have to turn a profit. On the face of it, this is exactly the argument being advanced.

Firstly, let’s note that PolitiFact.com, an American institution doing exactly the same job, was established in 2007. So this is not an Australian innovation, or anything close to it.

Secondly, let’s note that the mainstream commercial media, whom the bulk of the article is about, do not rely on a single “product” or service, namely *facts*. This organisation did, and in doing so could reasonably expect to run into the ABC, since that’s why we established the ABC. In fact, out of all of the activities of the ABC and commercial media, the one activity that a large majority of Australians currently believe the ABC does best is as a trustworthy source of *facts*, no doubt because there’s some healthy scepticism that any commercial organisation can remain unbiassed on all topics. Such as, for example, unfair competition from the ABC, let’s say?

If we don’t expect the ABC to produce facts, then we might as well go home now, and a company that hopes to make money doing that goes into that business with its eyes wide open.

Ms. Alcorn then produces a frequently used rhetorical technique, which is to (apparently) praise the thing she is about to criticise. This is supposed to show how even-handed the discussion is, and how there are no hard feelings. In fact, there’s absolutely no need to appear to defend the ABC if you’re going to criticise it. Others can do that (as I am here). In particular, unless you really do present both sides of the case impartially, you can quickly be accused of real bias.

So Ms. Alcorn says “You can admire the ABC’s innovations”. Well, yes, you can, or you can not admire them. It’s not really germane to the argument, and in fact it’s extremely condescending. It trivialises the really valuable contributions that the ABC has made available to the entire Australian public, at no more cost than we have already paid for the ABC. To off-handedly wave away a significant value provided to all of us, with the phrase “you can admire” is a rhetorical dirty trick.

This is followed up by “… and its community spirit”, which is even more condescending and misleading. I don’t admire the ABC for its community spirit. I’d be very angry if it didn’t fulfil the Charter that we set it up with, an important part of which is precisely to serve Australian communities. To pretend that a core part of what it does is actually just an optional extra for which they deserve a pat on the head is again rhetorical dirty business. So now Ms. Alcorn has apparently established that the ABC does some good things, and we acknowledge them, she can get on with the business of calling its whole purpose into serious doubt.

She starts with another rhetorical dirty trick. Having praised the ABC, she continues “Yet it should be possible … to question whether … there is a risk that the national broadcaster will become too dominant”. Of course it’s possible, Ms. Alcorn. You’re doing it right now. And you don’t need permission, and nobody is stopping you, even though you’re attempting to suggest that your argument is perhaps politically incorrect because the ABC is so nice. Just give us your argument, please.

This is where the basic thesis is laid out, and many many assumptions are made. Firstly, we’re asked to assume that we are “… at a time of enormous struggle and transition in the media …”. Regardless of whether we accept that proposition or not, the ABC is not responsible for this struggle. Why should the ABC’s job or its charter or its execution of its Charter change depending on how technology or global markets are changing the money-making ability of other broadcasters? The ABC’s purpose and role remain the same, regardless of whether we’re enjoying a complete dearth of change, or massive amounts.

Ms. Alcorn continues “… there is a risk that the national broadcaster will become too dominant.” and here is the heart of the false premise. In what way has it failed its Charter if the ABC should become *so good* at its job that most people prefer it to other broadcasters? Likewise, in what way are its fundamental purposes, which underpin democracy in ways that coal mining or chocolate making do not, agreed to be better served by people who want to make money from it, or where the assumption of a level playing field is reasonable? We set up a public broadcaster precisely because we believe that this is a fundamental service that’s core to how our society operates.  It’s a bizarre idea that it can somehow become too good at this job, or that being good at it is somehow detrimental to the Australian public. Or is it that it’s not the Australian public we’re worried about here? Perhaps we’re actually worried about commercial interests who want to make money?

She continues “The task shouldn’t be made harder by the distorting impact of public funding”. Again, there is the fundamental presumption that all players are there to *make money*, and that the playing field should be level, and that the ABC is cheating somehow by only breaking even. Lets try this again, by considering how we would remove the “distortion” of public funding from the ABC. Stop it from innovating, and force it only to mimic or copy what commercial organisations have already done? How does that serve its Charter or its stakeholders – the entire population of Australia? This is tantamount to saying that no part of the Government and Public Service should be allowed to come up with new ideas, because that’s distorting the commercial level playing field. Apparently innovation should be solely the province of private enterprise, and can only be used to deliver public good once someone else has invented (and possibly patented and licensed) it, so now it will actually cost the Australian public more. Even if the parent company is overseas.

“But it would be far from ideal if the serious end of journalism became the sole preserve of the ABC”. Here is a straw man argument of breathtaking proportions. First, it assumes that this can or will happen. Second, it narrows the focus of argument to “the serious end of journalism”, whatever that is. And last it presumes a situation in which, somehow, there can be a monopoly on “serious journalism”. That an entire country can be held in thrall by an organ of a democratic state. Not because people are *forced* to listen to or watch the ABC, but because they are *so good* at their jobs that commercial organisations cannot make a margin against them. Suddenly the argument has switched from being able to make money, to avoiding a “monopoly of serious journalism”. Note that this “serious journalism” is now (and only now) at the behest of shadowy forces in the government that might attempt to bend the ABC to their will. This isn’t a problem when the commercial players are there, apparently! Such as right now, for example. So there is no examination or discussion of how the very transparent governance and operation of the ABC is deliberately there precisely to stop this kind of manipulation, and why, in fact Ms. Alcorn’s article itself is a prime example of an attempt to influence the ABC in just this way!

“We need a strong commercial sector, now more than ever”. It’s always now, more than ever, really, isn’t it? It’s never yesterday, or tomorrow. So let’s examine this. Firstly, it assumes its thesis, which is that there is a threat to the commercial sector, or that it will be weakened, which is not proven. Second, it assumes the argument that we need a strong commercial sector. Lastly, it also assumes the meaning of “strong”. Is a commercial sector “strong” if it makes pots of money? Or is it “strong” if it serves the same ends and goals as the public broadcaster? And here is the nub: by what measure is the current commercial sector “strong”. Is it in providing impartial, unbiassed, comprehensive services to the Australian public?

Please.

The argument now descends from sweeping generalisations to specific quibbles, about whether or not the ABC’s fact checking has provided $1.5 million of value. Apparently, one competitor saying that it hasn’t is sufficient argument to place this into play as an assumption, if not a given. Let’s not bother with it further, as it’s another rhetorical device. Apparently if you produce two or three specific possible instances that support your argument, the argument as a whole is magically proven. It’s not.

Likewise, a comment by Jim Spigelman that it’s arguable whether public funding constitutes “unfair competition” is somehow represented by Ms. Alcorn as his having said that the ABC “acknowledges that some of its digital innovations do hurt commercial competitors” – her words, not his. Please note the use of “hurt”. Apart from Mr. Spigelman not having said this at all, it again assumes the thesis the article is trying to prove, and furthermore assumes that by doing something *before* commercial competitors, the ABC is doing something wrong.

This is slightly amazing. All of the free/private enterprise arguments run “you can’t expect people to innovate and work hard if they don’t have an incentive, so there must be profit”. The same argument proposes that State run organisations will stagnate and fail to provide good service. Yet here we’re being told that not only is the ABC doing this on a shoestring budget, without the lure of profit, it’s doing it ahead of commercial organisations whose raison d’être is to make money by being there first and better. And to rub salt into the wound, it’s the public of Australia who will benefit most from these innovations, not shareholders in XYZ media.

Please.

The last argument is that the ABC is somehow cheating by re-selling some of its products *to commercial organisations*. Apparently the ABC must not attempt to plough back into its own business, which is run ENTIRELY for the benefit of Australian citizens, any value that it creates. It must operate entirely on the funds the government provides. The contradictions just multiply.

However the largest flaw in this fundamentally flawed argument is the one that isn’t examined at all.

It’s this: what product is it that the ABC is unfairly producing? What, exactly, is the ABC purveying in “competition” to commercial interests who wish to *make a profit* purveying exactly the same goods to the Australian public?

Is it lumps of coal? Is it cars? Is it tins of peaches? No.

Why did we set up the ABC in the first place, and what public good do we want it to serve?

Unbiassed news and information.

There’s more, of course, but that will do.

What public good is any commercial organisation ever going to deliver, except in the pursuit of profit, and what public good will they instantly stop providing if there is no profit, or worse, if there is greater profit elsewhere?

Anything you care to name. They exist to make profit, not to deliver public good.

Commercial organisations do not exist to serve any public good, or operate according to any public need, except those that will generate profit. That’s the nature of the beast.

So let’s just ignore this entire argument, because it’s based on a fundamentally flawed premise, that the needs of the shareholders of commercial organisations are comparable to the needs of the Australian public, and moreover that the shareholders’ need for profit is equivalent to the Australian public’s need for unbiassed information.

To advance a case that any commercial organisation will, of its own volition and against the needs of its shareholders, attempt to fulfil the Charter of the ABC in “competition” with the ABC is just laughable. It’s so patently not true now, why should we bother considering it as a hypothetical? And if, in faithfully fulfilling its Charter and the reason why we established it in the first place, the ABC makes it harder for some commercial organisations in a similar business to make a profit, well, that’s a price I for one am very happy to pay. Because Ms. Alcorn has not advanced a single argument as to how you can prevent this from happening while preserving the fundamental purpose of the ABC.

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