History of the Armidale ABC Friends …
… now Northern Tablelands ABC Friends
The primary public broadcaster in Australia, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), celebrates its 90th anniversary in 2022 (established in 1932). As a public broadcaster the ABC is required to adhere to a charter, as prescribed in the current ABC Act. The ABC needs to provide independent, fair and balanced analysis of those events in Australia (and abroad) which impact upon the Australian people. In so doing it supports the public information and institutions which sustain Australian society, culture and democracy. In this capacity its media analyses can sometimes impact upon political and commercial interests, resulting in pressure on the ABC.
It was in response to budget cutbacks in 1976 that the Friends of the ABC (initially, Auntie’s Nieces and Nephews) was formed as an independent organisation to support public broadcasting in general, and the ABC in particular. It was following another period of budget cutbacks, from 1986 to 1996 (which resulted in a 31% reduction in the ABC budget), that an Armidale branch of the Friends of the ABC was set up in 1996. September of 2021 will be the 25th anniversary of this Armidale branch, which has recently undergone name changes resulting in its new title, Northern Tablelands ABC Friends. The primary reason for this name change was to be more inclusive of those in the region which has been served by the Armidale branch for this past 25 years.
Why does the ABC need friends?
Complaints made against the ABC, generally taking the form of inefficiencies (it receives too much public money?) and bias (it is not adhering to its charter in a nonpartisan way?) can then be used by political and commercial interests to pressure the government of the day to cut back on the ABC budget. These three issues – claims of inefficient operation and bias in reporting, and who decides on the funding of the ABC – appear to be a constant across the history of public broadcasting in Australia and motivate many of the activities of the ABC Friends (ABCF). When a public broadcaster is under attack precious resources are lost in defending itself, and the resulting intimidation undermines its ongoing independence. ABCF believe that public broadcasters, like the ABC, need assistance so that they can focus on their core roles and remain nonpartisan in carrying out those roles.
How credible are the claims of inefficiency and bias?
Claims of inefficiency are regularly laid at the ABC’s door. Let us consider the cost of running a media organisation. There were claims of inefficiency back in 1996. But if we compare the 1994-5 operating budget of the ABC ($491m) with those of two commercial networks, Channel 7 ($643m) and Channel 9 ($796m), we can see that the ABC had a significantly smaller budget than these two commercial networks. Assuming equivalence in programs and services, the ABC appears to be the more efficient. And even more so if we consider the greater reach of ABC broadcasting.
But then one could argue we are only interested in the efficient use of public money (ABC), while private money should not be our concern. In 1994-5 commercial advertising was valued at $5b to $6b, and it was tax deductible. This meant that the Federal Government forewent about $1b per year in tax to subsidise the commercial media, which is more than what they paid out for the ABC. Plus, we each pay for that advertising as consumers when purchasing the products that are advertised. Public money supports all of the major media organisations. The situation has not changed over the last 25 years, with successive funding decisions since 2013 equating to a $783 million cut to the ABC over the financial years 2015-16 to 2022-23. This has been at a time when the ABC has expanded its services on the internet. Does this mean the ABC has become even more efficient?
Over decades there have been repeated independent investigations into claims of inefficiency and bias. For current purposes, one could look at specific articles on this topic – Crikey, Guardian, The Conversation, and Parliamentary Reports. Also, for an audit on how well the ABC handles complaints made against it, refer to a report from the Australian National Audit Office. In summary, this author is unaware of any claims of organisational inefficiency or bias that have been found to be true by an independent investigation. One then wonders if funding for the ABC were taken away from the government of the day, if there might not be a reduction in many allegations as they would lose their purpose.
What does a local ABC Friends branch get up to?
Having provided a brief explanation for why the ABC needs Friends, the following are the major activities the local ABCF branch has engaged in since its inception in 1996.
Public activities, apart from public talks
An Armidale market-in-the-mall falls on the last Sunday of each month. Since 1996, ABCF have attended the Armidale market, generally four times per year (end of each season … February, May, August & November), providing talking points, petitions & open letters through which they engage market attendees.
Letters to politicians
As required, letters are written to politicians on a range of media-related matters. At election times these letters include requests to candidates for a clear public statement on their position concerning public broadcasting.
Meetings with politicians
An early event in the history of the branch was to meet with the then Federal MP, Ian Sinclair (August 1997) and discuss the importance of the ABC for democratic processes, regional support, and downgrading of Radio Australia. At the time ABCF members also rejected claims by Sinclair that the ABC is less efficient than commercial media (refer to earlier discussion on this). It was pointed out that the ABC operated on less money than either Channels 7 or 9 and had a larger coverage in terms of TV/radio stations and geographic broadcasting reach.
Concerts and film nights
To inform the public on specific issues the local ABCF have engaged the public in cultural activities (also a requirement of the ABC, through its Charter). In August 1997 there was a support concert for Triple J, with four bands playing at the Tattersalls Hotel (Armidale). In October 2008 there was a film night with Julie Rigg (RN film critic) at the Belgrave Cinema (Armidale). In March 2016 there was a film night featuring Trumbo (Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo suffered a jail term and blacklisting in the McCarthy era for defending freedom of speech) at the Belgrave Cinema. Freedom of speech is critical for public broadcasting. And then in July 2017 there was a film night featuring David Stratton: A Cinematic Life at the Belgrave Cinema. David has been a film critic on both SBS and ABC networks.
Collaboration with other public groups
Local ABCF has supported the Armidale public library, donating $2000 to the library for ABC books/DVDs in 2009. Support also for events involving the environment and refugees. At one stage we were also going to assist in the setting up of ABCF branches in Tamworth and Bellingen/Coffs Harbour, but this did not eventuate.
Support for future media workers
Since 2017 the local ABCF have offered a $500 prize each year to the strongest graduate in the Bachelor of Media and Communications at the University of New England who is eligible for the UNE Honours Program in media. We see this as a means of supporting future journalists/broadcasters, and emphasising the existence of public broadcasting to a cohort of graduating media students each year.
Public talks (including AGMs) organised by the local ABCF
Organisation of the Northern Tablelands ABCF branch
Since its inception in 1996 this branch has always had a committee with a range of office holders, with the profile changing over the years. In 1996 there were 5 positions - chairperson, secretary, treasurer, market day coordinator & spokesperson (plus general committee members). By 2002 this had grown to 8 positions - president, vice-president, secretary, membership secretary, treasurer, market coordinator, newsletter editor, & publicity/historian (plus general committee members).
Committee meetings in the 1990’s were on the 3rd Monday of the month (up to 12 meetings per year). Initially held at 7:30pm, but then reverting to the earlier time of 5:30pm. Meeting venues have always been in Armidale, starting at the Imperial Hotel, followed by the Armidale Bowling Club, and now Kent House (a community facility). In 2021 there are now 4 meetings per year, on the 2nd Thursday of the month, every 3 months. While the number of face-to-face meetings have decreased, there is now increased communication in the periods between meetings through the use of emails.
The local ABCF branch has always produced a newsletter, at least one per year, for regional members (refer to section on Newsletters). This is in addition to the national newsletter (Update) which is produced 3 to 4 times per year and available via the national website.