History of the Northern Tablelands Branch

History of the Northern Tablelands Branch

History of the Armidale ABC Friends …

… now Northern Tablelands ABC Friends


The primary public broadcaster in Australia, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), celebrated 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 was the 25th anniversary of this Armidale branch, which has since undergone a name change to Northern Tablelands ABC Friends.  The primary reason for this name change was to be more inclusive of those in the region which had been served by the Armidale branch for 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, 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 ABC loses $783m funding since 2014 when Coalition made its first cuts.  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, there may be a reduction in such allegations as they would lose their purpose ... to reduce funding to the ABC.


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

Market stalls

An Armidale market-in-the-mall falls on the last Sunday of each month.  Since 1996, ABCF have attended the Armidale market, multiple times per year, 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 to question the 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.  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 Media Prize, first to the strongest graduate in the Bachelor of Media and Communications at the University of New England.  This prize is now awarded to the strongest HSC student in media related activities at Armidale Secondary College.  We are seeking to develop a more extensive program of support to secondary students across the Northern Tablelands.  We see this as a means of supporting future journalists/broadcasters, and emphasising the existence of public broadcasting to a cohort of secondary students each year.


Public talks (including AGMs) organised by the local ABCF

James O'Brien

James O’Brien (NSW Regional radio broadcaster; e.g., Drivetime) met with ABCF members (Imperial Hotel) in late 1997, and took questions.

Marilyn Pidgeon

Marilyn Pidgeon spoke on the Open Garden Scheme at the 2002 AGM (Kent House).

Phillip Adams

Phillip Adams gave a talk titled Another star on the US flag: The Americanisation of the Australian media, in 2003 (Old Teachers College).

Warren Sheather

Warren Sheather spoke on gardening, regional broadcasting and his experiences as a technical officer at ABC/Sydney, in 2004.

Anton Enus

Anton Enus (SBS broadcaster) spoke on public broadcasting in Australia at University of New England (Arts Lecture Theatre), in August 2009.  He also conducted a seminar the following day for media students.

David Stratton

David Stratton (SBS/ABC film reviewer), as part of the Armidale International Film Festival, spoke on film criticism and presented a mystery film, taking questions and discussion afterwards, in November 2010 (Belgrave Cinema).

Kerry O'Brien

Kerry O’Brien (ABC journalist/broadcaster) spoke on a range of topics concerning the media, in August 2012.

Tim Bowden

Tim Bowden (ABC journalist/broadcaster) spoke on how the ABC has developed and changed over the years, in April 2014 (Hoskins Centre).

Jane Hutcheon

Jane Hutcheon (ABC broadcaster) spoke on insights into the art of the interview with local journalist Janene Carey, in November 2015 (Armidale Bowling Club).

Debbie Spillane

Debbie Spillane (ABC sports journalist) spoke about Media and the Future, in October 2018 (Wicklow Function Room).

Ed Davis

Ed Davis (NSW ABCF president) spoke about the roles of ABCF at the local 2017 AGM, in February 2018.

Bruce Stevenson

Bruce Stevenson (local ABCF president) spoke on importance of public broadcasting (Is public broadcasting important?) at 2018 AGM, in November 2018.

Matt Peacock

Matt Peacock (ABC journalist) spoke on investigative journalism, in October 2019 (Wicklow Function Room).

Don Hine

Don Hine (Psychologist from UNE) spoke on the role of changing attitudes (Extinction Rebellion Movement and the challenge of Global Warming) at 2019 AGM, in November 2019.

Alan Scott

Alan Scott (Sociologist from UNE) spoke on the use of disinformation (fake news) in different forms of media (Public broadcasting (and other public bodies) in the crosshairs) at AGM, in November 2020.

Peter Martin (ABC journalist) spoke on working for the ABC (The Responsibility that comes with Working for the ABC), in October 2021 (Armidale Bowling Club Auditorium).

Julia Day

Julia Day (Law School, UNE) spoke on media defamation (Defamation, Social Media and News Media - What Happens When the Three Interact? Happy Partners or a Date Destined for Court?) at AGM, in November 2021.

Fake News Forum

Panel discussion on dis/misinformation in the media (The Pub Test: Fake News or Fact), in April 2022 (Wicklow Function Room).  MC: Annette Stevenson.  Panelists: Alan Scott, Ivana Gulic, Brian Byrne, Vic Wright, Bruce Stevenson.  With questions and discussion from the audience.

Robyn Williams picture

Robyn Williams (ABC broadcaster) spoke on 47 years hosting the ABC Science Show (Why weren't they listening, when you were?), in October 2022 (Armidale Bowling Club Auditorium).

Gael Jennings

Gael Jennings (Academic at University of Melbourne, and past ABC broadcaster) spoke on the growing impact of mis/disinformation (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  Will Politics, AI or Murdoch Kill the ABC?), in September 2023 (Armidale Ex-Services Club).

Brian Byrne 2023 AGM

Brian Byrne (local ABCF convenor) spoke on public attitudes towards public and private media organisations (Who is Using the News Media How? The 2023 Digital News Report from the University of Canberra.) at 2023 AGM, in November 2023.


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 more recently at Kent House (a community facility).  In 2023 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 three times per year and available via the national website.