Open Public Broadcasting Services: The Good, Bad, and Ugly of a Public Funding Discussion


A recent article published in the Sunday Sydney News, titled ‘Dreadful and appalling’: Government senator slams idea of ABC paywall, serves as a backdrop for a broader discussion about the potential of open public broadcasting services (OPB). An argument is developed in which OpenPB better serves the public than do the knowledge restriction schemes that are discussed in the article. Well-funded public broadcasting coupled with bipartisan public leadership is needed for a public-minded conversation leading to progressive public policy concerning public funding of public broadcasting. The problems and opportunities that are described are shared by many publicly funded knowledge creation and dissemination organisations harbouring public good values and missions. Perhaps the problem described for public broadcasting serves as an invitation for a broad and robust program of discussion and action among public broadcasters, universities, libraries, and other sympathetic organisations.


Every once in a while I read a story that presses a lot of buttons. A few nights ago I came upon a newspaper article, by Latika Bourke, courtesy of the Sunday Sydney News, titled ‘Dreadful and appalling’: Government senator slams idea of ABC paywall. It is a very short article and is probably worth reading for a few reasons. Practically, it touches on an ongoing debate that has been occurring in many countries for a number of decades. It is principally about the role of public broadcasting and the nature of its funding, with a hint of rhetorical conservative political partisanship.

The earliest recollections that I have of the public broadcasting debate in the US extend to the Reagan era in the 1980s. Not surprisingly, due in part to half a century of reiterative and self-referential neoliberal political follow-the-leader, the tone and the script has remained intact across the decades and the continents. Here in Australia the conversation about public broadcasting, particularly public television, was (re)activated and brought to public pitch as Tony Abbott’s conservative Liberal National Party (LNP) government swept into office in 2013. I know that the debate was active before then and it remains so under the political influences and civic vision of the Abbott-free LNP.

I have chosen to read and interpret the “Dreadful and Appalling” article as a broader commentary about the nature of publicly funded culture creation, public good, and commercial affairs. There are four main characters in the article including:

  • Michelle Guthrie: former Google executive who has been recently appointed as Managing Director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Guthrie identifies three approaches to managing ABC programming and content. They include erecting paywalls, increasing commercial advertising, and committing to digital first distribution.
  • Fiona Nash: National Party Deputy Leader serving in the Australian Senate for the state of New South Wales, former Assistant Minister for Health in the Abbott Government and currently (at time of posting) serving as the Minister for Rural Health under the Turnbull Government. Nash criticises Guthrie’s proposal to erect paywalls, providing a public good argument.
  • Julie Flynn: Chief Executive Officer of FreeTV Australia and longtime political journalist and media executive. Flynn criticises Guthrie’s proposal to increase commercial advertising, providing a commercial protectionist argument.
  • Peter Costello: Currently Chairman of ECG Financial Pty Ltd, which is a boutique corporate advisory firm. Costello is formally a perennial Member of the Australian House of Representatives representing the Liberal Party of Australia for nearly 20 years starting in 1990 and Treasurer in the Howard Government for more than a decade starting in 1996. Costello criticises Guthrie’s proposal to pursue a digital first approach to program and content distribution, providing a confusing and apparently nonsensical argument.

The criticisms reflect the good, bad, and ugly of thinking on the topic of publicly funded knowledge. Within the context of the “Dreadful and Appalling” article, each of these individuals, Nash, Flynn, and Costello, reflects a position on funding public knowledge. I do not know if the positions presented in the article are fair, typical, or consistent with the views that they have previously expressed. I do not know if those views conflict with other things that they have said or represented elsewhere. I do not know of any ulterior motives latent in their statements that may or may not exist. But I do see examples of good, bad, and ugly thinking.

The Problem

Apparently as part of a plan to manage the estimated 36 billion dollar hole in the 2016 Australian national budget, it is assumed that the ABC will be facing significant decreases in public funding during the coming 5 years. Guthrie, speaking in her new role as ABC Manager has indicates that she wants to

  1. erect pay walls around content to raise additional revenue,
  2. increase levels of commercial advertising at the ABC, and
  3. aggressively pursue a digital first strategy for the ABC.

Nash’s, Flynn’s, and Costello’s objectives leave room for a different approach to thinking about the value of publicly funded knowledge that should at least appease Nash and Flynn. Part of rationale that Guthrie has adopted is that she needs to exercise initiatives that make-up the difference in forthcoming public funding and needed expenditure for the ABC to fulfill its mission.

None of Guthrie’s recommendations should be particularly surprising given her background at Google. Online would seem petty natural, as would commercial advertising, and surly she would have had plenty of exposure to costumers using pay walls for limiting access to content. The interesting part of the “Dreadful and Appalling” article is the responses that these recommendations received.

The Good...

Minister Fiona Nash, responded rather negatively to Guthrie’s first proposal. As a public servant with an eye turned toward probity and the common-sense use of public funding, she objected to charging the public for assets that they had already paid for through their taxes and transferred through government allocations made to the ABC. Nash’s response to Guthrie’s plan to erect paywalls is that

It’s a dreadful idea, Australians have already paid for the ABC once why should they pay for it again?… That regional people could miss out on regional content because they would forced to pay for it is appalling.” – Fiona Nash

Once again, this righteous and common-sense position might actually engender a little faith, even among the most cynical observers, in the spirit of public mindedness among some politicians. That is, so long as the progressive attitudes of those politicians extend to a commitment for appropriate funding levels for public broadcasting.

Assuming the best intent on the part of our elected representatives of the public good, I would though suggest that in addition to not intentionally limiting access to publicly funded programming we actually advocate for increasing creation and access. Along these lines, why not make publicly funded programming and content open, reducing legal as well as practical barriers to use and distribution? After all, public is public, and if the public is underwriting the expense to create and distribute the ABC content and programming, why not maximise its value to the public directly? The whole cycle makes sense.

  1. The ABC receives public funding through annual appropriations.
  2. The public benefits from its investment in Open Public Broadcasting services (OPB) though the creativity and expertise applied by the ABC staff and mediated through their professional discretion as servants of the public good, and reflected in their programming, services, and content.
  3. The programming and content created is then made available openly to the public for unfettered reused, modification, and distribution in the public domain.
  4. The content now in the public domain once again benefits the public, but this time for their direct benefit unmediated through the ABC as a public agency.
  5. Increase value is created through open public use, including the potential for entrepreneurial activities generating tax revenues.

With appropriate licensing under something like CC-BY or CC-BY-SA and appropriate distribution channels, perhaps something like the Internet, the value generated could be maintained for many cycles.

Unfortunately, I suspect that the idea of OPB would require more “public mindedness,” and perhaps courage than has been generally exhibited among elected servants of the public good. Australian politics are as partisan as those in the US, and a truly open Public Broadcasting Service would require the government, representing the interests of the whole public to fund the OPB at levels that assume little syndication and reselling revenue. While it is true that some traditional revenue streams would be reduced, others may emerge through value-added services if that is appropriate, but it would clearly provide opportunities for others to generate value and potentially taxable revenue on the public investment. At the end of the day though, the argument needs to be about improving quality of life and civic capacity, which is kind of the point of any public service. In short, political budget-makers would need to fund the ABC at levels that allow the ABC to forgo short-term revenue generation schemes like paywalls, in lieu of long-term investment in knowledge for public good. Incidentally, the public good includes providing the openly available content necessary to support commercial and entrepreneurial activities and develop new value creation models based on changing assumptions about intellectual property restrictions on public goods.

The Bad...

Now that we really don’t need paywalls, we can turn to Guthrie’s proposal to increase commercial advertising. My principal concern with this proposal is that as commercial advertising becomes more important to Public Broadcasting we all run the risk of creating full-length commercials masquerading as public or educational broadcasting designed to take advantage of the trusting public. That is, we run the risk of having another commercial culture creation entity posing as producer and curator of public knowledge. That being said, my concerns are obviously misplaced and quite naive, as the principal objection to more commercial advertising that is made in the article, is not at all about protecting public interests. It is about protecting the pecuniary interests of commercial broadcasters, as is clearly articulated by Julie Flynn the CEO and spokesperson of FreeTV Australia, an industry and lobbying group for commercial broadcasters.

“Commercial free-to-air broadcasters invest significantly in local content, and we would oppose any changes to the ABC that would result in metro and regional broadcasters having to compete for advertising dollars with a very generously funded broadcaster,” – Flynn

On the upside, if this is the principal opposition to commercial advertising for ABC, then FreeTV, should logically support appropriately funded Open Public Broadcasting. If appropriately funded, ABC would not need to extend beyond traditional sponsorships, commercial broadcasters would not need to compete with ABC for limited advertising dollars, and perhaps profits increase for commercial broadcasters, additional tax revenue is generated, excellent public broadcasting services are provided, and everybody is happy.

So, perhaps Open Public Broadcasting actually addresses a few concerns and forces a non-partisan discussion across multiple interests about public investment, in public knowledge, for the public good.

The Ugly...

Having made paywall restrictions and commercial advertising unnecessary, this leaves us with the last of Guthrie’s proposals; digital first, which is the only proposal that actually creates value for the public. Although digital distribution is part of the ABC Charter, reactionary business interests and politicians whose motives we must take with some healthy skepticism, are still questioning the idea of public broadcasting entering the age of digital creation and distribution. For example, Peter Costello is actually reported to have asked,

Why does the ABC need to be across all this different media? Why does the taxpayer need to fund a competitor in an internet space that is crowded with private operators? … There are so many things that taxpayers are asked to pay for. How high, as a priority, is digital communication and entertainment? – Costello

Wow… Oddly enough, I am left a bit speechless – I think bewildered. I do not think that I have anything to add to Costello’s statements that is not already painfully obvious. They do though call into question if the rest of us need to recalibrate the conversation and our expectations for progressing a meaningful public dialogue that is meant to progress the public good. Is it possible to seriously discuss public policy and the economics of OPB, when public figures are seriously questioning the appropriateness of publicly funded knowledge and culture finding a home on the most broadly accessed and openly available communication system available? Could Costello possibly be articulating a message that public knowledge has no place in the public commons? Is he expressing a latent attitude that the Internet is not a place for the public, but instead should be reserved for private commercial use? Is he suggesting that the Internet is little more than a forum in which commercial interests do competitive battle for market supremacy, as his quotation indicates? Is his vision widely shared and highly regarded?

To be fair, I have not thoroughly researched the nuances of the ABC, or the histories and the long-standing attitudes of Guthrie, Nash, Flynn, or Costello. Perhaps they have been misquoted in the few articles that I have read.


Regardless, it seems clear that some voices are louder and more organised than others. The ABC, like FreeTV, and other organisations have well-established ways of influencing policy. It would be great to see one of these influencers seriously take up the topic of open publicly funded knowledge and put away the idea and odd logic that we need to restrict access to public knowledge to generate revenue to produce more restricted knowledge. Instead we need to articulate our values and goals in ways that reject the cycle of restriction and scarcity and substitute it for one of growth and abundance. I suspect that there are other publicly supported culture and knowledge creation, preservation, and dissemination organisations including libraries and universities that have common interests with public broadcasting. These are organisations, along with museums, galleries, archives, and public theaters that are meant to support vibrant social life and civic capacity. Perhaps together, with and among organisations with common values and exercising a shared voice, the notion of a public open knowledge economy will find fertile ground.


Dreadful and appalling’: Government senator slams idea of ABC paywall

MYEFO: Budget deficit increases to $37b as Government releases economic update

About The Licenses (including cc-by and cc-by-sa)

Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Fiona Nash, Senator Page

Peter Costello Page

Free TV

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Open Public Broadcasting Services: The Good, Bad, and Ugly of a Public Funding Discussion by Ken Udas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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