Public outrage and the allegations of political interference eventually saw the demise of Milne, but just over a year to the day since Milne left Ultimo – it is worth examining whether the root of the cause has been addressed at all.
At the time the Milne was hoping to secure $500 million in upfront funding for a digitisation project called Project Jetstream and the government had frozen the indexation of the broadcaster’s funding. It now faces a three-year, $83.8 million indexation freeze on its funding. According to research by Michael Ward at the University of Sydney, since May 2014, it has had a reduction in available funding of $393 million over a five-year period.
Rewind to 2000 and in the hope of getting a rejected ABC budget passed the broadcaster’s then managing director Jonathan Shier proposed a “National Interest Initiative” – codeword for more services in marginal regional seats the Howard government was hoping to win.
The dilemma faced by Milne and Shier was as old as credit. Inevitably, an ABC executive will be confronted with it again.
Does it have to be this way?
More than 20 countries have adopted a licence fee for its public broadcasters, asking households to pay directly for their services rather than funding it out of the budget. The people fund the broadcasters, not the state.
The BBC has this model. Australia did once too. Up until 1974 when Gough Whitlam’s Labor government abolished it households had to pay $12 for an Australian Television Licence on a punch card and would be fined $200 if they did not.
Whitlam argued that TV and radio penetration had become so universal that there was no longer a need for a separate fee and that it could be funded like other services through the federal budget.
He did not see Milne coming.
In Germany, the Rundfunkbeitrag or “tv tax” is now up to €17.50 [$28] a month. Double the cost of a Netflix subscription. Households pay it like they do a water or power bill, with exemptions for students and some low-income households. Last year its budget reached €9.1 billion [$14.7 billion].
Indeed, the licence fee is removed so far from government that once collected an independent regulator – Beitragsservice von ARD, ZDF und Deutschlandradio – distributes the funding across more than a dozen state and federal public TV and radio stations based on reach and population. The broadcasters do not have to cosy up to government because Chancellor Angela Merkel and her ministers have no power to decide where funding goes and where it does not.
Despite the cost, it is now so entrenched that even the populist far-right party Alternative for Germany [AfD]is not advocating for it to be scrapped.
AfD co-founder and media spokesman Martin Renner told me in Berlin recently that despite the myriad concerns he has with how public broadcasters frame news on immigrants and right-wing politics – his party has re-popularised the Nazi term “lügenpresse” [lying press] – it has no intention of fundamentally changing the way it is funded.
In Australia, the rank and file members of the Liberal Party voted last year to privatise the ABC.
There are many worthy criticisms of how the ABC covers Australia but an independent public [not state] broadcaster is vital to an effective interrogation of power.
And there’s a way to avoid allegations of political interference. Take it out of the hands of politicians.
A licence fee is a good debate to have in the current febrile environment.
Unfortunately, it has zero to no chance of getting started. You can hear the anti “TV tax” campaign firing up now.
For the sake of argument, let’s do the numbers. There are roughly 10.1 million households in Australia according to the Bureau of Statistics, divide that by the ABC’s $1.1 billion budget and you get $110 a year or $9.16 a month in licence fees.
Sure, you would notice the $110 more than if it was coming automatically out of your tax as it does now, but is it a price worth paying for a truly independent public broadcaster?
The reporter travelled to Berlin as a guest of the German foreign office.
Ross Gittins is on leave
Eryk Bagshaw is an economics correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra