David Anderson hits back at Australian content obligations on the ABC

ABC MD David Anderson.

ABC managing director David Anderson has rejected the Federal Government’s proposition public broadcasters be mandated to produce Australian content, as outlined in its recent green paper.

Under the government’s proposal, ABC and SBS’s broadcasting acts would be amended in order to impose an explicit obligation to provide new Australian programming, though what that might look like – a broadcast, quota or investment requirement – is yet to be devised.

The intent is to bring the pubcasters in line with other services, such as the commercial networks.

“An Australian programming obligation for the national broadcasters would put a floor under the national broadcasters’ commitment to producing and screening this content, codifying what they already do,” the paper states.

In a wide-ranging address at La Trobe University yesterday, Anderson argued that applying content requirements to the ABC would represent “a subtle but clear amendment” to its charter, and “an incursion into its independence.”

“Generally speaking, you impose obligations on organisations to ensure they do something you fear they might not otherwise do. In this case, however, the Green Paper acknowledges that the public broadcasters are significant commissioners of Australian content. I sense it’s a solution looking for a problem.

“The amount of Australian content that the ABC commissions is a function of its budget, not a matter of intent,” he said.

“Setting a minimum level of expenditure for television production would reduce our flexibility to appropriately and independently allocate funds across all ABC activities, including news and regional services.

“It could set a precedent for further interventions in the allocation of the ABC’s budget.

“Essential to the perception of the ABC’s independence and impartiality is the reality that we are independent and detached from government direction.

“It is in no-one’s interest to see any erosion in the ABC’s independence.”

In his speech, Anderson emphasised that Australian content is already at the heart of the ABC.

The MD noted that in the five years prior to the pandemic, the ABC had commissioned 1,477 hours of local content and invested $468 million into the independent production sector, on productions worth a total of $971 million. In 2018/19, the ABC invested in more local titles than Seven, Nine, 10 and SBS combined.

The ABC’s commitment to distinctively Australian content was more important now than it had ever been, Anderson argued, with content quotas relaxed on commerical broadcasters and local content “hard to find” on paywalled VOD platforms.

“It is a matter of strategic consequence to Australia that we keep on reflecting the nation back to itself with all its diversity, sharing who we are with the world,” he said.

“High quality, uniquely Australian content will remain free for all Australians on the ABC’s broadcast and digital platforms.”

The government is consulting on the green paper until May 23.