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ABC chairman Justin Milne calls on Australians to choose if they want a national broadcaster

The ABC Chairman Justin Milne has challenged the nation to decide whether it wants a public broadcaster.

Speaking to the American Chamber of Commerce in Sydney, Milne outlined the broadcaster’s history of fights with the private sector dating back to the days of Sir Keith Murdoch and warned the ABC’s future would be in doubt should its digital activities be curtailed.

Milne’s comments come after Fairfax accused the ABC of undermining the sustainability of commercial news journalism earlier this week and public rallies supporting the ABC starting last weekend.

“Allow me to rewind back to 1934. Just months after the ABC was created, the proper role of public broadcasting was first debated when Sir Keith Murdoch bitterly opposed the Corporation’s right to broadcast an air race held to celebrate Melbourne’s centenary,” Milne said.

“In the 1950s, as debate flared about whether Australia really needed television, there was again lobbying against the ABC. In the shadow of the Cold War, some warned darkly about the menace of establishing a state-controlled television service, and they came perilously close to achieving their aim. The constant refrain from commercial rivals was that the ABC competed ‘improperly’ with private enterprise.

“Australia has reached another decision point in respect of public broadcasting just like those of the past. The first was whether to establish an ABC, then whether to equip it to deliver a news service independent of the commercial media barons, then once again whether to invest in a public television service. And now, as we enter a digital age, Australia must decide whether it wants an ABC fit for the future, and if so, what investments the nation is willing to make to achieve that.”

Milne’s speech followed managing director of the ABC Michelle Guthrie last month warning the government and Liberal Party that Australians would not tolerate the broadcaster being a political ‘punching bag’.

In her speech to the Melbourne Press Club, Guthrie also criticised the Federal government’s pressures on the ABC’s funding and the Liberal Party’s calls to privatise the broadcaster.

Milne avoided Guthrie’s direct warnings to the government but advocated for the national broadcaster, warning commercial media couldn’t fill the role taken by the ABC.

“Perhaps we should leave the commercial media to entertain our toddlers, educate our students, define Australian culture, unite a nation, and serve regional audiences.

“Some would argue an enlightened private sector dominated by owners in the United States will find a way of marrying commercial and Australian national interest, and produce local content about the arts, sciences, religion or music. What could possibly go wrong?”

Milne did join Guthrie in defending the ABC against accusations of bias while conceding the organisation had made reporting mistakes which had seen the broadcaster accused of repeating ‘Labor lies’ by the communications minister and being censured by regulator ACMA for ‘judgemental and pejorative’ reporting about former Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

“Those brickbats are taken seriously, because we can and do make mistakes. At this moment, for example, there are more than 60 ABC microphones open all around the country. Four television networks and 10 radio networks are broadcasting 24/7. And online articles are published every minute or so.

“Given that volume, unsurprisingly we are sometimes wrong, and some of those brickbats turn out to be well-founded complaints. Irrespective of that, I can assure you that our 4,000 people are dedicated to telling the truth and providing accurate and impartial content. And for the vast majority of the time they are spectacularly successful.

“But the biggest question facing the ABC is not whether one journalist or another makes a mistake today. Nor, frankly, is it even a question of bias. The vast majority of Australians – some 80 per cent – think the ABC is not biased. Nonetheless I have come to discover that complaints come equally from men and women, from Catholics and Protestants, and from places as far apart as Port Douglas and Port Lincoln. Labor supporters are outraged that we are ‘captive to the right’, and Liberals complain we are a ‘hotbed of communism’. Situation normal.”

Milne concluded his speech by emphasising the ABC’s role in Australian society and in preserving a national identity: “Today, in a world of global platforms and content, it has never been more important for Australia to retain its identity. And in a world of contested views and facts, it has never been more important to provide an independent and trusted voice, to promote informed democratic debate, and to drive public accountability through investments in investigative journalism.”

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