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Australian media is facing challenging times

Digital disruption presents challenges for the ABC but also new opportunities, ABC Chair, Ita Buttrose AC, OBE, has told a CEDA audience in Brisbane.

“Things are evolving quickly and when faced with evolution, those who adapt survive,” Ms Buttrose said.

“Media evolution has been driven by technology. In the space of a decade, newspapers and magazines have had to make the transition from Gutenberg to Zuckerberg technology.

"Television no longer has to be the big piece of furniture that took up much of the living room; these days television is a mobile personalised service with programs available from across the world at the touch of a button or even at your verbal command. It is no longer His Master’s Voice; it’s ‘Alexa, find me the news.’

“Crucially, these programs are often delivered without the disruption of advertisements. The FANGS—Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google—are taking a huge bite out of Australia’s advertising pie, and as a result, the bottom line for commercial TV, radio and print is getting smaller by the day.”

Reflecting on the changes she has seen in her own career as a journalist, Ms Buttrose said that “Australian commercial media is facing its most challenging times.”

“We at the ABC may not face precisely identical pressures, but we have plenty of our own to deal with: a diminishing budget in real terms; the rising costs of making high-end Australian content, competing with an almost endless supply of programs from the giant international competitors, continued investment in resource-intensive public interest journalism; balancing the cost of maintaining traditional broadcast technology, while investing in digital and online services; and a public that rightly demands the highest quality Australian content when and where they want it.”

Ms Buttrose emphasised the effect that competition from online content platforms has had on the local media landscape.

“Each minute more than 500 hours of content is being uploaded to YouTube, one million people are logging on to Facebook, and 700 hours of content is being watched on Netflix. On the one side, barriers are down, with content and services flooding in from across the world. On the other, Australian commercial media is pulling up the drawbridge to save their most valuable possession: shareholder confidence. They are taking fewer risks, concentrating on rationalising their resources, investing only in what they have to, and banding together to increase scale.”

In this context, the ABC had an opportunity “to be bold, to be enterprising, to be Australian,” Ms Buttrose said.

Referencing the “Australian cinema renaissance” of the 1970s and 1980s and the recent success of Australian children’s TV show Bluey, Ms Buttrose said that “success stories like these can be reproduced, but it requires a concerted effort, and to some extent, a collegial approach.”

“This may seem an anathema to some, and Australian media, particularly commercial television, is notoriously cutthroat. But as the fallout from recent events has shown, with adversity comes unity. Who would have thought that it would have taken the Australian federal police to bring the ABC and News Corporation together?” she said.

Speaking further to this point, Ms Buttrose said that the recent AFP raids on the homes and offices of media figures reflect the need for a serious conversation about press freedom in Australia. 

“In calling for media law reform and better protection for journalists and whistleblowers, we are not seeking for anyone to be above the law. We respect the law, and we certainly respect the need to observe the rules of national security.

“Journalists have always been keepers of secrets. We can be trusted, we don’t always report on everything that comes before us, often because matters truly are in the interests of national security. But there needs to be a better clarification for what exactly ‘in the interests of national security’ means,” she said.

“For instance, there were more than 4000 reports of assaults in nursing homes throughout Australia last year, but the media is not permitted to tell Australians if they were by staff, or residents or if they lead to convictions. If I had a relative in an aged care facility where assaults were happening or had happened, I would like to know about it and I am sure we all would.”

Ms Buttrose spoke about the important role of the public broadcaster against this background.

“Effective democracy depends on informed public debate about key issues affecting society, and the nation and this need is best served by the presence of a diverse range of sources of news and other information, including those that are independent of commercial and other vested interests.”
“There is a clear role for public broadcasters, which not only increase the number of news and information services, but are legislatively obliged to provide independent news and information services.”
Ms Buttrose was candid about the challenges facing the ABC moving forward.
“Like all traditional media in Australia, the ABC has had to face challenges. We are now all in the ring with heavyweight opponents, with whom we can’t compete on pure size and strength, so this means we have to be agile and creative and determined and fast moving.”
To survive in this space, Ms Buttrose said, the ABC will also have to focus on its unique advantages.

“Public support is one of our greatest strengths. More than two out of three Australians come to us every week and 88 per cent of Australians think we provide quality services and content.”

“To retain relevance and trust we must continue to be at the centre of the Australian way of life. We also have to be meaningful and unifying.  Our aim is to continue to invest in the content that resonates highly with our audiences and also find new content that is just as creative, distinctive and of high quality.”

“We also need to reflect contemporary Australia as it is today in all its diversity - geographical, cultural and socio-economic.”

“I believe that in having plans in place we will continue to hold the trust and support of the Australian public.”

Event presentations

Ita Buttrose AC OBE, ABC MP3

Moderated discussion MP3

Delegate handout PDF

Published 4 November 2019.