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Dr Toija Cinque
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Should the Charters of the National Broadcasters be amended to more clearly define their broad programming directions and priorities? Should such priorities take into account the nature and reach of particular delivery platforms?
Dr Toija Cinque*
While the public interest aspects of public broadcasting are based on core principles, they are not static but dynamic and open to change. As Australia was a relatively new nation at the time that the ABC was created, one of its initial goals was to give direction and identity to Australian society, and promote national cohesion in the process. In addition to this, its purpose was founded on the principles for public broadcasting adopted by the BBC which involved being a national broadcaster operating not to make a profit with programs conforming to 'high standards'. The ABC did not, however, operate in the same broadcasting environment as the BBC in terms of having a monopoly over broadcasting. As such, it established that offering programs of high standards needed to also include some form of entertainment. What exactly 'high standards' meant, however, was imprecise in the ABC's Charter. In the 1930s, the ABC defined the notion as 'adequate and comprehensive' programming for primarily educative purposes that met the needs of the Australian Community?a community implicitly understood to be Anglo-Celtic.
The principles that underpin public broadcasting are dynamic and socially determined. Therefore, not only did the ABC's mandate for 'adequate and comprehensive' programming change with revisions to its legislation but they reacted to new concepts of nationhood in Australia that began with post World War Two immigration. The ABC came to reflect the cultural diversity of the Australian community in the broadcasting of programs put to air according to section 6 (1) (i) of the new Australian Broadcasting Act 1983 and the public interest obligations contained within the ABC Charter were newly expressed in a revised charter. Programs for radio and television were to remain 'comprehensive' in nature, but rather than being simply 'adequate', they were now to be 'innovative'. Confronted with social change, the federal government also established SBS to provide for the special needs of migrants to Australia through the broadcasting of programs in original languages that would inform the new Australians of issues relevant to them and their communities. SBS had the additional role of promoting multiculturalism in Australia. In the end, these public interest (Charter) obligations have evolved as the needs of society have changed. This is an ongoing process. Moreover, these core public broadcasting functions continue to be developed and enhanced through the uptake and use of innovative new technologies such as the internet.
Although the term 'innovative' was not included in the ABC's Charter until the 1980s, both the ABC and SBS have consistently adopted new technologies as they have become available. The innovative technologies included analogue and FM radio, black and white, colour and digital television, pay-television, datacasting and the internet. Through the use of such technologies, the ABC and SBS have expanded their public interest obligations to meet the shifting needs and composition of Australian society. At this stage of technological development, however, the internet is proving to be the most effective means by which the public broadcasters can extend their public interest obligations and should have recognition in any revision of charter obligations. As well as providing access to radio and television broadcasts using broadband technology, the public broadcasters'
vortals can promote an informed citizenry through access to educational offerings and a diversity of services that goes beyond that afforded by radio and television. Moreover, in a country that needs communications, information, education and entertainment services across almost 8 million square kilometers for regional, metropolitan as well as international matters the public broadcasters' vortals might be vital. The public interest obligations have proved crucial to promoting certain social (welfare), educational, cultural and political outcomes, fostering notions of equality and identity, as well as providing access to key sources of reliable information and a forum for debate. This standard should continue as the foundation for public broadcasting service provision and content creation via new technologies. Indeed, public broadcasting has a prime responsibility in the digital age to encourage diversity, innovation and audience access to its services drawing on the expanded capacities now afforded by technological innovation. Australia's ABC and SBS have shown themselves capable to continuing to play a dynamic and fundamental role through their activities as both broadcasters and netcasters in the future, not only to Australian audiences but to those around the globe. The challenge will be to find a balance between providing full and diverse access to services with no cost while ensuring that their content is reliable and useful.
The public interest mandate would be maintained and even enhanced as new technologies are used to transmit its content according to charter obligations. Although some of the specific applications have been controversial, the public interest objectives have become accepted as integral to traditional public broadcasting activities. This paper concludes that continuing to appreciate the need for a core set of values is crucial for an informed and educated population and for the future of public broadcasting. Indeed, public broadcasting has the vital responsibility to encourage diversity, innovation and audience access to its services in the digital age.
* Dr Toija Cinque is a Lecturer in Communications and Media Studies in the National Centre for Australian Studies, School of Humanities, Communications and Social Sciences, Monash University. She researches and publishes in the areas of communications and media policy; public broadcasting; digital television and datacasting; and internet use and regulation.
1. A 'vortal' is the term used to describe 'vertical slices of broadbased retrieval systems [that] allow depth and detailed information' (Dennis and Merrill, 2002:93). Vortals provide deeper and more detailed navigation elsewhere using external as well as internal hyperlinks. This term is contrasted with 'portal' which describes a website designed to encourage users to remain within its website (a walled garden) rather than navigating elsewhere.
Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983
Dennis, E.E., & Merrill, J.C. (2002). Media Debates: Great Issues for the Digital Age, third edition, Melbourne: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.