The author has been described by News Ltd as an "iconoclast", "Svengali", a pollie's "economist muse", and "pungently accurate". Fairfax says he is a "Renaissance man" and "one of Australia’s most respected analysts." Stephen Koukoulas concludes that he is "85% right", and "would make a great Opposition leader." Terry McCrann claims the author thinks "‘nuance’ is a trendy village in the south of France", but can be "scintillating" when he thinks "clearly". The ACTU reckons he’s "an enigma wrapped in a Bloomberg terminal, wrapped in some apparently well-honed abs."

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Do we need the ABC supplying its free opinion forum, The Drum?

You see some sloppy thinking around the ABC's new opinion site, The Drum. Upfront, I happily concede that as a--pointedly non-paid--contributor to The Drum, one might allege that I am biased. But I think the logic here is clear and compelling.

I have previously outlined in some detail why I think it's pretty obvious that a public broadcaster is an important utility that every Australian taxpayer should feel entitled to. Freely available and objective news is a condition precedent to our stable and vibrant democracy. Contrary to some silly claims, there is no private news service that could or would serve as an adequate surrogate for the information that the ABC currently supplies to metropolitan and regional communities.

Of course, the ABC is a patently imperfect operator, and could do much to continue to improve its performance and eviscerate its own single biggest threat: centre-left editorial bias, which is something I think it has struggled with in the past. But I believe this is a matter that Mark Scott, the current managing director of the ABC, has made considerable inroads into since the start of his tenure.

As a natural extension to its core news dissemination role, the ABC is in the perfect position to offer a freely accessible and credible forum for aggregating public debate and informed commentary on the key community issues of the day. It already does this on TV via the 730 Report and Lateline. Some critics contend that the public is already adequately served by the likes of Crikey, The Australian, and/or Sky News. Yet one way or another these are all exclusionary subscription services that are not freely available to all taxpayers (The Oz's website will shortly disappear behind a paywall).

If these organisations can add-value over and above the simple opinion aggregation service the ABC furnishes taxpayers on a near costless basis (ie, by supplying a platform like The Drum where various experts can contribute content), then people will willingly pay for their product. If they cannot, they do not have a viable business model. It's as simple as that.

Now there are reasonable questions to be asked around how much taxpayer money the ABC is investing in this service, and whether we are getting good bang for our buck. My own view is that The Drum's editor, Jonathon Green, has done an outstanding job bringing together top commentators from the far right (eg, Tom Switzer), centre-right (eg, Chris Berg and Malcolm Turnbull), and the more usual suspects from the centre-left and far left.

More importantly, unlike other major media organisations, such as The Australian, there is no explicit editorial, political and policy agenda. The Drum does not back one side of politics come election time. It does not push a particular policy prescription. Indeed, Green seems actively committed to presenting every side to a story and letting his readers decide. Take the Government's $37 billion (?) investment in the NBN, which the ABC will presumably benefit a great deal from. Green has nevertheless run many articles by the likes of myself and Malcolm Turnbull tearing it apart.

In contrast, The Australian makes no bones about the fact that it takes firm views on both policies and politics. In effect, it makes a decision on behalf of its readers, and seeks to convince them of it. Its campaign against the NBN, which I applaud, is just one example of this. By applying its own discretinary policy judgements, The Australian also plays a very valuable role in the public policy firmament.

When people behave in an aggressively defensive fashion towards others, they are often projecting their own insecurities. I would say that this principle also holds in the case of the The Drum's more vigorous opponents. (To be clear, I am not directing these observations towards Gerard Henderson in today's SMH. His article did, however, prompt me to quickly put pen to paper on a subject I had been meaning to write about for a while.)