ABC Managing Director’s first public speech

In Russell Balding’s first speech to the media in Melbourne this week he has shown that he has both a sense of humour and a sense of what the ABC should be doing during his tenure as Managing Director. Balding even pokes fun at himself. Here are excerpts of what he had to say:


You may be asking yourselves why I’ve chosen Melbourne for my first address
to the media.

Well Melbourne does happen to be the city of our Treasurer. It also happens
to be the city of our Minister, and purely by coincidence, we just happen to
be currently preparing our triennial funding submission to Government.

Now you might like to make some sort of connection there but I wouldn’t. I’
m just here because I love Melbourne.

… it’s been three months and twenty days since my appointment as
Managing Director of the ABC – not that I am counting. I have not forgotten the kindness of some of you who wrote that my
appointment was a clear sign the ABC was about to enter a glamorous new era
… one characterised by brown cardigans, slip-on shoes and compulsory
spreadsheet studies. I’m sorry, I’ve left the cardigan at home, but I am
wearing the slip-on shoes.

However, I am sure you will appreciate the key advantage of running the
finances of the ABC – and any business – is that you rapidly develop an
overview of the entire business, the full range of output, and every step of
strategy. You also know where all the bodies are buried.

But I suppose the question about my appointment really was – can an
accountant lead an organisation dedicated to creativity and quality program
making, including the delivery of an independent news and current affairs
service without fear or favour? Can an accountant deliver the necessary
environment to enable the ABC to not only survive, but to excel and grow

Rather than jump to conclusions now, I would simply ask you to reserve
judgement on that until we’re a little further down the track. However I do
believe we already have a number of runs on the board, and we have a few to

So what have we achieved thus far?

… Morale has certainly lifted, and our staff are galvanised and focused on
making or supporting the making and broadcasting of programs.

In relation to our audiences: ABC Television audiences are currently their
highest ever, with overall growth of 7.5% this year compared to 2001.

Radio’s reach also is the highest ever – with a great deal of that success
due to Local Radio’s 5% rise. Again this is compared to the same period in
2001 while ABC Online has achieved a 25% growth…

ABC Local Radio

· Overall growth of 5%. (in the first 6 months of 2002 when compared to the
first 6 months of 2001)

· In people aged 25-39, growth of 8%; and

· In people aged 40-54, growth of 9%.

ABC Online

· Overall growth of 25% (in the first 6 months of 2002 when compared to the
first 6 months of 2001)

· Accesses to The Backyard at ABC Online have grown by 53%.

Why do I bother mentioning this? What do ratings measure anyway? I mention
them because while the ABC does not exist for ratings, nor does it live by
the figures, they are one of the tools for measuring your audience
connection. Yet they are only one measure…

On television we launched Business Breakfast five days a week starting on
3rd June. On 4th August we launched Inside Business, Seven Days and Asia
Pacific Focus and extended Insiders to deliver a two-hour block on Sunday
mornings of quality and distinctive programs on society, culture, politics
and money.

On radio we extended NewsRadio to the Gold Coast in February, and to Gosford
in July, launched our seventh radio network – the new digital internet radio
service Dig. We’re currently producing the Essential Debates series, which
features talent from all over regional Australia that will be broadcast
nationally on Local Radio.

Radio National has introduced a suite of new programs including – Nightclub,
All in the Mind, The Makers, Street Stories, and The Quiz…

This quiet period of refocusing of the ABC on the main game of programs and
reclaiming some of our traditional turf, particularly in the business area,
has I think been essential.

If that means we are no longer conducting our daily business in the
headlines, so be it. The correct role for the ABC is not to be the news, but
to report the news.

We’re back to reporting the news. And interestingly enough, Melbourne’s a
winning city for the ABC’s local news on both television and radio, and of
course the ABC’s most successful local radio station, 774 ABC Melbourne…

But most importantly, the ABC remains appreciated and vital to the lives of
Australians. Audiences are engaging with programs they consider to be high
quality, relevant and entertaining.

During June this year, a Community Appreciation Survey was conducted by
Newspoll to measure perceptions about the ABC’s value, quality, balance, and
the fulfilling of its Charter.

The 2002 Newspoll survey follows similar studies in 1998 and 1999, and is
part of the continual research program about quality and appreciation of
ABC services.

We recently received the results of that survey – and there have been
several notable improvements in community opinion of the ABC since 1999.

In 2002, 9 out of 10 Australians (91%) believe the ABC provides “a valuable
service to the community” a rise of 5% since 1999.

Now what other media organisation, what other private company, what other
public body enjoys that level of community support?

Almost eight in ten Australians (78%) believe the quality of programming on
ABC Television is good, again up on 1998 and 1999 (75%). 65% of Australians
in country and regional areas rated the quality of ABC radio programming as

Newspoll also sought community views on whether the ABC was balanced and

The Newspoll survey found that 79% of Australians believe that the ABC is
“balanced and even-handed” in news and current affairs.

Newspoll also specifically asked about perceptions of some key programs… With audiences of The 730
Report, AM/PM and The World Today 89%, 89% and 86% respectively believed
these programs did a good job of being “balanced and even-handed”.

Let’s not forget that a perception of bias is not a proof of bias.

But we do not always get it right. We do make mistakes and I am not walking
away from that. We are looking to improve our performance here. If an
error occurs, we want to know about it, acknowledge and rectify it. An
error, however, is not evidence of “institutionalised bias”.


On the possible Changes Ahead in Australia’s Media Environment Balding had these comments

I am sure you will all appreciate that the broadcasting and media industries
are continually confronted by either real change or the threat of change.
Quite a deal of change in both these industries is inevitable during the
next couple of years.

The maelstrom many of us thought broadcasting was about to be swept into at
the end of the 90’s was delayed or simply stalled. Though the timing may
have been wrong, the inevitability was not – and that maelstrom is upon us
now. You only have to look at the number of policy and regulatory issues on
the table at present.

Therefore change will not only come through new technologies but also
through the various Government policy initiatives currently under review.

Like the Broadcasting Services Amendment Bill and proposed changes to media
ownership regulation.

Like the ACCC’s examination of the Foxtel/Optus merger.

Like the possible creation of a super regulator by combining the Australian
Broadcasting Authority and the Australian Communications Authority.

Like the extraordinary growth of broadband internet services…

The ABC can play an important role in digital conversion through providing
new channels and services to attract audiences to digital and ensuring ABC
services are accessible to all Australians across the country…

It has been said many times before that a strong and healthy media is
fundamental to our democracy, fundamental to our freedom of speech, and
fundamental to the enrichment of our lives… regardless of the outcome of the proposed legislation, I would like
to stress the importance of media diversity and media independence in any
democratic society.

Just as importantly, any definition of media diversity which does not
include the ABC is meaningless.

No other media outlet has the universal reach of the ABC, particularly
throughout regional Australia. The ABC will remain crucial to preserving
diversity of voices and views in all parts of Australia, not just the larger


On the topic of ABC funding Balding said:

Every three years, the ABC presents a funding submission to Government in
support of its activities. It is an argument to the Government about what
we do, what it costs, and why it is necessary ie. the role and the relevance
of the ABC.

We are currently preparing that submission now. Each plank of that funding
submission is an opportunity expressly linked to an outcome for audiences,
extending the value of what the ABC delivers under the Charter.

Unfortunately, sometimes these things become only an economic argument, not
a cultural one. And while economic arguments will dominate the debate, we
will also support the case for our cultural objectives.

The submission will also rest upon evidence about –

Good governance, as indicated by the recent ANAO performance audit.

Substantial efficiency and productivity gains as a result of major
initiatives over the past 5 to 6 years.

Current efficiency and effectiveness, drawing on the current Output Pricing
Review exercise and available benchmarking.

Comparative ABC funding levels, drawing on a Macquarie Bank analysis of a
number of international, national and historical benchmarks.

We’ve been through a Business Services Review and an Output Pricing Review,
the ANAO has scoured the organisation, we’ve reformed our complaints
handling processes, Corporate Governance practices, and various performance

We now have numerous comparative industry benchmarks as a result of our
international public broadcaster benchmarking exercise which benchmarks us
against the “Industry Average” – not individual broadcasters…

Since 1996 the ABC has been reduced, reformed, refocused and restructured to
the limit. Years of doing more with less has taken its toll – and as far as
ABC services go, we are at the limit of our comprehensiveness without
additional funding. There are no more rabbits left in the hat…
And while we haven’t given up the search for efficiencies, such efficiencies
will not be that significant in the overall scheme of things.

While our funding has declined in real terms since the 80’s, we’ve done our
best to meet the challenges of the changing media environment…

And whilst our audiences have certainly benefited from the additional $17.8m
pa for four years, provided to us by the Government last financial year, we
need certainty of the continuation of that funding…

The ABC is truly needed more than ever.