Sydney Ideas

Future of Public Service Media – Sydney Ideas

“There’s no universal model of public service media, in terms of content, principles or funding” was the concensus of the academics who spoke at a Sydney Ideas forum, which I attended tonight. “Sydney Ideas”, by the way, is a series of regular public forums which I sometimes go along to. Despite our “BBC model” of public service media we have in Australia, the academics spoke of the diversity of public service media.

In the US, for example, they have public service media which is largely funded by the private sector. One of the characteristics of US public service media is “they spend a lot of time begging you for money”, was how Professor Andrew Calabrese described the situation. One of the consequences of the funding model, he argued, was the public radio network was stronger than the public television network. He argued the development of the online visual story-telling by US public radio might eventually see public radio overtake public television in that space.

Dr Benedetta Brevini spoke about the differing models of public service media funding in Europe, highlighting that some countries are supported by government revenue, others by a licence fee, others by commercials, and others still by a combination of all of those sources. Despite this variety, she argued, public service media had been under attack since at both an individual country level, and at a European-wide level since, about 2003, which she linked with the downturn of the European economy. Despite the policy changes, she argued, there was little evidence to support the idea that if you take public funding away, the commercial sector improves. Indeed, she further argued there’s evidence in the UK, a strong presence by the BBC in the online space, further added to the financial viability of the commercial sector. She further went on to argue, there’s a common interest for public sector media with other public focussed organisations, including museums and art galleries.

Closer to home, Dr John Keane located the development of the “BBC model/Reithian model” of public broadcasting (the same model we have in Australia pretty much) within the context of 1920s/1930 nation building. He further talked fairly disparagingly about the “moralism” of the “BBC model” as something which should be “good for you”. In the same way the arrival of radio and television in the 1920s/1930s was a key driver for this particular model, he argued current changes to technology is changing the model of public service media in ways it’s perhaps too early to adequately articulate. He did, however, note a new model of public media emerging in a number of despotic regimes where the idea of “public service” doesn’t exist, where it’s all about “public control with a touch of Hollywood” (or words to that effect). Despite the strong variation in funding models, programming models and so on, Keane went on to argue, generally speaking “public service media” stands “as an alternative to government and private sector influence”.

One of the key issues public service media has failed to do adequately in Australia, argued Dr Fiona Martin, was go through a process of evaluation. As well as the raw numbers of viewership, funding, and models of efficiency, she argued public service media companies like the ABC and SBS needed to further quantify the impact of their programming. She mentioned, for example, a study by SBS of their program, “Go Back To Where You Came From” which was able to begin to understand the impact of the program on migrant communities themselves. As a consequence of mostly focussing on domestic arguments about public sector funding, she argued organisations like the ABC, the BBC and the CBC were missing out on opportunities to co-operate on making programs and in better international-focussed journalism.

Fiona also spoke about what she thought were fallacious arguments that reducing the size of the public sector would assist the private sector, and that new technologies (the internet) would assist the “broken market” model of public sector funding. She argued the arrival of advertising competition (through publications like Daily Mail, The Guardian and so on in Australia) has lessened the journalistic activity of local publications. Further, the market was “still broke”, she argued, because you “couldn’t crowd-fund a program like The Gods Of Wheat Street”.

A further really interesting question raised by Fiona was the idea of whether “public service media” needs to be seen more broadly than media which was funded by the public, citing the example of “The Guardian”.

Although by the end (8.00pm) I was a little peckish, it was a really interesting way to spend a couple of hours on a Wednesday night, and maintained my interest throughout. It was also really nice to catch up (very briefly) with Fiona which whom I shared a house more than twenty-five years ago when we were both aspiring ABC broadcasters.


Professor Andrew Calabrese is a faculty member of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Colorado Boulder. His research centres mainly on the relationship between communication media and citizenship with an emphasis on theoretical and practical issues of media and globalization. He edits a book series called Critical Media Studies for the publisher Rowman & Littlefield and serves on editorial boards of several research journals. He is a board member of the European Institute for Communication and Culture.

John Keane is Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney and at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin (WZB). He is the Director of the Sydney Democracy Network (SDN). Renowned globally for his creative thinking about democracy, John Keane was educated at the Universities of Adelaide and Toronto and King’s College, University of Cambridge. Among his best-known books are The Media and Democracy (translated into more than 25 languages); the biography Tom Paine: A Political Life (2009); and the recently published Democracy and Media Decadence (2013). HisLife and Death of Democracy was short-listed for the 2010 Non-Fiction Prime Minister’s Literary Award. It is the first full-scale history of democracy for over a century.

Dr Benedetta Brevini is Lecturer in Communication and Media at the University of Sydney and Visiting Fellow of Centre for Law Justice and Journalism at City University She is author of Public Service Broadcasting Online: A Comparative European Policy Study of PSB 2.0 (2013) and co-editor of the volume Beyond WikiLeaks: Implications for the Future of Communications, Journalism & Society (2013). Her work has appeared in international publications such as the European Journal of Communication, Interaction: Studies in Communication and Culture, Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, Political Communication Polcom. She is a member of the coordinating committee of the UK based Media Reform Coalition whose role is to coordinate the most effective contribution by civil society groups, academics and media campaigners to debates over media regulation, ownership and democracy.

Dr Fiona Martin is a Discovery Early Career Research Award fellow and Senior Lecturer in Convergent and Online Media at the University of Sydney. Her research investigates the uses, politics and regulation of online media (internet, web, mobile devices and IPTV) and their implications for media industry change. She has a particular interest in the evolution of public service media and is co-author and editor of The Value of Public Service Media: RIPE@2013 (2013), a contributor to Ethics for Digital Journalists (2014) and to Histories of Public Service Broadcasting Online (2012). Her current ARC funded projects are Mediating The Conversation analysing the politics and cultures of public commenting on news and opinion websites internationally, and Moving Media, investigating mobile Internet and mobile media policy for digital citizenship. Fiona is a former community and ABC radio broadcaster, a cross-media journalist and journalism educator. She tweets @media_republik and @mobileinternetz.

View from the sixth floor of Google HQ in Sydney

Google 4 Media Day

View from the sixth floor of Google HQ in Sydney

View from the sixth floor of Google HQ in Sydney

The view from the sixth floor cafe at Google HQ in Sydney is pretty damn good. Along with about 150 others, I participated today in a “Google 4 Media Day” held there which ended with a couple of glasses of wine. It was a lovely day in Sydney, with a nice breeze, and the perfect end to an interesting day.

Organised by the Media Team at Google here in Sydney, there was an obvious PR element to the day, as we were encouraged to use Youtube, Google+, Hangouts, Earth and other Google products. But there were lots of other interesting things covered which won’t necessarily lead directly to greater profits for one of the world’s largest companies.

“I’d never heard of until today”, I said to someone over lunch. is the philanthropic part of Google, where they support non-for-profit organisations, and do “good things” such as Crisis Response. One of the engineers who works on Crisis Response, based here in Sydney, Anthony Baxter (who has a wonderfully dry sense of humour) spoke about their recent work on public transportation in New York around Hurricane Sandy, as an example of how they’re working to create up to date information which can hopefully help people when they need it most.

Souvenier Android Thumb Drive

Souvenier Android Thumb Drive

The first part of the day, however, was spent going through some of the more advanced Google Search features, which I already use including searching by dates. Some time was also spent talking about Google Trends which I had read about, but hadn’t investigated properly. Trends allows you to get an idea of what people are searching for online, with the oft-quoted example of how they’ve been able to track influenza ahead of the game, and share that information with health authorities. “It’s not statistical”, was the common refrain from a number of people over morning tea, to which someone replied “think of it as a tip-off”. It’s just another research tool, I added to the discussion.

There was also a really interesting discussion in the morning about social media and journalism, involving people from Storyful, Mashable and the New York Times (more than half their audience is international, these days, apparently). There were a couple of interesting things which came out of this session, including an observation that, as data networks became congested (or unavailable) during Hurricane Sandy, many people used SMS to post to, and receive information from Twitter. The most interesting panellist, I thought, was David Clinch from Storyful. As I’ve sat down tonight and reviewed my notes, he was the one who said the things I most often quoted. My favourite quote from him, about social media generally, was that you’re not looking for “the wisdom of the crowd” but instead “the wisdom in the crowd”. He also made the argument media companies shouldn’t “waste time and resources on social media, if they aren’t going to directly lead to better content”. The session was conducted as a Google Hangout, and is now available to watch on Youtube.

I also really liked the idea of The Lives They Lived, based around one of my favourite parts of the New York Times, their obituary section. I really like their obituaries, as they’re always so well written. But this feature sought to “democratize” the obituaries, and asked their readers to write in about “ordinary people” who they knew who had died in the last year. I guess it’s because I like family history so much, that I think this is such an interesting idea.

There was also a session this morning about Youtube, and I was particularly interested to in CitizenTube which features curated and verified content from “ordinary people” around current news events. One of the most interesting statistics which came out from this session was that Australians were the third most likely, behind the US and Canada, to watch the recent Presidential Debates on Youtube.

A little bit of learning in the men's toilet at Google HQ in Sydney

A little bit of learning in the men’s toilet at Google HQ in Sydney

Later in the afternoon, we split off into groups where the focus was on practical hands-on use of a number of applications particularly suited to use by media. There was a session on data visualization, one on Google Maps, and the one I attended, the session called “Getting Started with Google+ Hangouts”. Even though I’ve used hangouts (it took about ninety seconds to download the plugin and work out how to use), I was interested to learn more about hangouts. As well as the ability to interact with audiences in new ways, I think they have enormous potential for broadcast, including radio, as they can deliver reasonably good audio from up to ten people simultaneously. I’ve done a little experimentation with them at work, and have concluded that at this stage of the development of the product, and the lack of high quality broadband, they’ll probably work best in a pre-recorded environment. When the NBN rolls out, I suspect they’ll come into their own for broadcasters. Of course, there’s a lot of companies and products competing in this space, but significantly, Hangouts are currently free, whereas multiple person chats on Skype, for example, come at a cost.

Fox Sports uses Google+ Hangouts

Fox Sports uses Google+ Hangouts

I asked a question about which media companies in Australia had been using Google Hangouts. The early use by +Sunrise was mentioned, with specific reference to their multi-camera “behind the scenes” hangout. Having a look at the Sunrise page tonight, I note, their page hasn’t been updated since the end of August when they gained a new, simpler url. Nova was also mentioned, as was Fox Sports who have been conducting viewer hangouts with sports fans. Also on the sporting side of things, Carlton Football Club has been involved in a number of regular hangouts, where fans get to meet players, the coach, and other officials. I quite like their use of an animated gif in their Google+ profile page.

Sport has been a big thing for Google+, as has travel, photographing and cooking. “The best hangouts are those with a practical element to them”, Lucinda Barlow who is Head of Marketing Google Australia & NZ went on to say, showing us examples of cooking glasses, and even yoga glasses which have been conducted using Google Hangouts. A few weeks ago I showed by Swedish teacher how to set up a hangout, as she is interested in connecting with remote students, emphasising the educational possibilities of this platform.

The answer to “how long should a hangout be” is pretty much the same as “how long is a piece of string”. Although the answer to “how long CAN a hangout be” is “four hours”, it was noted author hangouts tend to be about twenty minutes. “That feels about right”,

It was also interesting to learn about the Lower Thirds App which allows you to caption your guests in a hangout.

Although I’m not one for “networking” at these kind of events, I did enjoy catching up with some other “media types” who I hadn’t seen for a while.

Andrew Olle Media Lecture - Cassie, James, Cath, Wendy

Andrew Olle Media Lecture

Andrew Olle Media Lecture - Cassie, James, Cath, Wendy

Andrew Olle Media Lecture – Cassie, James, Cath, Wendy

It was another of those regular “big nights” for me.

The “Andrew Olle Media Lecture” is one of my favourite nights of the year, professionally-speaking. I get to dress up (in the same tux I’ve been wearing for several years), I get to do a bit of schmoozing, and I get to hear someone interesting talk about the state of the Australian media.

According to this year’s lecturer, Julian Morrow from “The Chaser”, this was memorable as a year of comedy gaffes. He cited not only the “Make A Realistic Wish” sketch, but also the controversy around Kyle Sandilands, “Hey Hey, It’s Saturday” and a few others.

In tonight’s lecture, Julian apologised unreservedly to those people who had been hurt by the sketch, in particular those who had lived through childhood cancer, or have lost a child in such circumstances.

They are the people that I’m sorry about. I know that they have, arbitrarily, been afflicted with grief caused by one of life’s cruellest realities. You’ve got tears enough in your life if that happens. A comedy show shouldn’t add to those pools of grief. Lest there is any misunderstanding, if you are one of those people, I want to reiterate my sincerest apology to you for the unwarranted pain that sketch caused when you have already have too much suffering in your life.

He added he also understood why many people were offended by the sketch, defining these people as a second group who were usually motivated by compassionate, well-intentioned feelings.

But there’s a third group, he argued, that weren’t hurt by it, didn’t see it when it was first broadcast, and to an extent were expressing feelings of mock outrage. This was the group, he argued, who heard about the sketch through re-broadcast, re-transmission and so on.

The essence of his argument was the overall audience mostly likes and enjoys challenging material. There’s a danger, he argued however, that thanks to replay, discussion elsewhere, mock indignation and so on, that media companies will begin to under-estimate the audience and not be willing to take risks for their primary audiences.

It’s a nuanced argument, and I probably haven’t done it justice here, so I’d suggest you read the speech yourself.

As always it was a very entertaining evening, and it was great, once again, to get dressed up, to be wined and dined, and to discuss some interesting parts of my work.

As someone wrote to me in an email, ” the lecture caused a great deal of subsequent talk – for all the right reasons”. Couldn’t agree more.

Photograph with Ray Martin.

And Then There’s Ray…

Photograph with Ray Martin.

It was the end of a memorable night at The Andrew Olle Media Lecture, the annual cross-media shindig in Sydney.

The lecture was delivered by Ray Martin whose central thesis was that good commercial television journalism is often supported by passionate media individuals, the likes of Murdoch and Packer. When media companies are run by banks and other financial institutions only looking at the bottom line, he argued demonstrably that journalism isn’t well supported in the commercial television sector. As I walked around the room at the end of the night chatting to people, the general vibe was that it was an interesting, well-timed, and well-delivered speech.

One of the funniest lines, though of the night, was delivered by the ABC’s Managing Director Mark Scott, who spoke about last year’s controversial decision to pull the feed from Channel 9 because of their use of the “debate worm”. Steadfastly denying it was his decision (as briefly reported), he said it just wouldn’t happen at the ABC. “I’d dare say any decision to pull the plug would have been mitigated by several committee meetings, until eventually a few weeks down the track the plug would have been pulled”. I’m reasonably sure the loudest amount of laughter in response came from our table, as we all knew exactly what he meant.

After the event was well and truly wrapped a few of us ended up at Ivy, arguably’s Sydney’s grooviest place at the moment, via the Marble Bar.

“Hey James, this guy’s an ABBA fan”, my colleague said to me last night on the fringe of the dance floor at Ivy. She’d met him moments earlier and they were getting along famously, it seems.

It was then she told him I’d been learning Swedish and had recently been to Sweden. “Let me tell you mate”, he said. “If you’re gay and that’s true, that’s really cool, and good on ya, that’s great stuff. But if you’re straight and that’s true, that’s kinda weird”. With apologies to straight male ABBA fans, we both laughed in agreement. “I’m guessing it’s more likely the former than the latter”, he said, and we laughed again.

A few minutes later some cool music came on the sound system and so I thought I’d leave them alone for a moment and go have a dance. “Tell me honestly”, I said to my colleague. “Do you think I can hop on the dance floor for a bit of a groove or am I just gonna look like a tragic 43 year old man in a dinner suit trying to look young?”, I asked.

Generally it’s a bad look, though, isn’t it? A group of well-dressed adult to middle-aged men and women who’ve just been to some sort of corporate function and then find themselves at some groovy bar surrounded by young folk. I kinda think we carried it off okay, though, and had a great time.