ABC chair Kim Williams calls for public broadcaster to be ‘national campfire’ and to understand its audiences better

June 19, 2024

Misha Ketchell .

New ABC chair KimWilliams has said the public broadcaster should become a reimagined “National Campfire”, fostering a stronger sense of community togetherness and conversation in a world increasingly fragmented by social media.

Williams also said the ABC must understand its audiences better and warned against “self-congratulation”.

In his first speech as chair outlining his vision and priorities for the national broadcaster, Williams said the digital world had brought “a fragmentation and dislocation of effort at the ABC that is failing to deliver what we need”.

“It has altered the personality, chemistry and character of our national debates in sometimes, indeed often, negative ways. It is time for refreshed purpose,” he said, delivering the Redmond Barry Address at the State Library in Melbourne. “Our community and nation deserve better, renewed performance horizons.”


Williams said the ABC could be “an important source of national community and togetherness in a world in which social media increasingly drives a sense of singularity, self-focus and isolation”.

The ABC as a “national campfire” would be “a place where we all come together to share our ideas, dreams, friendship and our sense of common purpose to enable our country to face much of the darkness beyond, with confidence and strength.

“In this way, I see the ABC representing a ‘true north’ about ‘Australia’ and what ‘being an Australian’ means into the future.”

The fragmentation and dislocation needed to be replaced “with a common sense of purpose and a coherent sense of what sort of organisation we want to be”. This should be a “strong, confident, and modern national media enterprise”.

It should have a “consistent, well curated message and direction that will inspire conviction, grow audiences and attract committed, improved investment”.

The ABC must have a greater understanding of its audiences’ wants and behaviour and make some “tough assessments” about whether it was meeting their needs, interests and aspirations as well as it should.

Williams listed some of the priorities that stood out for him.

He said the ABC would always be first judged on the quality, integrity and reliability of its news and current affairs. “We need to be on a never ending quest to ensure those services are always striving to improve and remain as a relevant, stable ‘first partner ’ for Australians when it comes to objective reporting and thoughtful analysis and commentary on Australia and the world.”

Radio National should be a renewed standard bearer for the ABC’s “ethos, purpose and intellectual ambition”.

An increase in serious TV documentaries on national and international subjects of relevance was crucial for the ABC’s intellectual credibility and for meeting elements of its charter.

Expanded drama and comedy production and more coverage and coherent programming for the arts, expanded children and educational programming and more Australian content on iview were other priorities.

He also emphasised the importance of a revitalised ABC as “a respected agent of soft power diplomacy and programming in our region”.

“The continuing work of the ABC’s International Services team across the Pacific, in Indonesia and in other major Asian nations, is something of which all Australians can be proud.”

Williams warned against an excess of self-congratulation, which could take the place of “robust assessment of underperformance”.

“Well-run organisations must be honest about their performance. And if we’re honest, there are important areas for improvement.

“Therefore, I and my board colleagues believe strongly that the ABC must have a strong accountability framework that requires it to do better. We need to be tough-minded to achieve our goals and we need to measure performance reliably.”

Williams stressed that achieving goals would also take more investment. “I am confident that we at the ABC can make the case for it. The budgetary outlook is tight, however the rationale is plain,” he said.

He said that in addition to investment “we will need […] the courage to stand up for the principles and values that any great media or public organisation must possess.

“Those who would destroy liberal democracy always start by smashing through the gates of institutions like ours: the media, the universities, the publishers, the libraries and other sources of democratic strength. It happens in every revolution and putsch. The digital technology revolution is no different.”