Wedding coverage and executive bonuses spark new round of Aunty bashing. Plus Daily Telegraph gets it monumentally wrong
News Corp columnists, including the Australian’s Gerard Henderson, the Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt and the Courier Mail’s Des Houghton, have all lined up to denounce the ABC in the past few days.
Here is a taste from the Australian’s Chris Kenny: “Since last week’s budget the ABC has taken a bit of a break from demonising Australians as deplorable xenophobes, Islamophobes, homophobes, misogynists and racists to focus on its own funding problems.”
In the lead up to the next federal election, every Australian who values our ABC must take the fight to their local MP and actively campaign for a restoration of support to one of our most critically important democratic institutions. There is too much at stake, and no time to lose.
Efficiency = 1985 ABC budget was $475 mill equates to $1 billion in 2018 inflation only. Our ABC is running on the same budget it was running on 33 years ago
‘Disappointed’ ABC boss warns of political backlash over budget cut
Media & marketing
‘Disappointed’ ABC boss warns of political backlash over budget cut
When gifted a large cache of secret documents, the normal journalistic process would involve the stories being written, with names and operational details removed. The reports would then either be published outright, or the government approached for comment, running the risk that they may seek an injunction to prevent publication. Whatever the process, not even completing the journalistic work in the first place is a strange way for the ABC to discharge its journalistic responsibility.
Even stranger still is the way the ABC allowed Asio to bring safes into the ABC buildings, supposedly so the documents could be kept secure and then taken away.
Handing over documents to any Australian intelligence agency signals the emergence of an unhealthy relationship between the ABC and the very institutions of government they should be holding to account. Yet it wasn’t always so.
It’s a familiar sight in the current news landscape – panels of suited men rambling loudly on some polemical hot topic, all throbbing veins and manufactured conflict.
For ABC News boss Tim Ayliffe, it’s the right time to go back to basics.
From early 2018, staff will be re-organised into teams focused on particular topics instead of working strictly for radio or television. The restructure does not include any job losses or particular programs getting the boot.
“There is no pressing need to change the ABC Act and its Charter, no matter how much commercial chief executives and their compliant media outlets argue otherwise,” she said in a draft of her speech to the ABC Friends Public Conference dinner in Sydney on Friday.
The Government’s media package threatens to break the ABC — and it may never be able to be put together again, says former Age editor
Angelos Frangopoulos wants commercial media to be able to pitch for public broadcaster’s $1.4bn pie. Plus, the NT News spreads the love with a strong marriage equality message
The ABC’s political editor explains his searing critique of US president Donald Trump’s performance at the G20.
Scathing, searing and brutal were just a few of the adjectives flying around social media on Sunday following an eloquent takedown of Donald Trump by ABC political editor Chris Uhlmann.
Reporter Chris Uhlmann’s commentary tearing into American president – a man with ‘no desire and no capacity to lead the world’ – reverberates to Washington
He may not yet realise it, but US President Donald Trump has now hurled himself headlong into a war with Washington’s national security establishment, writes Greg Jennett.
Expect more changes, possibly to flagship programs like 7.30, Lateline and the 7pm news, ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie warns.
Managing director’s recently promoted chief of staff, Sam Liston, tipped to be among the big winners
All public broadcasters are engaged in a constant process of chopping, slicing and reinventing, and every boss spreads his or her own brand of unhappiness
Conservative attitudes to the ABC are best summed up in a single exchange with John Howard on ABC radio to promote his show on ABC TV
The ABC has hit back at criticism of a Four Corners investigation into the life asylum seeker children on Nauru.
ABC 7.30’s Leigh Sales and film crew travel to the NT to witness Chief Minister Adam Giles hurtle down the slippery slope to oblivion at this Saturday’s election. Richard Koser was there.
By Loz Lawrey ABC radio grew my mind. I mean it. Each working day, throughout my career in the building industry, I listened exclusively to one of our public broadcaster’s fine radio stations as I toiled at my trade. While my body performed familiar routine activities on this physical plane, my mind travelled the world,…
The Four Corners revelations are disturbing but not shocking. They are the product of a system that has continually excused the perpetrators of violence, writes Amy McQuire. Aboriginal affairs moves at a glacial pace – and the vast majority of problems are always under the surface. The mainstream media only sees what is easily visibleMore
After Steve Price dismissed a woman as being “hysterical”, literally while she was explaining how dismissive attitudes to women feed into a culture of gender-violence, Van Badham delivered the coup de grace.
The 2016 election has revealed just how compliant Australia’s media landscape has become. In some cases, it’s hardly a surprise. But the failure of the ABC to challenge narratives run by the Coalition is of serious concern, writes Sean Hosking. As the outcome of the federal election has illustrated, we are currently experiencing a crisisMore
Assistant Treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer claims ABC core funding is higher than under Labor. Photo:
Follow us: @theage on Twitter | theageAustralia on Facebook
Tell us, ministers, how the ABC is now better off under your government?
Outgoing managing director rejects criticism the ABC has become too big or that it poses a financial threat to commercial media organisations
Australia’s policy of detaining asylum seekers for years in privately run camps in ‘essentially former Australian colonies’ has been branded unacceptable by prominent US-based conservative commentator Mark Steyn
The first article in this ongoing New Matilda investigation was published on January 21, 2016. Our reporting so far has revealed that• In 2013, in the lead-up to the federal election, former ABC Games and Technology Editor, Nick Ross was told by the Head of the ABC’s Current Affairs Division, Bruce Belsham to find a story – any story – that attacked Labor’s roll-out of the National Broadband Network;• This was in order to provide “insurance” against attacks from the Coalition, and to prevent “the Turnbull camp” coming down on Belsham “like a tonne of bricks” for publishing stories critical of Tony Abbott’s alternative NBN Plan.This New Matilda special investigation is currently ongoing.
ABC’s Q&A returned on Monday night with a panel that also included Catherine Keenan, Gordian Fulde and Manal Younus
The silence around the Nick Ross-Bruce Belsham revelations is deafening. Chris Graham weighs in. As I write this, it’s now 72 hours since New Matilda revealed that in the lead-up to the 2013 federal election, the Head of Current Affairs at the ABC, Bruce Belsham directed Tech editor Nick Ross to find a story –More
A relentless stream of attacks on the ABC by crusaders of the hard right has recalibrated the notion of balance and redefined the organisation
Q&A host Tony Jones says the Zaky Mallah furore and boycott of the program was based on a ‘big lie’.
Journalists at Australian on shortlist for ABC news director. Plus Sarah Ferguson’s candid advice for anyone thinking of going into marketing
ABC $7.30 presenter Leigh Halfprice interviews Australian Prime Minister Tony Idiott on the subject of the Australian economy.
As I flicked through the Murdoch Muckraker this morning, I spied a headline where I had difficulty deciding whether the sub-editor had a sense of irony, or no understanding of ambiguity:
TIME TO ACT ON ABC LYNCH MOB
Was this a change of heart from Andrew Bolt telling us that we should put a stop to this attack on the ABC’s independence? No, apparently it’s Q & A, that’s the lynch mob, not the media or the government. As the Prime Minister so eloquently put it:
“Now frankly, heads should roll over this, heads should roll over this.”
Which given that we’re talking about IS, I found a rather unfortunate choice of phrase. Beheadings are uncivilised, but heads rolling is apparently ok.
Mr Abbott wants an inquiry. And not an ABC inquiry because he’s afraid that they won’t find themselves guilty. He wants an inquiry that decides that heads need to roll. Which makes one wonder if there’s any actual need for an inquiry at all. Why not just ask Andrew Bolt:
‘No wonder that Abbott on Tuesday told his MPs: “We all know that Q&A is a Leftie lynch mob and we will be looking at this.”
But where’s the action?
Will the Government sack the board for the ABC’s failure to observe what it admits is its “statutory duty to ensure that the gathering and presentation of news and information is impartial”?
And will it cut the vast ABC, with its five radio stations and four television stations, to a size less dangerous to democracy?’
See the ABC, by allowing someone into the audience has shown that it’s not impartial. What was it that Tony said :
“I think many, many millions of Australians would feel betrayed by our national broadcaster right now, and I think that the ABC does have to have a long, hard look at itself, and to answer a question which I have posed before – whose side are you on? Whose side are you on here?”
So we have a national broadcaster that is meant to be impartial, and not take sides. Except, of course, they should be on the government’s side. In a totally impartial way.
Now, many of you may not have watched Q & A, so they wouldn’t heard the response to Mr Mallah’s question, “What would have happened if my case had been decided by the minister himself and not the courts?”
“From memory, I thought you were acquitted on a technicality rather than it being on the basis of a substantial finding of fact,” Mr Ciobo replied.
“My understanding of your case was that you were acquitted because at that point in time the laws weren’t retrospective.
“But I’m happy to look you straight in the eye and say that I’d be pleased to be part of the Government that would say that you were out of the country.
Let’s sum up:
- Abbott and Dutton were suggesting a few weeks ago that the Minister should have the sole power to cancel the citizenship of a dual national, with Abbott arguing that if it were left to the courts, the person might be found not guilty.
- As Steve Ciobo pointed out, this person was only found not guilty on a technicality. That is, at the time of the offence, the offence wasn’t an offence, so he was really guilty and it was the court’s insistence that it apply the law rather than arbitrarily decide that “We shall decide who stays in this country and we should be allowed to pass laws retrospectively so that we can claim that the only reason that you haven’t been convicted of anything is that there isn’t a law against it yet, but by tomorrow, you’ll be charged with possessing an annoying attitude and we’ll introduce a mandatory sentence for you whether you’re found guilty or not!’
- Abbott wants his own inquiry into the ABC because allowing the ABC to run their own inquiry might result in them not finding themselves guilty of treason, whereas every inquiry Mr Abbott has set up has resulted in findings completely in agreement with his own views.
- The ABC is meant to demonstrate their “impartiality” by not allowing certain undesirable people to ask questions on Q & A. Tony Abbott is concerned that Q & A have provided a platform for people like Mallah and Malcolm Turnbull.
So, after being told that Stevy Ciobo would happily throw him out of the country, did Mr Mallah becoming violent? Threaten him? Urge us all to boycott “Masterchef”, or something else unpatriotic?
“The Liberals have just justified to many Australian Muslims in the community tonight to leave and go to Syria and join ISIL because of ministers like him.”
Well, if heads must roll, then heads must roll.
Young Muslim less literate than Steve Ciobo MP was provoked into an angered response by the minister who discredited the Supreme Court of Australia’s decision on finding Zacky Mallah innocent of terrorism after he’d been held in maximum security detention for two years. Language, lack of Education and being Muslim Zacky’s only crime for asking the minister a question on Q&A. Tony Abbott attacked the ABC for allowing such despicable Australian on the show. Today in Australia it would appear a crime for not accepting the insults of this government.
It should be noted that when an indigenous Australian from a remote community asked the the minister a question about Native Title he could only plead ignorance on the subject.
Referencing his own case, Mr Mallah asked: “What would have happened if my case had been decided by the minister himself and not the courts?”
Mr Ciobo said he would be happy to see Mr Mallah kicked out of the country.
“I got to tell you … my understanding of your case was that you were acquitted because at that point in time the laws weren’t retrospective but I am happy to look you straight in the eye and say I’d be pleased to be part of a government that would see you out of the country as far as I am concerned.”
“The Liberals have just justified to many Australian Muslims in the community tonight to leave and go to Syria and join ISIL because of ministers like (Mr Ciobo).” was Zacky’s reply.
The exchange appears to be out of character for the Sydney man who declared a “jihad of peace” in 2012 after visiting Syria and spending time on the frontline.
During his visit, Mr Mallah met with fighters from the Free Syrian Army and filmed footage for his YouTube channel. He was photographed holding an assault rifle but says he did not fight and had no intention of fighting.
Back home he has spoken out against clashes between the Islamic community and police and actively discouraged radicalised Australian Muslims from joining the Islamic State.
Zacky has some experience in understanding how ignorant men like Steve Ciobo MP have the ability by political stupidity alone to radicalize Muslims, the poor, the disadvantaged and even the educated and well off when openly strutting their vigilante attitudes.
Whose anger was justified in this case?
he following is an edited version of a submission to the Environment and Communications Legislation Committee with reference to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Local Content) Bill 2014, by Brian McNair and Ben Goldsmith. The committee has now reported.
We have been invited to make a written submission to the committee on the above bill in consideration of:
- the importance of local content in Australia, and the role the ABC should play in the provision of such content;
- the recent efficiency savings imposed on the ABC by the government;
- the centralisation of the ABC’s operations to Sydney; and
- any related matters.
At a recent public hearing of this committee, we argued that:
The ABC represents good value for the Australian taxpayer, by comparison with the costs to the consumer of access to commercial media, and also by comparison with the costs of the BBC, which performs a similar set of cultural functions in the UK.
For a relatively small cost the ABC provides key cultural services to Australia, in particular:
- politically impartial, well-resourced news and current affairs, at national, regional and local levels; and
- technological innovation – the ABC’s iView is an example of the ABC pioneering a form of content distribution which the commercial sector has lagged in.
The ABC’s services are popular. In 2013, following a ministerial direction to investigate the operation, effectiveness and potential extension of Section 43A of the Broadcasting Services Act, the Australian Communications and Media Authority commissioned Newspoll to conduct quantitative community research into:
… awareness, use of, perceived importance and preferred source/s for accessing local content in regional areas of Australia.
The headline findings of this research were:
- 91% of those surveyed said access to local content was important or very important to them;
- 91% of those surveyed said they had access to all of the local content they would like;
- 95% of those surveyed said they accessed some kind of local information or content available in their local area;
- Multiple sources of local content are available;
- 63% of those surveyed accessed local content on local ABC radio at least weekly;
- Younger people were more likely to use and prefer online sources than their older counterparts.
The findings of this research lead to a number of conclusions:
- Local content is clearly important to regional Australians;
- ABC local radio and online services are important components of the media mix in regional Australia; and
- Should there be any change in commercial media provision in regional Australia, the role of the ABC will increase in importance.
The recently announced cuts to the budgets of the ABC and SBS amount to around 5% per annum. The contracting out of backroom services, and infrastructure such as outside broadcast vehicles, may permit efficiency savings which have little or no impact on the quality of content.
The introduction of new digital technologies has permitted efficiency savings in many aspects of content production. Lightweight cameras, computer editing and so on, have transformed the cost structure of reporting in conflict zones, for example.
In this sense, ABC managing director Mark Scott’s emphasis on the ABC’s digital future need not be seen as undermining the ABC’s public service remit. As the Australian public becomes more and more digitally connected, and as more and more content is consumed on computers and mobile devices rather than TVs, digital investment is entirely rational, indeed essential, if the ABC is to retain its current role as the country’s national voice.
While the ABC must be digital, for the same reason that it moved to TV from radio in an earlier era – because that is where the audience will increasingly be located – its digital presence should focus on supporting existing and well-established public service functions, rather than going online for its own sake.
In this context, there has been a perception that the digital strategy will be at the cost of both the quantity and quality of local and regional content. We address the remainder of this statement to the local content issues highlighted in the invitation.
Local content’s importance in Australia
“Local content” has been an important consideration and objective of broadcasting policy in Australia for much of the last two decades, and in particular since the changes made to cross-media ownership rules in 2006. Regional (that is, non-metropolitan) commercial radio and television broadcasting licensees are required to broadcast specified levels of material of local significance, and to maintain a “local presence”.
Local content’s importance in a large and geographically dispersed country is not in dispute. A central element of the ABC’s public service remit is to provide that content, particularly in the spheres of news and journalism – including reportage of local and regional affairs, investigative journalism, human interest news and so on.
In addition to its value to the conduct of business, community cohesion and identity, and simply keeping people informed about their immediate environment, local journalism is crucial to the maintenance of democratic accountability at local level. Where national news organisations rarely report on the routine affairs of state, regional and city governments, local media must ensure that citizens are aware of and understand the issues on which their locally elected representatives make policy and take decisions.
Such scrutiny, a manifestation of the Fourth Estate and watchdog roles deemed to be core functions of the media in a democracy, is just as important at the local level as the national.
However, the economics of media production constrain the delivery of local news and journalism. In most Australian localities, including big cities such as Brisbane, there remains only one local newspaper. Commercial TV and radio provide important coverage, and there are more and more online outlets of varying quality. But these are inevitably driven by commercial priorities and private interests, rather than the interests of local publics in general. In this climate, the ABC provides an essential bedrock of disinterested, quality journalism about the localities.
The ABC is vital to three kinds of media diversity: diversity of media sources; diversity of media content; and diversity of media exposure (the diversity of content or sources that are actually used or consumed by audiences and by individuals).
With no requirement to satisfy shareholders’ profit expectations, or proprietors’ political agendas, the ABC is free to report on local affairs without fear or favour, and to serve the public interest in a much more comprehensive manner than, will, say the local private tabloid. It is the only organisation in Australia capable and legally mandated to do so.
The ABC’s Senate submission from March 2013 on its local news services states that:
… the Corporation views its service to regional communities as integral to meeting its charter obligation.
To repeat – this obligation is a foundation not just of local quality of life and business, but democracy and good governance.
The recent efficiency savings imposed on the ABC
In response to the Coalition government cuts announced in late 2014, the ABC announced that a number of regional production facilities would be closed, in South Australia and Queensland most notably. The current weekly state-produced 7.30 current affairs show would go from TV, and the Bush Telegraph from radio. Production of ABC content would be further concentrated in Sydney.
The potential impact of these cuts, or “efficiency savings”, is obvious. To the extent that cuts mean a reduction of local and regional production, one of the ABC’s key public service functions in Australia is undermined.
In an attempt at mitigation, Scott has indicated that the ongoing move to digital platforms will enable the quantity and quality of local and regional content to be maintained. It is undoubtedly true that digitalisation enables the ABC to do more with less, and that specific program strands or services should not be regarded as fixed in place forever.
The costs of newsgathering have fallen steadily over the years – lightweight cameras and digital editing have transformed the economics of journalism at local level, for example. Digital networks enhance local access to the rich variety of online content now emerging as the technological revolution continues.
All this is welcome, and the ABC should not be criticised for pursuing a digital strategy designed to maximise the benefits of technological progress. But detail on how an adequate level of local news and current affairs coverage can be ensured in the post-cuts environment remains sketchy.
While the ABC Charter includes international transmission of a variety of Australian broadcasting programs among the ABC’s functions, there is no specific requirement that the ABC broadcast “local content”, as distinct from “Australian content”. The only mention of the word “local” in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 occurs in relation to a definition of “election” (Section 79A).
To that end, the ABC Charter should be as explicit as possible on the requirement that an appropriate portion of publicly funded ABC resources be devoted to the production of local news and current affairs.
The commitment to universality of provision must be restated, albeit in a climate of accelerating digitalisation where audiences are moving online. It will be some time before regional and rural Australia is fully networked. Until then, it should be the acknowledged responsibility of the ABC to provide local content on TV and radio, as well as digital platforms.
Centralisation of the ABC’s operations to Sydney
While a degree of centralisation of operations is inevitable for an organisation such as the ABC, and parallels the concentration of the BBC’s staff and facilities in London, the danger of excessive metrocentrism is clear. The concerns of Australians outside the big southern media and economic centres are marginalised in preference for the ease of reporting what is most familiar to, and convenient for, the metropolitan media elites (often working with their politician and business counterparts).
In the UK, faced with significant criticism of its London-centrism in the 1990s and 2000s, the BBC established major production centres in Manchester and Glasgow, specifically to distribute resources and editorial focus more equally across the country. The ABC has regional facilities, and the recently opened centre in Brisbane exemplifies what should be done to reduce metrocentrism.
The cuts announced in late 2014 have been perceived to threaten that direction of travel, which would be a retrograde step for the ABC. Perceptions that the ABC was retrenching to a metropolitan safe zone would fuel the opponents of public service media’s alleged “liberal elitism”, and risk undermining the broad base of support which it currently enjoys with the Australian people.
To address this concern, quotas on the share of ABC production resources to be allocated to state and regional centres (for journalism and other content categories) would provide confidence that the ABC is truly committed to regionalism and diversity.
Notwithstanding the specifics of the ABC Charter and the ABC Act, the ABC does play an important role in the achievement of elements of the Broadcasting Services Act – relating to media diversity, competition and the responsiveness of broadcasters to audience needs, promotion of Australian identity and cultural diversity, and making programs of local significance broadly available.
It is also indisputable that the ABC has an important role to play in the provision of local news and other content, via broadcast or online services, throughout Australia. In the absence of specific regulations or legislative requirements, the question of how the ABC performs this role is entirely up to the ABC’s board and its senior executives.
In a context where political pressures on funding may impact negatively on the ABC’s capacity to resource all of its activities, stronger guidelines, including ABC Charter revisions, would assist ABC managers in their prioritisation responsibilities.
The enemies of state-owned media – Rupert Murdoch among them – make the same arguments around the world. Cuts to the ABC, BBC, NPR and PBS are justified the same way
The terms of the current battle in Australia over the ABC, its budget and place in public life have been set by its most vociferous critics, mostly in the Murdoch press. If only the lines weren’t so predictable. Their campaign fits neatly into a global trend: to reduce the public’s faith in public broadcasting, and to prepare for its selloff to corporate competitors.
Neutering the BBC and ABC, and the US public broadcasters NPR and PBS, is part of the Murdoch empire’s core business. As many of its papers continue to lose money every day, it’s no surprise that their fixation on halting so-called digital “mission creep” is a worldwide obsession.
In 2013, Rupert Murdoch tweeted about his favourite enemy, the BBC: “huge lack of balance in UK media with 8,000 BBC left wing journalists far outnumbering all national print journalists.” He added that the BBC was a “massive taxpayer-funded mouthpiece for tiny circulation leftist Guardian”.
And in 2006, James MacManus, executive director of News International, said it was “outrageous” that the BBC was able to run on public money because the broadcaster had “blatantly commercial ambitions” and was trying to “create a digital empire”.
The same criticisms were made of ABC managing director Mark Scott in the papers last week: that he is creating a “superfluous digital empire” that impinges on the commercial realities of privately-owned media.
The message from Murdoch and other commercial enterprises is that their investment in journalism and innovation keeps a vibrant press alive – and that any limit to their commercial operations is an intrusion on free speech.
What that means in practice is quite different. To the Murdoch empire, a “free” press means the right to, for instance, sponsor the tricks of prominent British Murdoch reporter Mazher Mahmood – the “fake sheikh”.
For a well-resourced and independent BBC, the Guardian’s Peter Preston argued in his commentary on the BBC’s Mahmood expose, freedom is the “in-house means to dig, expose, take risks, and clear its decks for action” – vital journalistic functions that serve democracy.
Although many in the UK still like and admire the BBC, the institution has fallen greatly in the last ten years. Scandals, mismanagement and the perception that the broadcaster remains too close to the political establishment have harmed the BBC’s reputation. The cover-up of the crimes of serial paedophile Jimmy Savile was a watershed moment for the BBC – nearly half the British public lost trust in the Beeb after the scandal broke.
The difference is, every scandal at the public broadcaster is ammunition for the critics and privatisers. As British journalist Charlotte Higgins wrote earlier this year in the wake of ongoing crises in the BBC:
“It is in the nature of BBC rows to escalate quickly to question the very basis on which it is run. Some of the corporation’s enemies clearly hold the view that if one undermines the foundations, the edifice might be more swiftly destroyed: like digging a mine in a medieval siege.”
Murdoch would be pleased to recently read that the foundations are indeed getting shaky: BBC management is considering placing leading current affairs shows into a commercial subsidiary, yet another arm of the organisation that could suffer hits to their credibility were it exposed to commercial realities. David Cameron’s government has always been amenable to Murdoch’s grander ambitions – in opposition he argued the BBC “was squeezing and crushing … commercial competition” in Murdoch’s Sun newspaper. Labour leader Ed Miliband has also had a cosy relationship with the media mogul, despite a recent critical turn.
PBS and NPR
The American public are fighting an even more important battle. A mere six corporations control 90% of the press, and consumer confidence in the media is at an all-time low. Publicly funded outlets PBS and NPR have been marginalised and starved of funds for so long that they now sometimes take corporate largesse, diluting their integrity.
Republican critics of US public broadcasting argue that the high salaries of top management, and the success of its childrens’ programmes like Sesame Street, are arguments for cutting it loose from taxpayer funding. Again, parallels can be drawn with the Australian example: just look at the intense interest in Quentin Dempster’s salary and the children’s show, Peppa Pig.
Were PBS or NPR to be diminished, a handful of multinational media outlets would completely dominate the US media market. Murdoch’s burning desire to still consume Time Warner would guarantee an even larger voice for the multinational.
During the 2012 US presidential election, Republican candidate Mitt Romney said Washington should “stop the subsidy” to PBS, due to his ideological set against state funding for media. In reality, like with the ABC and BBC, government support is tiny and decreasing. NPR and PBS received $445m from 2012 to 2014, .012 percent of the federal budget.
Stations in rural areas are closing and shrinking and public radio states are decreasing, leaving only corporate alternatives. A 2012 poll found 55% of voters opposed cuts in public television spending. Murdoch, through Fox News, New York Post and Wall Street Journal, tirelessly campaigns and backs candidates who argue that the digital revolution makes public media obsolete.
We hear exactly the same rhetoric in Australia. The Lewis review urged the ABC to dump digital radio and charge for online content, opening the way for Murdoch to capitalise on a reduced ABC footprint.
The aim isn’t to kill public broadcasting outright but to force a long war of attrition that slowly chips away at public’s respect and broadcasters’ desire to fight. It’s a messy strategy, but it’s working: trust in state-owned media like the ABC is in slow decline, even though it still leaves its critics for dead.
It’s a sign of how far this debate has skewed that the vast majority of heated conversations on public broadcasting are framed in purely economic terms. Can we afford it? Should we pay for it? How much does it cost? Can we sell off divisions?
We’re never discussing that terms of the debate disallow or discourage dissenting points of view. It’s far easier to obsess over the dry economics of an industry that doesn’t make anything tangible, like manufacturing or agriculture. The ABC is forced to explain its relevance in the face of ongoing attacks, when its charter prioritises the very things its commercial critics would see diminished: multiculturalism, education, diversity – and independence.
Our East Coast Press News Corp…. We need the ABC 84% voter support
In July, incoming senator James McGrath became the latest Liberal Party politician to accuse the ABC of bias. “While it continues to represent only inner-city leftist views, and funded by our taxes, it is in danger of losing its social licence to operate.” His most senior colleague, Tony Abbott, told the Australian Financial Review while he was opposition leader that “there is still this left-of-centre ethos in the ABC”. Last year, Cory Bernardi launched an impassioned attack on the national broadcaster in a party-room meeting, reportedly calling it “a taxpayer-funded behemoth that is cannibalising commercial media while spreading a message that ignores the majority views of Australians”.
A belief that the ABC is biased toward the “left” is an article of faith among the right that emerged during and after the Vietnam War and the cultural revolution. Bias is now assumed by a small army of media commentators, including Andrew Bolt, Miranda Devine, Janet Albrechtsen, Peter Reith, Gerard Henderson, Alan Jones, Piers Akerman, Greg Sheridan, Sharri Markson, Judith Sloan, Tom Switzer, Paul Kelly, Niki Savva, Nick Cater, etc, etc.
The main problem with the theory that the ABC has a left-wing bias is that it’s not true. None of the neverending stream of independent reviews commissioned by both the ABC and governments from time to time has ever found bias.
And yet, the Right continues to allege bias – and not just in the ABC. News Corp’s flagship tabloid columnist Andrew Bolt, for instance, also finds left-wing bias in the Fairfax press, the universities, the courts, not to mention the Labor Party and the Greens. During the period of the last government he also dismissed as left-wing Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. His list of “leftist columnists in Murdoch’s Australian newspapers” includes Graham Richardson, Laurie Oakes and Malcolm Farr.
To qualify as a “leftist” for Bolt, one must believe at least one of the following heresies: that climate change is happening and man-made; that the Stolen Generations exist; that minorities should be protected from bigotry; that companies should be restricted from selling harmful food products to consumers on the free market; that governments should go into debt during downturns or times of slow growth; that experiences of Indigenous people should be incorporated into the narratives of Australian history; that education should promote critical thought; that governments should support education, health care and public broadcasting out of general revenue; that social security is a vitally important safety net; that taxes should be progressive and redistributive; that prison should be used only rarely; that employees should be entitled to minimum wages and conditions, and penalty rates for long or irregular hours; that drug use should be decriminalised; that fossil fuel-based energy should be replaced by renewable energy sources; that the powers and activities of police, security and intelligence organisations should be kept in check and subject to scrutiny; that most government information should be freely available; that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry; that the power of governments and corporations should be limited and subject to scrutiny; that the rights of people seeking asylum should be protected; that Australia should be a multicultural community. Together, this is broadly the policy platform of the Australian Greens – a political party the right describes as “extreme”.
“Extreme” – or just evidence-based and respectful? Most of the positions in the above paragraph are standard positions based on the best available evidence in respective fields – climate science, history, nutrition science, economics, pedagogy, criminology. Even the idea that governments should invest in preventive health and public education is an uncontroversial conclusion based on economic evidence that governments get a substantial return from investment in these areas – unlike defence, which is often a sunk cost. The above positions on same-sex marriage and asylum seekers and multiculturalism are based on a philosophy of respecting and empathising with people who have come from backgrounds and had experiences different to one’s own.
Labelling these positions “left-wing” is akin to labelling scientific and sociological research as a leftist activity, and compassion and empathy as leftist impulses. This side of the Enlightenment, that’s patently ridiculous.
Not that the ABC or the universities, for instance, can be said to preach these views, or even hold them to the exclusion of all others. What the ABC does, uncommonly among broadcasters in Australia, is allow the space for the discussion of secular and humanist ideas in rational ways. It also allows space for the discussion of non-secular, conservative and dogmatic views, including occasionally socialism and capitalism, though nearly always in a pluralistic framework. The universities do largely the same thing. The Right curiously marginalises itself by calling this kind of pluralism left-wing. Are we to assume the Right wants dogma instead?
The Right in the inappropriately named Liberal Party and its media cheer-squad, however, often take strong positions against the evidence base, and in favour of so-called “conservative” ideas that in practice stigmatise and marginalise people who aren’t causing anybody any harm. Global warming isn’t happening and, if it is, it’s a natural event. The carbon “tax” wasn’t working and it was costing jobs. No Indigenous child was ever stolen for “purely racist” reasons. The responsibility for healthy eating choices rests with individuals, and for children’s choices, with parents. Government budgets should always be in surplus, so downturns should be met with austerity – and Australia’s current budget deficit represents a crisis. We’re spending too much on health and education. Schools should teach children about the achievements of western civilisation, “Judeo-Christian culture”, British settlers and the Australian nation. Welfare recipients are probably bludgers, or “leaners”. Taxes should be regressive and should “reward hard work”. More criminals should go to jail to keep the community safer. Coal should continue to power Australia’s energy needs and its exports. Nobody who has nothing to hide should be worried about more powers for ASIO. Marriage is between a man and a woman.
Many of these positions, when they inform policy, actively cause harm, socially or to the environment. Many ignore lessons of history and research. They’re based on a set of values that are clearly out of step with our best knowledge about human behaviour and the world around us.
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Our values inform our theories of human behaviour and social relations, and our theories in turn become the “frames of reference” we use to understand and analyse other people’s statements or behaviour. If we’re not careful, we can misinterpret another person’s motivations entirely, by applying to them our own frame of reference. Psychologists call this “projection”.
The “Left” that the right complains about – a small, self-interested, influential but out-of-touch and loopy elite that’s engaged in a fierce battle of ideas in the pursuit of weird policy outcomes – doesn’t actually exist. If there’s a group of people that could be described in that way, it’s not “leftists”. It’s the Right.
Those of the Right assume that people who disagree with them are engaged in a similar, explicitly ideological project. Very often, they’re not. Very often, “leftists” are climate scientists, nutritionists, historians, researchers, social workers, teachers, lawyers, humanists. When they intervene in a public debate on the side of the evidence, they often disagree with the Right’s project – and are attacked and/or dismissed as “leftists”.
When Joe Hockey, Gerard Henderson and Judith Sloan establish themselves as unswervingly “pro-business”, they often align themselves with the private interests of corporations – and often against the private interests of employees (in industrial relations disputes), or the public interest in environmental protection, nutritious food and relative social equality. When they establish the maximisation of shareholder returns as the highest value, they see people with different, pro-social values – people for whom the maximisation of shareholder returns has nasty consequences in terms of health and job security – and dismiss them as “left-wing”.
When Andrew Bolt and George Brandis establish themselves as unambiguously in favour of the free expression of bigotry, they align themselves with the private interests of racists, against the private interests of their victims and the public interest in multicultural harmony. When they establish the freedom of bigoted speech as the highest value, they see people with different values and dismiss them as “left-wing”.
The frame of reference the Right uses is self-interest, based on rational choice theory, the theory of human nature that informs economic rationalism. So when the Right sees unions pushing for better pay and conditions for their workers, it sees their activities through the frame of self-interest – and assumes rent-seeking. (The right remains oblivious to, or approving of, the far more prevalent rent-seeking behaviour among corporations.) When the Right is confronted by scientists and governments urging reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, it assumes rent-seeking and goes looking for possible motives. Do the scientists benefit through career advancement? In grant applications?
I’m not suggesting there’s no rent-seeking in unions, that there’s no self-interest in ABC journalists protesting against budget cuts. But the modern Right sees only self-interest through its myopic frame of reference, and dismisses any evidence of alternative values as either deceptive or “extreme”.
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There are senses in which the “Left” can be said to exist, of course. The theory of communist socialism after 1848 and especially 1917 dominated an explicitly left-wing agenda for much of the 20th century, with terrible consequences wherever its proponents took the power of the state. When the modern right complains about “leftists”, it’s as if it’s still fighting the Cold War. But for practical purposes this communist Left doesn’t exist anymore in Australia, and hasn’t for at least 40 years.
There’s an even older Left. The democratic ideas the French commoners propagated in 1789 were “left-wing”, if only because they sat on the left of the Estates General and demanded a National Assembly. “Left” politics came to be associated with the challenge to illegitimate power and privilege.
If this challenge is what the Right objects to when it dismisses scientists, researchers and humanists as “leftists”, then surely that exposes its own project as illegitimate. Surely we’re all democrats now? Even if a pro-democracy, pro-equality attitude could have been described in 1789 (or 1989) as “left-wing”, it’s now being demonstrated – through the work of social epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson, among others – that policies that encourage greater levels of equality within societies actually do generate both material and intangible benefits for everyone.
If a Left exists in Australia at all, now, it’s simply as a shorthand description of those who don’t agree with the prescriptions of the modern Right, which seems primarily interested in reversing many of the intellectual and democratic gains of recent decades and centuries and restoring and confining power and privilege to the few rather than the many. To be labelled “left-wing” by the modern Right is probably an endorsement that one’s ideas are sound.
In the end, the Left exists largely in the Right’s own mind – as a straw man onto which to project its delusional and self-interested chatter.
We hardly need to be reminded of it, but the ABC funding cut demonstrates the utter political ineptitude of the Abbott government.
It’s not just that it’s an obvious broken promise (one that Coalition members compound foolishly by denying).
Nor is it merely that the government is picking a fight with the most wide-reaching and respected media organisation in the country. Or that Coalition partners the Nationals will bleed votes as a result of cuts made to regional coverage.
It highlights the extent to which the government is out of touch with ordinary Australians, preferring the counsel of a small group of right-wing ideologues to the clear-cut research that the ABC is still the most trusted news source in the country. But this isn’t the worst of it, not by far.
Even the ABC critics have angrily made the point that the government has barely attempted to build a case that the cuts could be sustained. It’s an open secret that there are some areas of the ABC that could use some trimming – like any major organisation. But this isn’t an excuse for such major cuts, nor was it used as one; it provided an opportunity for the government to hold a mature debate about spending and debt, about public broadcasting’s role and the virtue of keeping a responsible eye on all government-funded institutions. But as is becoming common, the chance was missed by Abbott et al, and any political capital that might have been gained was squandered. If you listen closely, you can still hear echoes of Coalition politicians fighting the wrong battle.
It’s not even that the government is doing all this at a time when it needs all the support it can get, as even its few remaining boosters – Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt, the Australian – turn on it. The cuts have almost no support on the rest of the political spectrum, apart from two libertarian senators, who feel the same way about all government spending. Christopher Pyne, wily fox that he is, knows the score: recognising the unpopularity of his own cabinet’s decision, he’s campaigning against it. Hopefully he kicks his own arse while he’s at it.
So what’s to gain? The support of a handful of angry old men who would never vote for anyone else anyway.
The point’s been made over and over that the ABC is essential – in regional areas, in order to prevent the total domination of the likes of News Corp, in order to cover the sorts of community service broadcasting that commercial stations could never afford, and so on and so on. What’s the argument in favour of cuts? No idea, except to shore up a broad, almost ideological point that there’s “too much waste” in government. It comes in the context of a much wider conversation about the budget that the government has already lost. Did Hockey and Abbott think this would help?
If the point was that the ABC is wasting taxpayers’ money, the Coalition has never actually bothered to make it. (If it was that the ABC is an ideological threats to the government, as it prefers News Corp’s support, it would be honourable to say this.) As usual, Abbott has gone silent rather than front up and explain the reasoning behind his government’s stance. Like the recent bluster about shirt-fronting Putin, he’s less than brave when push comes to shove. In this case he’s handed the steaming pile to his good friend and supporter Malcolm Turnbull.
Four hundred jobs will be lost in the ABC alone, five regional radio stations, the TV studio in Adelaide, all non-news TV production outside Melbourne and Sydney and numerous programs and presenters.
But the most humiliating thing about the campaign to cut public broadcasting, for all of us, is that all of the pain caused, all this traumatic upheaval, all this stupidity and lost political capital is the result of an ineptitude that could be exposed in a single short message on Twitter (@mmccwill): “Politics, apparently, should be understood in context: $254million cut from ABC. Extra $245million found in May budget for school chaplains.”
The Abbott government deserves the kicking it’s going to get over this.