In our brave new world of digital gadgetry, awash with empty slogans and blighted by ever-shrinking attention spans, is there any prospect of rational political debate in this election? A pervading mood of paranoia seems to be the new norm. Who do the Liberals hate most in this campaign? Bill Shorten? The unions? The Greens? The “left-wing media”? In varying degrees they detest them all. But no organisation arouses deeper contempt in conservative breasts – greater fear and loathing, more paranoid suspicion and distrust – than the ABC.
Why should this be so? For many conservatives, the national broadcaster is a hotbed of radical activism, staffed and managed by closet lefties and loony, latte-sipping ideologues opposed to traditional values. Forever on the lookout for examples of ABC bias and irresponsibility, conservatives and their media allies have little difficulty in discovering new ones. The ABC’s latest offence was its wilful refusal to televise the recent leaders’ debate organised by SkyNews (part-owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp). How bad was that? By common consent, the debate was pretty boring, but every commentator (certainly all those in the Murdoch stable) pronounced Malcolm the winner. The ABC, aware of Turnbull’s formidable skills as a debater and wordsmith, had no wish to join SkyNews in promoting his image to voters.
A few days later, talking to some of my Liberal friends (and yes, I have quite a few), I was surprised to learn of another ABC conspiracy. Have you noticed that their top-rated discussion programs – Lateline, The Insiders and the deeply detested Q&A – are deliberately giving prominence to independent candidates to help them capture seats from conservatives? Jacqui Lambie, Nick Xenophon, Tony Windsor and their ilk are getting far more exposure than they deserve. No, I’m serious. As an old journalist myself, I point out that Lambie is a highly amusing character, that Xenophon is a force to be reckoned with in South Australia, and that the much-despised Tony Windsor, despite his scandalous alliance with Julia Gillard in 2010, is an honourable man. All, surely, deserve some coverage at election time. But not if the Libs have their way. When Michelle Guthrie took over as the ABC’s managing director last month, Liberal senator Eric Abetz demanded that she immediately “end the lefty love-in”. (And if you’ve ever wondered why those carefully balanced audiences at Q&A broadcasts display obvious left-wing bias, it’s because Greens and lefties turn up in droves at the studio and declare themselves Liberal voters to gain admission.)
For seasoned ABC watchers, all this has a familiar ring. The organisation has long been accused of left-wing bias, and there was time in the 1970s when the charge had some validity. In those days, the ABC’s special projects department was run by Allan Ashbolt, a left-wing radical and regular contributor to the British socialist journal New Statesman. He also wrote occasional book reviews for me when I was literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. I remember him as a fine writer and something of a radical spirit. But he wasn’t nearly radical enough for the Marxist historian Humphrey McQueen, who declared that Ashbolt’s Lateline program (then a radio show) embodied the values of “bourgeois liberalism.”
Stung by this rebuke, Ashbolt insisted that Lateline reflected the “intellectual concerns of its producers, whose briefs and passions spanned a fairly wide spectrum of thinking from the centre to the left of politics.” No wonder conservatives were angry! The poet Douglas Stewart, reviewing a memoir Ashbolt wrote in 1974, professed his amazement that “for ten mighty years from 1963 to 1973 Ashbolt was regularly sacked, demoted, reprimanded, transferred, promoted, stood in the corner, hanged, drawn and quartered at least once a week for his controversial current affairs programs…” Ken Inglis, in his definitive history of the ABC, wondered why Ashbolt stayed so long at an organisation he had publicly characterised as an “ideological arm of the capitalist state”.
I suspect that prevailing conservative attitudes to the ABC had their origins in those events. But the political climate has changed in 40 years, and so, in many ways, has the ABC. Numerous independent reviews and internal audits have found no evidence of systemic political bias, though conservative critics continue to think otherwise. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald when Mark Scott retired as managing director in April this year, Gerard Henderson lamented that after ten years with Scott at the helm the ABC had “not one conservative presenter, producer or editor for any of its prominent TV, radio or online outlets.” Gerard didn’t tell us which conservatives he would have chosen; nor did he name the non-conservative producers and presenters allegedly running the show. He couldn’t name them because they don’t exist – unless we accept that anyone sitting a little to the left of the far right is some kind of Marxist. What the ABC can rightly boast of are some of the best and fairest presenters in the country, and some of the best and toughest interviewers – the likes of Leigh Sales, Emma Albirici and Chris Uhlmann – who can dish it out equally to politicians of all persuasions.
Even so, the culture wars show sign of abating. The last big blow-up was in 2013, when the ABC broke the story that Australia’s spy agencies had been monitoring the phones of the then Indonesian president and his wife. Worse, according to outraged Tories, the ABC had joined forces with the left-wing Guardian Australia to promote the story, based on leaked documents from the notorious Edward Snowden. By any journalistic test, Australia’s phone-tapping operation was a big story, and no self-respecting media organisation would have ignored it. But Malcolm Turnbull, then communications minister, denounced the ABC for its bad judgment and Liberal senator Cory Bernardi branded the corporation a “taxpayer-funded behemoth.” According to political journalist Michelle Grattan, “critics have seized on the ABC’s action as an opportunity to denounce what they see as its view of the world.” The Australian’s Greg Sheridan wrote that the ABC would “go to any lengths to prosecute its endless war against the dark forces of conservative Australia.”
For 23 years until Gough Whitlam’s election in 1972, the dark forces of conservative Australia were kept in check. Conservative governments in those years appointed every ABC board member under the chairmanship of such venerable establishment figures as Sir Richard Boyer and Sir James Darling. Whitlam, in typically provocative mood, replaced the entire board with Labor supporters. Then, in 1975, it was Malcolm Fraser’s turn, and Whitlam’s chairman, Sir Richard Downing, was replaced by Sir Henry Bland. But as politicians on both sides have often found, boards and directors at the ABC have little practical control over day-to-day programming. The ABC carried on pretty much as it
always had. Finally, in what conservatives hailed as a master-stroke, Fraser installed the late Professor Dame Leonie Kramer as chair, confident that her strong personality and well-known right-wing views would reshape the lefty culture. But Kramer, in her short tenure, proved a staunch defender of the ABC’s independence, declaring herself (in the words of a Sydney Morning Herald obituary-writer) a “guardian of the highest standards of broadcasting.”
John Howard rode to the rescue in 1996. A string of right-wing appointments included the Victorian Liberal Party bigshot Michael Kroger, conservative columnist Janet Albrechtsen, and Keith Windshuttle, then editor of Quadrant. As chairman Howard installed his friend Donald McDonald, who was confidently expected to end the “lefty love-in” once and for all. But McDonald, too, proved to be his own man, standing up for the ABC against political pressure and interference from all sides. One thing he couldn’t stop was Howard’s abolition of the staff-elected director’s position – a move that many saw as a gesture of revenge for the ABC’s ongoing intransigence. (The staff-elected director was restored by the Rudd government in 2007.)
How will the ABC fare under Malcolm Turnbull? Perhaps it’s too early to say. Turnbull was minister for communications when the Abbott government cut $254 million from the ABC’s budget in 2014 in breach of an election promise. Malcolm can always be relied upon to make the right soothing noises at the right time, but if Abbott’s so-called “budget emergency” ever materialises he may be tempted to cut some more.
After years fending off assorted threats and confected outrage from the right, I expect the ABC will continue doing what it does best – providing a lively and generally well-balanced news coverage and numerous forums for sophisticated political debate. It has some of the best political commentators and election analysts in the business. Above all, to the great consternation of conservatives, it enjoys solid middle-class support. The Friends of the ABC and the so-called doctors’ wives have always been ready to rally to the cause. Their support, I believe, will deter any future conservative government from scaling back or selling off the corporation. Malcolm Turnbull may have patched up his row with Alan Jones, doyen of Sydney radio shock-jocks, at least for the duration of the present campaign, but at heart , I think, he’s an ABC true believer. We must hope so.
Evan Williams is a former newspaper editor and Walkley Award-winning journalist. He wrote speeches for Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and a succession of NSW premiers. He headed the NSW Government’s cultural sector from 1977 to 2001, and for 33 years wrote regular film reviews for The Australian. He is a Member of the Order of Australia.