As keen as the local Murdoch media are in reporting opinion polls, a recent survey* probably was not one of them. It declared that their avowed nemesis remained by far the most trusted media organisation in Australia. That is the ABC or, as Rupert Murdoch famously muttered in 2002, ‘Fucking ABC’.
The ABC is an absolute nuisance to him, of course, just as it was to his father who saw the advent of radio news as a threat to his profitable newspapers. The trouble for Murdoch Jr is that the ABC stands in the way of him having even a greater share of what we read and watch in Australia and, therefore, greater influence. What’s more, it is free, a word that is like a virus to his commercial empire.
His argument is that it is taxpayers’ money and therefore wasteful. It is not. It is a common benefit for all Australians just as Medicare and child subsidies are. The ABC’s informational scope is unsurpassed in Australia. We would be a wasteland of ignorance without it. It is part of the bedrock of democracy in Australia, the main sentinel guarding against abuses in our public life.
Certainly the ABC is not without fault as it tries to adapt to the complexity of public interests and expectations in this rapidly changing information era of endless news and chatter. While its news and current affairs may have moved downmarket compared with old standards, it still does its best to remain fair and balanced.
Bias is in the ear of the beholder. We all like to think that we ‘own’ the ABC and therefore want to hear whatever suits our opinions, interests and prejudices. No broadcaster can fulfil that expectation, of course, but it doesn’t mean to say the ABC is not objective or cannot be trusted.
One gets the impression that ABC’s critics actually are addicted to the national broadcaster. How else could they make such sweeping condemnations if they weren’t tuned in constantly? Or are they subjective about what they choose to watch or listen to and take on board for their judgments? ABC statistics indicate this may be so. It gets about 12,800 complaints a year regarding news and current affairs content. Only 10% (about 1280) warrant investigation by what the ABC says is its independent complaints unit. It so happens the ABC also gets around 1350 complimentary comments.
Murdoch’s reaction has been a relentlessly tedious attack on the ABC, especially through his dutiful retainers at the Australian. Recently they gave a space to a serial complainant of the ABC, Geoffrey Luck, who penned a 1500-word polemic against the national broadcaster’s news service. Predictably, the next edition’s Letters to the Editor column led with with contributions in furious agreement except for one. It was headlined ‘Valuable insights from a former ABC insider’.
Yet Luck was last ‘inside the ABC’ back in the 1970s, deep in the Analog Age when broadcasting output was vastly different to today. But to the Murdochian philosophy it doesn’t really matter. Slinging mud at the ABC is what counts. So much for a paper whose proud front page mantra is ‘For informed Australians’. It is only too willing to run stories which accuse the ABC of being leftist or biased and yet thrives on running lynch mob campaigns of its own, such as the current one against Bill Shorten. Little wonder the Murdoch media didn’t make the top three in the trust survey, the others being SBS and Fairfax Media.
As we have seen in recent weeks, Liberal Party is never short of anti-ABC agitators even though its politicians queue up to be heard on its airwaves when it suits them. The Liberal federal council’s recent vote to privatise the ABC except outside the capital cities was breathtaking in its suicidal innocence. Didn’t delegates realise that tens of thousands of Liberal voters in the big cities are part of the dedicated ABC audience? Had they thought about how all the bush outposts would fill 15 let alone 24 hours of air time and the cost? Would a commercial owner, hungry for ratings and profit, provide the same vast range of topics as the ABC does and meet at least a semblance of the ABC charter?
Look at the New Zealand experience. The government owns the main radio and tv networks. Radio NZ is commercial-free. TVNZ is funded mainly by commercial ads. It is expected to deliver a profit and a dividend to Wellington. The result is frothy programming as if that is where the ratings money is. ABC programs like 7.30, Four Corners and The Drum are unknown there. TVNZ once had a nightly current affairs program of substance. It has been replaced by one described as ‘light and giggly’. It may explain why NZ’s new Minister of Broadcasting, Clare Curran, believes the ABC is a model worth emulating.
NZ’s experience could well be our future if the ABC is ever sold off. The very idea of fairness would be one of the prime casualties. Redneck provocateurs would be introduced because, as Murdoch’s Fox News has demonstrated, that’s where the money is. Inflammatory bias pays. Who knows, may be even Geoffrey Luck and the other critics might lament the good old ABC days of news and current affairs.
FOOTNOTE. In my time at the ABC news department I never heard the slightest suggestion of straying from the editorial straight and narrow in assigning stories. Balanced reporting was the order of the day. Occasionally a completed story was killed because it was lopsided or incorrect. Complaints about Israel reporting were numerous in foreign news. Most were unfounded, but some were justified and the ABC owned up to that.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news, including 19 in senior roles at the ABC.
*See Patricia Edgar blog posted July 6.