Grimly ideological neoliberals in the ranks of the young fogies at the Liberal Party’s recent federal council sponsored a motion to privatise the ABC. In an astonishing display of shooting themselves in the foot, the old fogies present (including Ministers Mitch Fifield and Julie Bishop) glumly and dumbly let the motion pass, thereby handing the Turnbull government a hefty political migraine for the by-elections on 28 July and the coming general election.
It is widely and well known that the ABC is the most highly respected and valued news and public affairs source in the country. Its support and trust among voters is streets ahead of what is offered (briefly, in between the tedium of multiple noisy ads) by the tabloid-style commercial radio and television services. Only ideological fools would advocate handing the ABC over to private media interests.
Those fools, of course, argue that the ABC is anti-conservative, that it is biased against the government, and that it is a seething hothouse of card-carrying left-wing, anti-capitalist opinion-makers bent on undermining what is very loosely understood to be western civilization, in all its glory. While all governments are prone to whinging about alleged bias in the ABC, the alt-right in Liberal ranks has taken it to a new and especially dangerous level.
That they don’t admit to is the rampant mixture of incidental and deliberate bias, fake news, “advertarialising,” and manipulating of public opinion (for mainly commercial, but also political purposes) that clouds commercial media in this country. The fundamental purpose of their owners and managers is to ensure profitability for their shareholders and executives. All else comes second – or third, or even a remote fourth. Their programs are frequently loud, sensationalist, vulgar, sexist, and prejudiced. You only have to listen to shock-jocks like Alan Jones to observe how crude and one-eyed commercial media can be.
Given the low (and sinking ever lower) levels of our commercial media outlets, the case for the ABC ought to be impregnable. But this ignores the intellectual and cultural philistinism that is at the very heart of the entire neoliberal project. Its main claim to fame is that the free market will lift us all to new heights of prosperity and civilization. However, the stark consequence is that it always aims at the lowest common denominator to peddle its latest unregulated goods and services and “infotainment.”
Commercial media in this country is a glaring example of Shakespeare’s tale told by idiots – all sound and fury signifying nothing. Its commercialisation of major sporting events, for example, has resulted in an avalanche of anti-social sponsorships and advertising (for example, selling alcohol to young people and promoting gambling). Its tabloid outlets cravenly push the mindless cult of celebrity and laud crude and impolite behaviour in public. Not a few Australians abroad (for example in Bali) behave like the bogans they listen to on radio or television, believing it is acceptable and even hilarious, because this is what they see and hear at home. More often than not, their hosts rightly regard them as barbarians.
Neoliberalism’s philistinism is particularly evident in the fear and hatred it generates of public intellectuals who dare to question its methods and outcomes. Its contempt for high culture, for internationally acclaimed literary and artistic achievements, and its dismissal of disciplines like the science of climate change and the voices of authoritative scholars has resulted in Australia becoming increasingly a land of the ignoramus.
The sad thing is that the pressure that the Coalition and its neoliberal cheerleaders are putting on the ABC has increasingly seen it surrendering to neoliberal philistinism. At board level there is a stony silence when its members should be out there defending the Corporation against its blinkered critics and demanding greater funding allocations in the federal budget.
At the programming and presentation levels there is a creeping dumbing down of programs and their content.
There are several programs whose presenters conform too easily to a tabloid version of radio, trivialising very important issues affecting people’s lives, while dishing out gratuitous advice or running buffoonish commentaries. Two programs especially of this ilk are Life Matters and God Forbid!
On ABC Classis FM, which is supposed to be dedicated to fine music, on weekday mornings we are subjected to far too much grating blather, while on weekends we are obliged to put up with endless prattle. (The exception is the wonderful Christopher Lawrence whose wit and intelligence are unequalled among his peers.)
Fortunately, the superiority of the ABC is still evident in a range of finely researched and presented RN programs, including: The Law Report (Damien Carrick); The Health Report (Dr Norman Swan); The Religion and Ethics Report (the excellent Andrew West); The Minefield (Waleed Ally and Scott Stephens); and The Philosopher’s Zone (Joe Gelonesi). The informative current affairs programs, AM, The World Today, and PM are infinitely superior to any similar commercial productions. While some, or all, of these programs might attract small listening audiences, they are nonetheless invaluable for keeping the flame of intelligence burning in an increasingly dark and ignorant age.
ABC television is another story. When it is good it is very, very good – for example 7:30 (Leigh Sales); Insiders (with Barry Cassidy and his teams); or Four Corners (the brilliant Sarah Ferguson). But the pathetic recourse that TV managers are taking to repeating programs (and then repeating them again) is fast losing it audiences.
It is clear that the ABC must be protected from the lunatic fringe in a Coalition that is increasingly terrified of what is looming over the electoral horizon. In the meantime we need to hear a great deal more from the ALP about how it will remedy the Coalition’s neoliberal vandalising of the ABC to make it great again.
Dr Allan Patience is a Melbourne-based academic.