Let me start with a quote: ‘…The ABC is a vital part of our nation’s polity. It is one of the great foundations of journalism and news gathering and broadcasting in the country. It has a very special place in Australia.’ That was Malcolm Turnbull in January 2014 when he announced a cut to the ABC’s budget of $254 million.
(Ed: Ad lib response to isolated hissing from one audience member: Honestly, I don’t like hissing. This is something that is too important to allow divisions and divisiveness about it. There are many very, very passionate ABC supporters who are part of a national conservative constituency and they should be applauded for it, and they should be encouraged to feel they are part of this fight.)
In 2013, the year Tony Abbott and the Coalition were voted into power, I was at an ABC function in Parliament House when Malcolm Turnbull arrived, and I was the nearest person to him. He was months away from becoming the Minister for Communications, including the ABC. He didn’t exchange pleasantries. He simply said, the ABC has never been more important than it is today. The ABC has never been more important than it is today. He was referring to the destructive way the digital revolution was impacting on what we now quaintly call legacy media—mostly newspapers.
Five years later, the ABC hasn’t changed. The impact of digital technology hasn’t lessened. The challenges are as stark as ever. The only element that has changed in these five years is Malcolm Turnbull.
Every Liberal government for the past 40 years has held inquiries into the ABC. The Fraser government gave us the Dix Inquiry. The Howard Government gave us the Mansfield Inquiry.
The Abbott government, with Malcolm Turnbull as his Minister for the ABC gave us the Peter Lewis inquiry (in tandem with Turnbull’s own department) into the ABC’s efficiency (presumably looking for a lack of efficiency).
The Turnbull government has given us another two inquiries into the ABC, one of them after constant complaints from Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd and the Fairfax group, and in a horse trade with that well-known supporter of public broadcasting, Pauline Hanson. The other is his second inquiry into the ABC’s efficiency, and SBS.
Two inquiries into the efficiency of public broadcasting in four years. What was wrong with the first one? And the latest efficiency inquiry, we’re told, will be headed by a man named Peter Tonagh. So who is Peter Tonagh? Well he’s the former boss of Foxtel—a direct competitor with the ABC and SBS. A former senior executive of News Ltd—which has for a long time now been a harsh and constant critic of the ABC. Malcolm Turnbull complemented the ABC on its cooperation with the first one, so presumably that meant it was a thorough investigation. So why do we now need another one? To justify the cuts he’s just made in his budget two months ago.
This is not about bias by the ABC against Liberal Governments. It’s a bias by Liberal governments against the ABC. And I’ve seen that prejudice close up. I was with Four Corners in 1976, the first year of the Fraser government, and along with everyone else at the ABC, felt the sting of significant budget cuts in that first year. And those cuts were seen at the time as a punishment for the ABC’s alleged bias.
I was with the 7.30 Report in 1996, the first year of the Howard government, and like my colleagues saw and felt the sting of big budget cuts in its first year. Punishment again. No doubt about it. And as an added bonus we were given Jonathan Shier. (A bit like From Russia with Love). I was back with Four Corners for the first year of the Abbott government, and guess what? Cuts to the ABC in its first budget—quickly followed by Malcolm Turnbull’s first efficiency inquiry which recommended more cuts. $254 million to be precise.
And that was when Malcolm Turnbull described himself to the late, revered Mark Colvin on PM, as the ABC’s most passionate defender because it was such a vital part of the nation’s polity.
Now, in the 2018 budget, the Turnbull government has foreshadowed more cuts. $83.7 million over the next three years, and created a further funding hole of $43 million for the ABC by discontinuing funding for news and current affairs investigative reporting and regional coverage.
I still remember sitting on the ABC panel on election night 1996, watching Richard Alston, who was about to become our Minister, as he promised that the ABC budget would not be cut. He was reiterating an earlier pledge. Yet it was his recommendation to Cabinet that saw the ABC budget slashed. Not only that. Alston actually acknowledged in writing to his Cabinet colleagues, in his draft budget submission that was leaked to me—and which I still have in my files today—that the cuts he was recommending would be in breach of the government’s election promise. Remember John Howard’s core and non-core promises. Well that was one of them.
Then in 2013, do you remember Tony Abbott’s pledge on the eve of the election: “No cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS.’
So Malcolm Turnbull, the man who said to me five years ago that the ABC was now more important than ever has signed off on cuts to the ABC of nearly $400 million in just four years—and has given the personal nod to three inquiries—two on efficiency grounds, and a third inquiry to see if the ABC is breaching its competitive neutrality requirements in competing on the internet with News Ltd and Fairfax, and with commercial broadcasters, which could potentially see the ABC restrained from at least some of its traditional coverage on the new digital platforms—platforms which are now fundamentally a part of the life blood and relevance and future of public broadcasting. Potentially a kiss of death if it can’t properly cement its place in the media landscape of the future.
The technology that spawned the ABC was radio. When television came along the same arguments about the same need for the quality and diversity of product applied. Now the internet is the new technology, so there are more platforms for delivery but the same arguments about the need for ABC content, apply. In some ways even more. This is the era of fake news, where the kind of integrity, of credibility, of trust that is the ABC’s stock in trade, is needed more than ever.
I don’t have a problem with any process that is genuinely about keeping the ABC honest. For many, many Australians it is a critically important public institution. It is funded by taxpayers. It should have oversight. And it does. From its own government-appointed board for a start—from the department, from the Australian Communications and Media Authority, and from those endless Senate Estimates hearings. It answers to the Parliament. It answers directly to its critics. It should have scrutiny. So long as the scrutiny being applied to the ABC is itself honest, and the government driving that scrutiny has honest intent, and not a hidden agenda driven either by political prejudice or by ideology or by commercial interests. And of course there’s the constant vigilance from News Ltd’s ABC re-education committee, ably led by Andrew Bolt, Piers Ackerman, Miranda Devine, Janet Albrechtsen and the rest. Boringly repetitive. Dripping with poison.
The ABC is the most scrutinised institution in this country. And yet, somehow, with its unique reach across the nation from its radio, its television and its on line presence, it manages to please most of the nation most of the time. Independent survey after independent survey over many years now has measured a far higher degree of trust and regard for the ABC than any other institution in the country—public or private. By a country mile. I’ve said it before and I’ll never stop saying it while these cynical, opportunistic, and ideological attacks continue against the ABC. Politicians, and for that matter, our newspaper critics, would kill for the credibility the ABC has always enjoyed, and continues to. If you want to challenge that proposition, name one institution that earns the public’s trust more than the ABC. What, the Parliament? The Church? The banks?
Credibility and trust in the public domain do not come easily. Particularly in this day and age. The ABC has earned that trust, time and time again. On the other hand, I don’t think the Australian public has ever rated its politicians lower. And these continuing attacks on the ABC now are not going to help them.
And yet we see that very revealing debate at the recent conference of the Liberal Party’s Federal Council, the peak body of the Liberal Party, on a motion to privatise the ABC. Don’t make the mistake of writing that motion off because it was moved by the Young Liberal leadership, on the basis that they’re still wet behind the ears—that they’re still kiddies, and that they just need time to grow up. They’ll grow up, alright. They’ll grow up to be in the front ranks of their party in the parliament.
It also took a lot more votes than a few Young Liberal members to pass the motion. And as the privatisation argument was debated in the Liberal conference, these are some of the senior liberals who looked on, and as far as I’m aware, said nothing.
Julie Bishop, Deputy Liberal Leader and Foreign Minister, and the Finance Minister Mathias Corman, two of Malcolm Turnbull’s most senior Liberals, and two state Liberal Premiers, Steven Marshall from South Australia, and Will Hodgman from Tasmania—although Hodgman claimed later that he wasn’t in the room when the vote was taken—until, that is, the Herald posted a photo of him sitting as large as life in the fourth row.
The Communications Minister, Mitch Fifield, spoke against it, the only minister to do so. He had to. He was the ABC’s minister after all. He knew how it would be reported if he didn’t, and he knew that potentially it would be politically toxic for the government. And Mitch Fifield as we know remains a member of the Institute of Public Affairs, which has, coincidentally, just brought out a book arguing for the privatisation of the ABC.
Let me read its opening stanza: The Australian Broadcasting Corporation is a $1.04 billion public policy program. This book treats it exactly as that: A government intervention into the market for news, entertainment and communications. Policy interventions are costly. The ABC represents a billion dollars taken out of taxpayers’ pockets and not used on other government priorities.
Policy interventions are also costly in a non-monetary sense. They can have unintended or counter-productive consequences. They can crowd out non-government activity. Stifle entrepreneurship or technological innovation, distort the marketplace, systematically favour political interests and ideologies, and create fiefdoms of unaccountable bureaucrats.’ (These are the same unaccountable bureaucrats who are about to face their second government inquisition to test their efficiency in four years.)
And then the following line. ‘We argue in this book that the ABC is an anachronism.’ So in its opening pitch, not a single positive word or phrase for the ABC or public broadcasting.
Of course they regard it as anachronistic. They are Chris Berg and Sinclair Davidson, two unfettered, ideological, free market economists. Their closing line to the book is a ripper. ‘The ABC should be privatised and freed (freed) to flourish in the new media marketplace.’ Yeah, sure.
We all know, even two blinkered economists like Berg and Davidson, that the kinds of quality programs that are a fundamental part of the ABC brand and a part of its charter are expensive–programs like Four Corners and 7.30 and Australian Story and Foreign Correspondent. Do they survive in the fractured marketplace of the digital age? And if they don’t survive, does it matter? Berg and Davidson would say no, because you can find quality all over YouTube if you want. Just dial it up. I’m not sure about the YouTube Four Corners or the YouTube 7.30, but they say you’ll find something of quality somewhere. It may or may not be relevant to Australia but that doesn’t matter. Maybe it’ll even be well-researched and well-sourced. Even factual. Or not. How will you know what to trust? What if you’re not as smart as Chris Berg or Steven Davidson? And speaking of trust, remember the Commonwealth Bank before it was privatised. It was trusted then. It became known as the people’s bank. No trust there now.
So imagine Four Corners has disappeared and you’re looking for something to fill the void, that you won’t actually find on YouTube or Netflix. Well the Sunday program on the Nine Network on Sunday mornings used to be pretty good. But that’s gone. Unviable in today’s disrupted industry. Sixty Minutes used to be pretty good—about 20 years ago, but it’s gone more and more down market. There’s always Sunday Night on the Seven Network as an alternative. That’s the program that paid Barnaby Joyce and Vikki Campion $150,000 for their self-serving interview. Oh well, never mind.
And when 7.30 disappears, where do viewers turn then? Well, Nine has A Current Affair. I can remember Ray Martin telling me once over dinner when I was at 7.30 and he was anchoring ACA, that they avoided politics there as much as possible because every time they had a politician on they knew they’d automatically lose at least two ratings points. And when they had to have those interviews, they’d keep them as short as possible. And Ray was and is a serious journalist. So no 7.30, no more politicians held to account on any sort of regular basis. What about AM and PM and the World Today on ABC Radio. Do you think John Singleton would find a place for them alongside Alan Jones and Ray Hadley. A natural fit there.
Let’s say the much celebrated, much decorated Australian Story was unable to survive in the marketplace of Christopher Berg and Sinclair Davidson. Are we going to find anything remotely like it on commercial television or YouTube? I don’t think so. Would Foreign Correspondent ever get a look in without the ABC—the program that reports the rest of the world to Australia from Australian eyes? No. Would Gruen Transfer, a program that critiques the advertising industry with all the exploitative tricks of its cynical trade, ever get a look in on commercial television, surrounded by ads? I don’t think so. What about a specialist program for the bush, like Landline? Not on your life. Heather Ewart’s Back Roads, bringing country communities alive for the rest of the nation enjoying better services along the coastline? Unlikely. Media Watch? On commercial television, with someone like Paul Barry fearlessly questioning the ethics of his own network? You’ve got to be kidding.
Or over on SBS, Jenny Brockie’s high quality Insight program. Yeah, that’d last in the free market of Chris Berg and Sinclair Davidson. And let’s not forget that SBS has a target on its back too.
Like all the other usual suspects, the IPA’s book also carries on about institutionalised bias in the ABC. In earlier times, people working in the ABC used to laugh at some of the more ludicrous accusations of the powerful socialist cabal of program makers who were supposed to be running an insidious culture of systemic bias in the place.
When those attacks fell on deaf ears for the vast bulk of ABC audiences, because they judged us differently—and with far more maturity and clarity–the critique shifted beyond claims of a knowing conspiracy of the Left to something a little more amorphous, but still, apparently insidious.
‘Not calculatedly partisan’, as Tom Switzer wrote in the much-diminished right wing magazine Quadrant in September, 2013, but with an entrenched ‘Left-liberal bias—or perhaps mindset’.
Switzer was also trying to mount a case for privatising the ABC. Part of his case was to name eight ABC people who had worked for Labor politicians or represented Labor in Parliament. I was one, and Maxine McKew was another. Switzer didn’t apply the same measure to ABC journalists with conservative connections, but I will.
It took me no time at all to compile a list going well beyond eight. An impressive number worked for conservative prime ministers going all the way back to Menzies and Holt (Tony Eggleton), Malcolm Fraser (Owen ‘Ocker’ Lloyd and Jim Bonner), John Howard (Gary Dawson), Tony Abbott (Mark Simkin), and Malcolm Turnbull (Simkin and Hayden Cooper). 7.30 Report’s Business Editor, Mark Westfield also worked for Turnbull when he was Opposition Leader. Pru Goward, who was the state-based 7.30 Report’s Canberra correspondent before Paul Lyneham, has been a Liberal MP in the NSW Parliament for years, and now a Minister. Sarah Henderson who worked with me for the national 7.30 Report in its early years went into federal Parliament as the Liberal member for Corangamite. Paul Davey, who worked in the ABC’s Canberra bureau for radio current affairs in the late seventies, left to become the National Director of the National Party. There are many more.
Mark Simkin was the ABC’s chief national political correspondent when he joined Tony Abbott. His journalism up to that point was straight down the middle. So was Hayden Cooper’s at 7.30, and that’s the relevant issue. That’s the benchmark. Fair enough that their professional connection to a political party should draw some scrutiny, but they should be judged on their journalism, not their professional association with a political entity. Sarah Henderson couldn’t have been more professional in our Melbourne office before she went into politics as a Liberal MP, and the same was true for Maxine McKew before she ran for Bennelong in 2007 and unseated John Howard.
Tom Switzer likened the ABC to its British parent, the BBC, where, he said, senior journalists and executives had conceded that staff were drawn disproportionately from ‘the liberal (small l) metropolitan classes and this means that editorial output is all too often shaped by the creed of political correctness’ (great term don’t you think? Creed of political correctness.) To the extent that political correctness is used to identify genuine zealotry, it has some validity, but those who use the epithet most, tend to apply it to anything they don’t happen to agree with. (So we’re a collective with a creed and a mindset. Look out!)
Yes, it’s true. The ABC does cover more stories on Aboriginal issues than commercial broadcasters. More stories on Indigenous issues than A Current Affair or Sixty Minutes. Is that really so remarkable? Unlike the ABC, ratings are the first priority in a highly competitive commercial world. Commercial network executive producers are highly sensitive in their story selection. They have very firm and limiting views about what rates for them and what doesn’t. If they were being honest, commercial executive producers would tell you most stories on Indigenous issues don’t rate by commercial benchmarks.
One reason there are more of ‘those’ stories on the ABC is that the broadcaster has so many radio and television news and current affairs outlets. I don’t remember John Howard complaining about Lateline’s political correctness when their stories on child abuse allegations in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory gave him a rationale to launch his controversial intervention across the territory. And I’ll finish the point with this question. Over the years Four Corners has produced three stories of scandal relating to Indigenous issues (Added note: all related to Indigenous Australians in the justice system) that prompted governments to call Royal Commissions. The question is this: Which of those stories should Four Corners not have done on the grounds that they were politically correct? We know the answer. None of them.
I want to finish with a suggestion. I find it hard to believe that this anti-ABC hostility is genuinely representative of the majority of people who traditionally vote Liberal or National Party around the country. Of course, the ABC doesn’t please everyone all the time. But smart people see past the niggles to the bigger picture and understand the enormous value the ABC has been adding to the richness of Australian life for 80 years.
Conservative voters can strike a blow for the ABC at the next election without changing their final vote. Under Australia’s preferential system they can get two votes for the price of one, by voting away from the Liberal Party with their primary vote, and coming back to the Liberal Party with their second preference. They’d have to vote for a minor party or an independent first but then go back to their politician of choice with their second preference. People in safe seats tend to be taken for granted by both parties. This is one way you can make your voice heard in probably the only way politicians understand. Paul Fletcher is the Liberal member for Bradfield on Sydney’s North Shore—one of the safest seats in the country. Imagine if his primary vote suddenly dipped by nine or ten percent. That would get his attention. He’d still get back in but he’d be getting the message. Or Malcolm Turnbull’s seat. Or Julie Bishop. No tricky politics involved. And the message wouldn’t just be to one side of politics. It would be to both. Simple and powerful. Don’t screw with the people’s ABC.