The combined savagery of the Murdoch media, the jejune fogies in the Young Liberals, their fogy elders on the extreme right, as well as their urgers in reactionary organisations like the Institute of Public Affairs, is culminating in an unhappy deterioration in the ABC’s programming and in the quality of its presenters.
The Morrison government’s persistent dumbing down of the public broadcaster is evidence of the deep-seated anti-intellectualism and cultural philistinism at its walnut-like heart. What was once thought of as our ABC, with an enviable history of respected news reporting, cultural sophistication and information sharing, is turning into their ABC – a pale version of the glibbest offerings in the overly-commercialised media. With a limited autodidact as board chair, and a pusillanimous senior management team, things are unlikely to get better while this government remains in power.
Despite its current travails, historically the ABC is one of the triumphs of Australian public policy. As the late Ken Inglis charted in his two volumes on the history of the institution, over many decades the broadcaster has educated, informed, entertained, inspired, comforted and goaded generations of Australians. It has become the measure of the best kinds of investigative journalism across the country. It has encouraged creative and critical thinking, celebrated and enlivened the arts, while nurturing Australia’s evolving culture more widely than any other public or private organisations, including our museums, art galleries, theatres, and educational institutions.
It remains the most trusted news source in the country, way ahead of the commercial media which cravenly dance to the siren songs of their various and often nefarious advertisers. In emergencies, such as bushfires, floods, droughts, and now during the COVID-19 crisis, it has kept listeners and viewers up to date with the latest and most reliable strategic and scientific advice. Its reach across the continent makes it a much loved institution, especially in rural and remote areas of the country.
Some of its programs remain (for the time being) as the best-researched and expertly presented in the English-speaking world. Consider, for example such first class radio programs as: The Health Report by the brilliant Norman Swan; Robin Williams’ Science Show; AM with Sabra Lane and Linda Mottram, Awaye with the excellent Daniel Browning; Ewina Farley’s A Big Country; RN Drive with Patricia Karvelas; The Law Report with Damien Carrick; Annabelle Quince’s Rear Visio; Background Briefing; and the wonderful Andrew West’s Religion and Ethics Report. They are all almost always well-researched, informative, topical, and well worth listening to.
ON ABC TV, 7:30, Foreign Correspondent, Four Corners, Media Watch, Q&A, and The Drum are among the best public op/ed television in the world. They can jolt us out of our complacent comfort zones and challenge us to think seriously about important matters. Its local drama content can also be world class – consider, for example, The Slap, Barracuda, Mystery Road, The Heights. Some of its comedy programs actually deploy wit rather than raucous abuse – for example, Charlie Pickering’s The Weekly. And then there are one-off series like the marvellous Craig Reucassel’s three-part Fighting for Planet A.
All of which point to an admirable public broadcasting service that deserves to be well funded, encouraged and applauded for the civilizing role it plays in informing and enlivening a democratic civic culture in Australia.It is all the more depressing given the ignorant hostility and blinkered populism with which the Morrison government treats the ABC.
The Morrison government’s relentless attacks on the ABC are especially evident in negative changes to some older programs and the addition of newer programs and presenters on Radio National and Classic FM. For example, in God Forbid James Carlton’s manic forays into religious belief are invariably shallow, befuddled, and sometimes down-right ridiculous. Meanwhile, the tabloid-style of the Life Matters program mostly manages to trivialise issues that are dealt with more wisely in other programs. The ageing adolescents presenting Stop Everything! should be stopped in their tracks. Some presenters have been in their program slots for far too long. On RN Breakfast, Fran Kelly’s tortuous questioning style can be maddening. And for all his welcome longevity, it’s time the self-identified “ancient broadcaster” handed over Late Night Live to a fresh voice.
Like Amanda Vanstone’s pugnaciously opinionated Counterpoint, Tom Switzer’s frothy Between the Lines is the ABC’s attempt to assuage its right wing critics by welcoming self-proclaimed conservatives into their ranks, in order to provide an appearance of “balance” in its op/ed offerings. There are much cleverer, genuine conservatives like Professor John Carrol who would be able to offer in-depth programs infinitely superior to the trouble and squeak that Vanstone and Switzer are constantly dishing up.
Meanwhile on Classic FM, the métier du jour on weekend mornings and week-day mornings has become just so much blathering drivel, staged bonhomie, breathless prattle, and soppy interludes with texting listeners. Great music is squeezed in between the blustering nonsense that tends to dominate Classic FM’s mornings. Oh, for the days of presenters like Colin Fox whose dignity, sensitivity and music expertise are sorely missed.
It appears that the only hope for the ABC will be an end to the culturally mean-spirited and ideologically blinkered Coalition government. What is urgently needed is the appointment of a sympathetically effective board and senior management. That is why it is now absolutely incumbent on the ALP to come out with a well-argued policy for rescuing and properly resourcing the public broadcaster. It’s time.