For a lumbering, slow-moving, accident prone government, the Liberals moved like Speedy Gonzales to reassure us that they wouldn’t “privatize” or “sell” the ABC as recommended by a Young Liberal motion at the recent Liberal federal council meeting. Energy minister Josh Frydenberg rushed in to assure us that “the ABC is an iconic national institution, it provides valuable services. It is not going to be sold and never can be sold.” Just in case you missed it, he repeated, “The government’s policy is not to sell the ABC.” Scott Morrison chimed-in with similar sentiments.
That’s all very well, but there are many other ways to subvert “an iconic institution.” In fact, the process is already under way on two fronts. On one hand the Vandals are at the city gates. On the other, they’re already in the citadel.
The external barbarians are attempting to asset-strip the Corporation by constant reductions in the ABC budget totalling $254 million since 2014. In addition, the 2018 budget froze the indexation of ABC funding amounting to a loss of another $84 million. The result was the departure of 600 experienced staff over the last four years
While nobody takes much notice of Pauline Hanson’s attacks on the ABC, the fact that the Communications Minister, Mitch Fifield, is a self-confessed culture warrior with a background at the Institute of Public Affairs is much more worrying. The IPA’s policy is somewhere between privatising the ABC and giving it away. So, given Turnbull’s dependence on right-wing culture warriors—several with IPA backgrounds—his government’s promises of protecting the ABC look specious at best.
But the greatest danger to the ABC comes from within. All present board members were appointed by the Coalition government. The board is made up of three women and two men, plus MD Michelle Guthrie and staff elected member, Jane Connors. Full marks for women’s representation, but a big B- for cultural diversity and understanding of public broadcasting. With the exception of Guthrie and Connors, none of the other board members could be remotely defined as having any media experience. It is not unreasonable to assume that at least the majority of the board would share the values and attitudes that constitute the Corporation’s public culture. I simply don’t see this in the present board. Most have business backgrounds and it is hard to see how this qualifies them to run the most important cultural institution in Australia.
Sure, corporates can be deeply cultured—Donald McDonald was a good example of a very cultured businessman and effective ABC Chair—but there is little evidence of this in the present membership.
But the problem is not just with the board. I seriously doubt whether everyone in ABC senior management really embrace the values of public broadcasting. There is a subtle but pervasive commercial ethos around the Corporation.
BBC founder John Reith saw public broadcasting as radically different to commercial broadcasting. For him it was characterised by a dominant sense of responsibility to the community, a diversity and quality in program content, a universality of access through serving minority as well as majority interests, together with freedom from commercial pressure through public funding, and freedom from political pressure through independent oversight that was accountable primarily to the public. Finally, a public broadcaster reflected national culture and identity.
These ideals have increasingly faded from the management of the ABC. They have been preoccupied with so-called “platforms” since the time of Mark Scott as MD. “Platforms” refer to different ways of transmitting material electronically—radio, TV, social media, on-line content—what Marshall McLuhan referred to as the “medium”, as in “the medium is the message.”. But obsession with platforms has come at the expense of content.
The present management of the ABC has decimated the specialist units—science, religion, history, arts. In fact, there has almost been a kind of war against specialization and arts. Radio National has been forced to rely increasingly on flow shows with personality presenters, as opposed to more highly researched and produced programs. News and current affairs programs like The World Today and PM have been cut in half and Lateline has disappeared from television.
Superficially, the ABC looks Sydney-centric, and to an extent it is, especially in management terms. But when you get to know it well, you realize that especially in radio it is a truly state based and regional organization. What were called the “metropolitan” stations have continued to hold their audiences and the regional stations give genuine voice to rural Australia. That is why the ABC so popular in the bush and Liberal “young Turks” might soon find themselves in serious conflict with their National Party colleagues.
I was in the ABC for most of David Hill’s time and he never hesitated to take it right up to his mates in the Labor government, especially when Gareth Evans was Communications Minister. Hill was a very effective MD. Guthrie could take a leaf out of his book. She has been far too silent and, as Jon Faine recently pointed out on Radio Melbourne, her silence has not prevented massive cuts in the ABC budget.
You get the awful feeling sometimes that part of the problem might just be that the present board and management have too much in common with the ABC’s critics. In which case it is up to the public to step in. It is “our ABC” and we’re not handing it over to the barbarians.
Paul Collins worked full-time for the ABC from 1988 to 1997. Since then he’s presented Sunday Spectrum on ABC TV (from 2003-2005) and he still appears very regularly on ABC radio and TV as a commentator on religion and Catholicism.