PETER MANNING. Liberals on another planet

Jun 21, 2018

It disturbs me a great deal that it was the Federal Council of the Liberal Party that called by a large margin for the privatisation of the ABC. Not the rambo Young Liberals. Not a local branch in Sydney’s southern Shire or Northern Beaches. Not a state Branch gone troppo. But the full Federal Council.

What’s happened to the liberalism of Robert Gordon Menzies, John Gorton and even Malcolm Fraser? To the small “l” Liberals of Fred Chaney, Philip Ruddock, Andrew Peacock and even Don Chipp? To those “conservatives” who protect key social, cultural and economic institutions whose remit is to serve the public interest while business, families and individuals remain free to pursue their lives?

As we know, neo-liberalism took over the Liberals with John Howard, many “small l” Liberals got the chop (apart from Ruddock who was given Immigration for his sins) and Reagan and Thatcher ruled the Western world. Greed was good, “user pays” arrived, and the public sector had to justify its existence. Like beady-eyed developers, Liberal attention is now drawn to a much-loved and much-trusted ABC. The Treasurer Scott Morrison and his offsider Mathias Cormann have of course decried the idea of privatising the ABC but we’ve heard Liberal promises before – “there will be no cuts to the ABC or SBS” said Tony Abbott – and they mean little.

It saddens me because of its serious disconnection not only to the long tradition of ABC excellence in broadcasting but also to the popular will. As the outpouring of letters to editors around the country show, the public is outraged. The Federal Council is putting neo-liberal ideology before the electoral damage it will surely bring upon Liberal candidates. What bubble are the delegates to the Council in? Is it planet Murdoch? The Sydney Institute? The Institute of Public Affairs? The Bolt Report?

Happily, most Australians don’t take their cues from these minority extremists. But it is seriously worrying that Australia’s governing party’s members are so off centre. They appear so wrapped in paranoia about a middle-of-the-road institution like the ABC that it threatens like-minded institutions. Will the Australian War Memorial, the National Archives, the National Gallery and the National Library of Australia be next on the list?

Let me give a reality-check for the Councillors.

If they are concerned with the ABC being biased against Liberals consider this:

  • Every political program on the national broadcaster – such as QandA – knows it must under the Charter give each side an equal airing of its views over one program or one season;
  • During election campaigns, this rule applies within every story, interview or debate;
  • Every presenter (say, 3LO Melbourne) must be aware of all major sides to an issue and represent those sides;
  • All journalists know that if one side is not represented, the interviewer must play “devil’s advocate” to an interviewee to ensure that side is put;
  • Regular checks are made to ensure issues taken up do not dominate the agenda within the bounds of community “news values” (also adopted by commercial media);
  • Programs that are outside “news and current affairs” departments – say, on rural or youth radio, or television drama, have contrasting voices reflecting community sentiment and views.
  • Layers of management ensure continual adherence to balance and fairness.

This is my long-time experience within the ABC and among ABC staff. Party affiliations are of little or no interest to staff and are hardly every mentioned. In the time I worked at the ABC I would not have known how most staff voted, nor cared. A case in point is the late, great Andrew Olle, Sydney ABC radio presenter, “Four Corners” presenter and a close friend of mine. I would not, and do not, have a clue what his political affiliations were, nor his voting intentions. It was none of my business.

For what it is worth, during my period on “Four Corners”, I made enemies of several Labor figures who never spoke to me again as a result of some programs we made. The same is true of some Liberals. Two Royal Commissions – one into a NSW Labor leader, another into a Liberal Queensland Premier and his Police Commissioner – within a few years of each other showed proper investigative journalism without fear or favour.

It is cloud-cuckoo land to believe that a huge institution like the ABC, with so many checks and balances within it, with such a public ambit, annually called to account by the Parliament, regulated as to its purposes and values by law, with professional employees bound by Codes of Ethics, would have one political bias.

At the end of the day, members of the Federal Council need to have a good hard look at themselves, take a deep breath, and get a grip of reality. The ABC’s editorial independence is its major gift to the nation. It makes our democracy richer. The fact that a group like the Council could get itself into such a lather shows how out of touch it is. If it is so off the planet on this issue, how dysfunctional is this for the Liberal Party as a whole?

PETER MANNING is a former producer and Executive Producer of “Four Corners” in the 1980s and head of ABC TV News and Current Affairs in the 1990s. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the School of Communication at the University of Technology, Sydney.


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