PETER MANNING. The Best of 2018: Public trust and the ABC, a landmine for Turnbull.

Dec 29, 2018

It’s a long-time ago now but in the early 1990’s, just after I’d finished my stint as head of ABC TV News and Current Affairs (and having a blue with first Bob Hawke and then David Hill over ABC TV coverage of the first Iraq war), I took over as General Manager of the ABC’s Radio National. 

Now there was a “hospital pass”, as they say in Rugby League, if ever there was one. RN’s reputation, even inside the ABC, was only beaten by Triple JJJ in the enfant terrible stakes. Famously antagonistic to middle management (meaning people like me), full of long-time public heroes like Robin Williams, Norman Swan, Caroline Jones, Robyn Ravlich, Paul Collins, Mark Aarons and Ros Cheney, steeped in specialist knowledge and presenting their own programs, they were an awesome lot to manage. Luckily, I was friends of most before I got there from TV-land.

“RN”, as we called it, was also the subject of vicious attacks from the ideological Right who were not fond of the critiques that emanated from the programs. They mistook new ideas for some kind of Left conspiracy. Even way back then, they saw public broadcasting as essentially the enemy and a waste of money. The investigative programme of RN, the excellent Background Briefing, came in for particular attention. Not having the big audience of its TV cousin, Four Corners, but producing equally uncomfortable truths on a weekly basis, BB attracted smears and sledges aplenty.

So it seemed to me as a new General Manager in the ABC hierarchy that a good and bold approach might be to talk to some of the critics face-to-face in Canberra – namely the Liberal and National MPs making the most noise about RN. It proved to be a depressing trip. John Howard as Opposition Leader ushered me in and proceeded to characterise the whole of the ABC as left-leaning and dismissed the notion of giving Gerard Henderson, a former Liberal staffer, a voice on RN as useless. He implied Henderson was not his cup of tea and asked if I could find someone else. Alexander Downer was next. He laughed as I came in and said all journalists working in public broadcasting around the world shared the same left-wing bent, but what did I want to discuss. Well, I said, if he had any program ideas they would be treated seriously and considered. What a trick, he roared, “you’re all the same, there’s nothing more to say” and offered me the door.

A few more Liberals later, and with no empathetic success, I headed toward the Nationals. First up, Leader Tim Fischer. He’d heard of me from Four Corners, he said, and liked my work! What was I up to? I mentioned Radio National. He lit up. RN was one of the ABC’s gems, he said. Cockies listened to it religiously. In fact, it was his favourite ABC product. It brought good intellectual stuff to the rural sector no matter where you went across Australia. He asked if I remembered running into him in Canberra one time and we both discussed setting up the rural program “Landline” when I was in TV? I did. In fact, I remembered asking him what would be the best time for the program in the bush. “Sunday midday” he said, “the only time farmers get to stop and have time over Sunday lunch”.  I took his advice and it’s still there a quarter of a century later out of Brisbane. He took me to meet some MP mates of his and I headed home.

The message I took home from Tim was: we don’t need another special rural program, we just need RN to stay in place and keep up its role as the brain food of the nation. But the Liberals were in a bubble of fear.

I thought of those visits the other day when I heard the current National’s Leader, Michael McCormack, aping Tony Abbott with his Right-wing clichés. Old Jack McEwen, Doug Anthony, Tim Fischer would never have been so blinded by ideology. They would have taken different stances on the ABC because what the bush gets from the public broadcaster is “universalist” under its Charter. It costs disproportionate money but it’s worth it in the public interest. Like much else the ABC does: Emergency programming, foreign correspondents, Australian drama and comedy, young music, free successful website, etc.

An RN “Money” program by Richard Aedy reported om 24 May that in 2004 the BBC did its own survey of 2,250 Britons to measure how they put a value on their public broadcaster. One criterion was “a willingness to pay”.  Their conclusion: more than 81 percent said they were willing to pay about double the then (2004) licence fee of 121 pounds per annum (A$214). In other words they valued the BBC extremely highly. The huge BBC costs about six times the ABC to the public budget.

Before the neo-liberals of one faction of the federal Liberals rush off to privatize the ABC, they should ask exactly what do Australians value in “their ABC”. Answer: they value the trust they can put in it. As Professor Stuart Cunningham of QUT said on the same program, surveys show that the ABC is a “trusted brand” for 80 per cent of Australians, “way above any other brand”.  As a former EP of Four Corners I know Australians trust our journalists to get to the truth with fairness and balance. They trust the program. The Australia Institute, a day after the recent big Budget cut to the ABC, found 58 per cent of Australians disagreed with a cut, 60 per cent agreed with a boost to its long-term funding and 70 per cent agreed “a strong, independent ABC is critical to a healthy democracy”. Turnbull messes with the ABC at his peril.

Egged on by the bully boys of the Right in his government, Turnbull has interfered more with the ABC than any Prime Minister I can recall. All politicians, Labor and Liberal, try it on but usually a strong management protects the ABC’s independence. Turnbull has not only stacked the Board, he and his Minister for Communications have harassed the senior managers, the program makers and single journalists (the latest is Emma Alberici) and tried to take control of the News budget and how it is spent. For a “liberal”, Turnbull has a mighty thin skin to criticism.

The funding cut of $84 million dollars out of the ABC budget is also an insult to his own preference for Managing Director, Ms Michele Guthrie. It is yet another example of a woman being given the top job while the means to make it work are shot to pieces beneath her. The digital changes she has tried to introduce have instead seen a mass of job cuts. The “more with less” management philosophy can only go so far and now Guthrie is being hung out to dry.

In fact, the budget cut was like a cluster bomb. It exploded across the budget paper with a series of hits: the $84 million cut (twice the size of Tony Abbott’s in 2014-5), the withdrawal of a previous targeted grant “to support news-gathering” of $43 million, an indexation freeze for three years and yet another “efficiency review”.  All this on top of the $254 million in cuts implemented by Liberal governments since 2014.

This may be payback for ABC news stories that Turnbull and his Communications Minister, Mitch Fifield, didn’t like, as many have speculated. But it’s one thing to try direct interference in the management levels in the ABC, and when that doesn’t work to cut its budget and ability to do its job. But it’s another to believe Australians are fooled by this behaviour. They will see this for what it is: a sustained attack on a sacred icon of Australian culture and democracy for political gain.

In an era of “fake news”, Facebook spying, failing traditional commercial media and an explosion of digital sites claiming authenticity, the ABC (and SBS) is the best port in this storm of information overload. Australians trust the ABC. They do not trust their politicians. When the election campaign gets truly underway the “who can you trust?” question will be answered ABC – 1, Government – 0.

Dr Peter Manning was Executive Producer of Four Corners in the 1980s, head of ABC TV News and Current Affairs, GM of Radio National and head of Current Affairs at Seven Network in the 1990s. He has been a journalism academic since then in Sydney and Melbourne. 

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