RANALD MACDONALD. ABC deal comes back to haunt the Government (Episode Two).

Aug 18, 2017

Last week I began my summary of the Government’s complex negotiations aimed at getting its Media Reform Bill through the Senate with the words:   “Make a deal for political expediency and then unforeseen consequences usually follow.   The ABC and its future is not a ‘bargaining chip’ for the Government to use to pass legislation in the Senate.  Yet a deal brokered by Communications Minister Fifield to gain Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm’s vote some months back, has already come back to haunt it……..”.  Well, the ‘haunting’ continues.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (like his counterpart Theresa May in the UK) must on reflection think that calling an early election has not proven an Einstein-ian decision.  Having expected community adulation, it is hard to reconcile having to negotiate with parties with different values and ambitions to pass legislation.

So, deals are a fact of political life for both PMs – even recognising the considerable personal cost in achieving them, which leaves little room for attaining the moral high ground.  Political pork barrelling, to ensure that an image can be spun of decisive and strong leadership, is a nasty business.

Sadly, here in Australia the ABC is being cynically used to ensure right-wing support within (and of) the Government – and to satisfy implied guarantees to the voracious media groupings.  Communications Minister, Senator Mitch Fifield, continues to say that all media leaders support the Governments media ‘reforms’,  as if that makes them worth supporting.  In Episode One on Pearls and Irritations last week, I said that ‘reform’ is defined as change for the better.  Many surely would challenge that, in our current imbroglio, perhaps asking whether making media magnates more powerful and happier necessarily benefits all Australians.

And Pauline Hanson is not satisfied with the ABC just being required to be “accurate and impartial” – rather that it should be “fair and balanced”.  Leaving aside the question of her ability to judge truth from fiction, one thing those outside the media find hard to comprehend about journalism is the word balance.  My mantra has always been been that fairness and factual accuracy is Journalism 101.  Tell me how you achieve balance when you rely on sources, tip offs and in covering a story which is still unfolding – and how is it possible to get daily ‘balance’ in reporting, for example, court cases?  There, the prosecution makes absolutely clear at the outset that the Defendant is guilty – then later the defence puts its case and often casts compelling doubts on his/her guilt.  Reporters give the dramatic first day ‘lead’ by outlining the crime, the prosecution’s case and the ‘perpetrator’ –  unless editors are ethically observant and strive for fairness, the drama of the accusation overwhelms what follows.  Even when there is a not guilty verdict.

Returning to Pauline Hanson and her One Party dealings with the government.  Fairness requires one to report that the Government is failing ethically, morally and maybe constitutionally in respecting the ABC’s guarantee of political independence, the Broadcasting Act and its Charter.  For a trusted and important institution with a vital role in ensuring intelligent and informed debate in democratic Australia, its management, staff and board are justified in feeling anger and resentment.

It is good to see the new Chairman, Justin Milne, entering the debate.  I can only endorse his comments.  “As one of the world’s most successful democracies, Australia has benefitted from a dual media system for 85 years, with public broadcasting existing alongside commercial media,” Mr Milne said.  “This media environment has ensured vibrancy and diversity, for the good of all Australians.  And while I am sympathetic to the concerns of the commercial sector as it seeks new business models in a severely disrupted media landscape, criticising the ABC is not the solution to their problems.”

Democracy demands diversity in what its citizens are able to read, watch and listen to.  The way the ABC is being treated in Canberra is serious cause for concern.

Ranald Macdonald is a former Managing Director and Editor in Chief of The Age newspaper.  He is an ABC 3LO morning presenter and Friend of the ABC.

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