Stuck in the craw of the Coalition

What is it about the ABC that gets stuck in the craw of the Coalition?

Chair Ita Buttrose had every right to believe that, having been sought out by Prime Minister “Scomo” Morrison himself for the top job at the ABC, she would be listened to with some respect and maybe even ameliorate the toxic relationship that had marked the era with John Howard, Tony “no cuts” Abbott, and Malcolm Turnbull.

But no, her background in journalism, her popularity with women, her awards and populist background counted for nothing when it came down to the wire last Wednesday. National figure that she was and widely-acclaimed appointment, it counted for nothing as her newly-appointed Managing Director informed 250 staff they no longer had a job at the ABC.

To make it worse, Morrison, a very public Christian, denied the obvious. “There are no cuts. There are no further cuts because there are no cuts” he told the media. “ABC’s funding is increasing every year.” Having been sold down the drain, Buttrose shot back:

       “Let me clarify the cuts because there seems to be some confusion in government

     circles about them. The 2018 budget papers clearly state that the government’s saving

         measures reduce funding to the ABC by $14,623 million in 2019-20, $27,842 million 

in 2020-21 and $41,284 million in 2021-22. This reduction totals $83.75 million on our

         operational base.”

A former staff-elected director on the Board of the ABC, Matt Peacock, told the Sydney Morning Herald, “since the Coalition had been elected on a promise of ‘no cuts’ almost a quarter of its staff have been sacked.” On ABC’s “Insiders” yesterday, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher struggled to answer a straight question from David Speers about the meaning of his boss’ use of the words “no cuts”.

The truth is Buttrose had earlier gone to Canberra especially to plead with Morrison to stop the cuts. She got nowhere. Morrison was sticking to the Abbott/Turnbull credo that the national broadcaster needed punishment, first in Treasurer Joe Hockey’s budget and a row of budgets after that. The ABC’s superb coverage of the 2019 bushfires counted for nothing.

Where does this antagonism come from?

My first round with the ABC was way back in 1972-3 on “This Day Tonight” with Bill Peach. We reporters didn’t speak much with management and Sir Talbot Duckmanton didn’t roam the corridors either. We took it for granted the ABC was a secure institution – highly prized in family life across Australia – and under no threat from the Liberal and Country Party government. It felt a bit like the Anglican church: a hierarchy in contact with society’s elites.

My second round at the ABC came in the late 1970s and 1980s. It was the Hawke and Keating era. Working on “Nationwide” and “Four Corners” we had plenty of skirmishes with both Prime Ministers, most memorably Hawke with Richard Carleton. But never was there a sense that such professional clashes could lead to budget cuts to the ABC. Only once, when Bob Hawke complained to the then Managing Director, David Hill, about the ABC’s coverage of the Iraq War did we get a sense that we were under editorial threat. I was head of ABC TV News and Current Affairs. Mass meetings of staff called for the interference to be condemned. We stood our ground. But again, the idea of budget cuts was “beyond the pale” as the Irish say.

My guess is that it was the era of John Howard that changed the nature of conservatism in Australia and, with it, the role of government and state institutions. Neo-liberalism, privatisation and the private sector became the order of the day and, with it, a testy relationship with the ABC, its costs and it broadcasts. Jonathan Shier, Managing Director for two years from 2000-2001 was one of the ABC’s poorest appointments and retired amid a clamour of discontent.

It was during that period that the extreme Right in Australia began calling for the “culture” of the ABC to be examined for bias against the centre and Right in Australia. The drive to privatise the ABC began, ending in the remarkable resolution passed at the Liberal Party’s federal council in June 2018:

“Federal Council calls for the full privatisation of the Australian Broadcasting

Corporation, except for services into regional areas that are not commercially

viable.”

It remains policy to this day and only with the grace of Turnbull and Morrison does it sit on the shelf ignored for the time being.

This ideological worldview of the ABC can be seen in a number of clashes with the government. First, the arrival of Australian Federal Police at the doors of the ABC to check documents and content of programs as an example of an authoritarian need to control the free flow of ideas in the ABC. Second, a paranoid view that the ABC is somehow “against” Liberal and National parties and their policies despite evidence to the contrary. Third, the irritation that politicians feel that they are being “interrupted” by questions when doing so is part of journalists’ jobs. Fourth, the attacks on newcomers like Laura Tingle and David Speers for being “biased” now that they are at the ABC as though they have been “converted” to Left views!

This same Coalition worldview is corrosive inside the ABC. First, formal protocols on how to appoint the Chair of the ABC have been ignored – Morrison just “liked” Ita and asked her – and the same applies to members of the Board whose interviews and other processes are no long mandatory or enforced. Second, a new distortion of how Budget funds are supplied to certain areas of the ABC Rural, News, Analysis and Investigative departments has become accepted practice. Third, demonization of some individual reporters (like Emma Alberici whose role as Chief Economics Correspondent in the News division is allegedly slated for redundancy) which undermines the ABC’s independence. Fourth, the cuts to programs like “Foreign Correspondent” (begun by me back in the early 90s) are simply dumb – they are already using staff twice over for news and for documentaries, not to mention educating audiences.

This corrosion makes good management and leadership extremely tenuous. It is a deliberate ongoing war against the ABC to shape it into a public body that does what it is told. The latest revelations that the Communications Minister, Paul Fletcher chose not to answer the correspondence from the ABC’s Managing Director’s office back in February 24 – proposing a different path to sackings and engaging with rural and suburban areas – is extraordinary and is either incompetent or abusive of his position.

Such a “cold shoulder” approach also humiliates the new Chair, a highly effective manager and creative person in her own right. It would not be surprising if the takeaway message for staff was that Ms Buttrose had less influence in the marketplace than they had imagined.

Finally, what do the public make of this continuing war on one of its most loved institutions? Certainly, all the polls are on the ABC’s side. At the moment, Morrison is riding his own good polls with a strong sense of hubris. But suppressing the coronavirus for now – done at the will of the Australian people – is the easy part. When the hundreds of thousands of unemployed are out on the streets, being reported by the ABC and others, the polls might turn nasty for Scomo. And that could be within the next year.

Peter Manning is a former ABC reporter, Head of ABC TV News and Current Affairs, Executive Producer of “Four Corners” and is now an Adjunct Professor of Journalism at UTS in Sydney.

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Dr Peter Manning is Adjunct Professor of Journalism at UTS, Sydney, a former Executive Producer of "Four Corners" and head of News and Current Affairs at ABC TV and Channel 7 and the author of "Representing Palestine"

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