TONY SMITH. Under siege – the ABC, the Coalition and News Ltd.

Jun 25, 2018

When the Liberal Party Council endorsed a motion that sought to make privatisation of the ABC party policy, it laid bare several realities about Australian politics and media. The most obvious is that the ABC is under siege by the Liberals and Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd. 

As expected, senior Liberals denied that party policy had changed and insisted that the national broadcaster would never be privatised. Unfortunately, since the days when the Howard Government perfected the use of ‘dog whistle’ statements, such assurances are never taken at face value. Nor are politicians generally regarded as trustworthy. Surveys suggest that most media are not trustworthy either but that the ABC is a notable exception, being among our most respected institutions. Chair of the ABC board Justin Milne says that trust in the ABC remains high when trust in other media organisations is in crisis.

You might think that any government would celebrate the existence of the ABC but you would be wrong. Since 2014, Coalition Governments have slashed over $330 million from the broadcaster’s budget. This could well be an attempt to incapacitate the ABC. If it cannot deliver the quality of service people expect then perhaps support for the institution would fall and selling the organisation might not seem such an outrageous idea.

The Liberal Party’s ideological arrogance means that it cannot accept that any criticism of its policies and procedures can be rational or objective. If the ABC asks uncomfortable questions then the government/s response is to complain of bias. The latest budget cuts came after conservatives reacted savagely to an ABC report questioning whether large corporations deserved the tax cuts the government was proposing. The office of the Minister for Communications lodged six complaints in as many months including about comment on the timing of by-elections to clash with Labor’s conference and the decision by JJJ radio to move its hottest 100 play list from 26 January. This attitude reflects similar refusals to accept inconvenient recommendations of scientific reports in other policy areas such as asylum seekers, climate change and indigenous affairs.

Some $30m of the funds cut from the ABC have been granted to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation .  Van Badham documents the government’s hostility to the ABC through funding cuts, complaints and reviews. The Turnbull Government does not expect scrutiny by News Ltd outlets and does not welcome ABC scrutiny either. Even surveys of journalists such as one conducted by Roy Morgan show that 40% think News Ltd the most biased Australian media.

When British playwright Dennis Potter was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1994, he noted that he called his main tumour ‘Rupert’. He lamented that he did not have the energy to go and ‘shoot the bugger’ responsible for the pollution of media and politics. As Brian McNair points out, Murdoch’s distaste for public broadcasters includes the BBC.

On appointment, ABC Managing Director Michelle Guthrie faced accusations that she might have been a News Ltd ‘stooge’ and she was criticised for being tardy responding to the Liberal Council’s motion, but she eventually gave a vigorous defence of the ABC The ABC is subject to an efficiency review, as well as inquiries into possible bias and anti-competitive behaviour, for which the Murdoch press campaigned.  Anyone who has worked in or around public agencies knows however that the ABC has rigorous internal mechanisms to ensure that waste and bias are eliminated and that the integrity of the organisation and its members is maintained. Would the same could be said of other media and political parties. If they were capable of learning from the ABC experience, their woeful trust ratings might even improve.

Just as the ‘privatised’ Commonwealth Bank quickly became a different creature altogether, a ‘privatised ABC’ would not be ABC at all. Commercial interests would no doubt hope to retain the name and the logo, but that vital trust which has been the reason for the ABC’s popularity would disintegrate overnight.

Of course the ABC is not above criticism but the broadcaster is much more than news and political commentary. Its radio is unequalled in the fields of classical music, specialist programs such as the Science Show and the youth station JJJ. Its children’s television, drama such as the recent ‘Mystery Road’, sports coverage and products from the ABC shop are hugely popular. And it is highly unlikely that the Liberals’ National Party Coalition partner would countenance any losses in the area of rural programs.

Amanda Meade points out that the Murdoch press has campaigned for and been granted an inquiry into whether the ABC stifles competition. Murdoch has complained long and hard about the ABC’s privileged position, especially about placing content online. In fact, the public broadcaster is among the few remaining bulwarks against market capitalism so no wonder its very existence sticks in the throat of free marketeers. Reading the stances of Murdoch newspapers it is easy enough to see that the kind of society they want is likely to be one where everything has a price and where the possession of the means to acquire it is the determinant of worthiness and good political taste.

In recent decades, what some astute commentators have called our common wealth has been eroded significantly. Our sense of community is weakened when institutions are moved from the public arena to the private sphere. A radical shift has occurred in education, health and welfare. The ABC is one of the few institutions of which we can all feel ownership and it must remain strong. According to one survey, some three in four voters in the by-election seat of Mayo think that funding to the ABC should be increased. Labor will campaign hard in the July by-elections on the issue of whether the Coalition can be trusted on the ABC. Thanks to the Government’s hostility to the national broadcaster, Mr Shorten may have become UnbeataBill.

Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in parliament, elections and political ethics. His recent writings can be found at and



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