ABC jewel in the crown

OPINION

By Barry Tucker                    September 1, 2015

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is a jewel in the crown of Australia’s democracy. It’s under threat again.

On the ABC’s Radio National breakfast program this morning federal immigration Minister Peter Dutton complained that Fairfax Media was campaigning “to bring down the government” and Fairfax “was being helped by the ABC”. He didn’t complain when ALL of Australia’s news and entertainment media campaigned relentlessly against the former Labor federal government during its six years in office. The hypocrisy of Liberal MPs and government supporters is almost beyond belief.

The ABC is under threat from the present extreme Right-wing “Liberal” government of Tony Abbott, his policy advisers the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and media mogul Rupert Murdoch (News Corp).

Tony Abbott has said the ABC will not be privatised. Abbott says a lot of things and often goes back on his word. On the eve of the 2013 federal election he made several promises. One was “No cuts to the ABC”.

Abbotts lies and promisesAlso prior to the 2013 election, Abbott’s Treasurer, Joe Hockey, said ABC won’t be sold, but “waste will be cut”. His 2014 Budget used the former John Howard government trick of “efficiency dividends” to cut $254 million from the ABC’s budget over the next five years, resulting in program cuts and staff retrenchments. Other government departments, non-government agencies, programs and commissions also suffered funding cuts, efficiency dividends or defunding.

The IPA has recommended that the Abbott government break up and sell the ABC and its sister operation the SBS (basically an ethnic language broadcaster).

IPA ABCIn the UK, Rupert Murdoch and his son James campaigned against the taxpayer funding of the BBC. They are in reality objecting to public financing of news, comment and public affairs organisations that compete with their News Corp interests in radio, TV and the Press. The situation is exactly the same in Australia, where News Corp journalists and Liberal supporters constantly campaign against the ABC, claiming it is riddled with Left-wing commentators without ever providing a shred of evidence or naming anyone.

Criticism, even occasional criticism, from the Left or the Right, is seen by the recipients as bias.

That is the background and the reality of the situation. I like to provide these details because the MSM, in its relentless grind of deadlines and the 24-hour media cycle, largely processes the Press Release and moves on to the next item, digressing occasionally to deal with the latest scandal. It rarely takes the time to join the dots.

Today’s scandal is that Peter Dutton sees Fairfax and the ABC as running a witch hunt against the federal government. The real scandal is that Dutton should criticise the news media for doing its job. In Egypt today, such journalists would be jailed. The government Dutton represents intends to do the same to journalists, whistleblowers even medical staff who dare release
details of inhumane treatment of asylum-seeking refugees jailed in offshore detention centres. There was some indication today that the government might reconsider its detention centre policy, so the criticism Dutton complains about may ultimately have a positive effect.

The nut of the situation is two-fold. On one hand we have a federal government that cannot tolerate opposition or criticism. That immediately brings to mind a Fascist regime and the government only has itself to blame if that is the impression people have.

A meme that circulates on social media.

A meme that circulates on social media.

The aborted Operation Fortitude in Melbourne last Friday is a pertinent example of this government’s thinking (a Border Force raid on workplaces went ahead in Darwin, almost unnoticed). In fact, what Dutton is complaining about is a direct result of many of his government’s policies. And it is not only some journalists who are complaining. There’s a widely held view that the federal LNP government is failing, is chaotic, lacks cohesion, leaks and is putting out confusing messages about the economy. The evidence is in consecutive opinion polls that have the government and its leader trailing the Opposition.

On the other hand we have a media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, who cannot abide opposition either. His approach is to buy up the opposition, incorporate it into his empire, strip some of the assets and improve productivity, efficiency and profitability by merging and minimizing production units. One other thing Hockey’s 2014 Budget did was to defund the Australia Network, which the ABC was operating to broadcast TV into SE-Asia. Murdoch originally won the tender for this service but it was taken off him by the Gillard government.

In this continuing war against the ABC no one is asking what the alternative would look like. With the ABC broken up and probably gobbled up by Murdoch (who can afford it) we would be left essentially with an ailing Fairfax Media, still reeling from the after-effects of young Warwick Fairfax’s catastrophic privatisation bid while trying to adjust to social media and online publishing.

How many would be happy to read the Right Wing views of Piers Akerman, Janet Albrechtsen, Andrew Bolt and others of that club spread wide across the nation — to the exclusion of almost all Left Wing views, even moderate and Centrist views?

Apart from that, the ABC is more than news, RN brekkie, the 7.30 Report, Lateline and Q&A. It is a multi-faceted beast, involving city and regional radio broadcasts on various channels and covering a staggering array of programs. Likewise TV, on four channels designed to cater to various tastes, including 24 hours of news and commentary. In addition there is on-line publishing content of news and opinion, another thing that rankles the ABC’s opponents.

All of this costs the community very little, around 14 cents a day. Perhaps we get it too cheaply. One commercial alternative, Foxtel Platinum, costs subscribers $4 a day, and that’s for TV only.

The cost is not the great issue. The range of content and the freedom to express an opinion — even to criticise a government and its policies — is far more important. We must never lose this jewel from our crown.

PS: Meanwhile, a clamour continues for the loosening of cross-media ownership laws (another IPA recommendation). See the ABC’s Media Watch of August 31, 2015, for some background on what’s happening to regional TV stations.

More reporting on Australia’s news media is available on the ABC’s Media Report and mUmBRELLA on-line.

To see what a Fascist government would look like and how it would behave see this long but fascinating article in NewMatilda.com.

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