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Issue #1872      June 12, 2019

Taking Issue – Eileen Whitehead

It’s your ABC

Why are so many Australians up in arms about the political emasculation of our national broadcaster – the Australian Broadcasting Corporation? One reason is that they realise the importance – especially in this age of fake news, government propaganda and downright lying – of a news outlet independent of the government. Many Australians also remember the “Good Old Days” when they could enjoy watching their favourite teams play cricket or football free to air before the Murdoch Empire moved in with Foxtel and made them pay for the privilege.

Not everyone – including me – can remember when the ABC began in 1929. It was when the world was experiencing the worst recession in history. The wireless linked this huge country of ours, informing, educating and entertaining which is the ABC’s Charter. It became what it is today – the bedrock of the nation. Suddenly Australians were learning what was happening, not only in their own neck of the wood, but around the world. The ABC was uniting the nation and giving Australians knowledge and a self-respect: a knowledge of their place in the scheme of things.

Back in the 1930s, Sir Keith Murdoch, whose son Rupert went on to found News Corp, was the most powerful media baron in Australia, running newspapers and radio stations. Even before the ABC made its first broadcast in May 1932, Sir Keith was pressuring the federal government to change the legislation that created the ABC – in effect, restricting the public broadcaster from collecting its own news. There could be no radio news on ABC stations in the morning until the announcers had read the newspapers, and in the evening the announcers had to repeat the morning news bulletins. Murdoch had refused to have his evening papers scooped by ABC news broadcasts.

It beggars belief what quality of news we would be receiving today if this were still the case.

Fortunately, the government of the day was not intimidated by the newspaper magnate and saw the benefit of another “voice”. Unlike his son and heir, Keith Murdoch was not powerful enough to intimidate a government. In the 2019 election campaign, the one moment of triumph or, perhaps defiance, came when Bill Shorten refused an invitation from Rupert.

A beautiful community voice in peril

The other reason we are fighting for the independence of our national broadcaster is because people need an unbiased, honest and untrammelled source of information. There has been a vicious and unrelenting campaign by this LNP government concerning the “bias” of the ABC – similar to the bashing of the unions – which has been helped by stacking the legislature with their mates as they did with the ABC’s own Board.

As I write, Australian Federal Police officers have raided the Ultimo offices and studios of the ABC as well as three employees, with a search warrant over The Afghan Files special investigation in 2017, which looked into alleged unlawful killings and misconduct by Special Forces troops in Afghanistan.

Conservative commentators such as Andrew Bolt, Tim Blair and Gerard Henderson, relentlessly accuse the ABC of a left-wing bias. They are uncomfortable with the fact that the ABC can give a voice to Australians otherwise unheard, and that it pursues topics too uncommercial to be covered by anyone else. It broadcasts into areas where other outlets have long withdrawn resources because of the inhibitive costs involved and the influence of vested interests they serve.

When Prime Minister from 2013-15, Tony Abbott, was constantly paranoid about so-called ABC left wing and hostile reportage of his government. He reportedly called the Q&A program a “Lefty Lynch Mob” and initiated a brief ministerial boycott of the Q&A program because Zaky Mallah had been invited onto the program (Mallah had been convicted of threatening Commonwealth officials) to participate in questioning one of his ministers.

If facts are preferred to empty accusations, a study commissioned by the ABC and conducted by iSentia in 2016, compiled share-of-voice data. It showed that the ABC devoted 42.6 percent of election coverage to the Coalition government (this compares to the 42.04 percent vote received by the Coalition in the House of Representatives (HOR)), 35.9 percent to the Labor opposition (34.73 percent HOR), 8 percent to the Greens (10.23 percent HOR), 3.1 percent to independents (1.85 percent HOR), 2.2 percent to Nick Xenophon’s Team (1.85 percent HOR) and 8.1 percent to the rest. Not my idea of bias.

It has to be asked that, if the ABC could be formed during an extremely financially difficult time as the Great Depression, why is it being targeted for destruction now when Australia is so wealthy? Certainly, it is not because a country that can afford to allocate $14 trillion to its future defence budget, and spend $48.7 million for the commemoration of the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s landing in Botany Bay, lacks the means. It is because it is seen as a threat by those multimillionaires who are running the country and have the government at their beck and call. The people are fighting for its future because we believe it is the only honest “voice” we have in an age of bombardment by unsettling and confusing multi-media outlets.

Finances

ABC funding is now frozen at 2018-19 levels from next month, resulting in a $15 million reduction in 2019-20, $28 million in 2021 and $41 million by 2021-22 (a total loss of approximately $85 million over the next three years). This follows the $254 million cut in 2014. Death by a million cuts! The current government is blaming this freeze on increases linked to inflation, but obviously the money is available as Labor promised that, if elected, it would provide an extra $40 million to the ABC with another $20 million for SBS.

Before her dismissal in 2018, former ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie stated that “The ABC is now more important than ever given the impact of overseas players in the local media industry and the critical role the ABC plays as Australia’s most trusted source of news, analysis and investigative journalism”. She also said the ABC had already achieved significant productivity gains in response to past budget cuts, consistently delivering award winning public interest journalism, regional services and critically acclaimed original Australian programmes and content.

Successive governments have recognised that the broadcast of Australian content on television is an important part of national cultural policy, and they are very popular with audiences, but the cost of producing it is high and there are limited returns available from a relatively small domestic market. This is particularly the case for high-cost or low-income genres, such as drama and children’s programming. For instance, high-end drama programming costing around $1 million per hour to produce in Australia can be acquired from overseas and broadcast for less than $200,000 per hour. The maxim that you “get what you pay for” might be apt, judging by the standard of some imported programs. However, the government’s attitude to this market failure can be seen in its policies.

While the ABC has been hit with hundreds of millions of dollars of cuts to its base funding since 2014, last year’s federal budget managed to find $30 million for pay TV broadcaster Foxtel to spend on women’s sports coverage.

Effect of cuts

After the budget announcement was made last year, managing director, John Anderson, told staff that “tough decisions” would have to be made regarding staffing and services. ABC staff believe on-air disruption and “painful” job losses are now inevitable. It was felt that all the fat had been trimmed after previous budget reductions, and it was thought inevitable for further job losses or programming changes. Every department could be affected, including drama, comedy, children’s, radio, and iview.

The 2019 budget papers confirm funding for the ABC’s “general operational activities” fall from $916 million this year to $900 million in 2018-19; $901 million, $903 million and $902 million in the following three years.

Anderson recently told a Senate committee hearing how important it was to retain journalists around Australia for local coverage, and the Morrison government has said it will provide another three years of funding for the national broadcaster’s “enhanced news-gathering” program, with $44 million committed over the next three years.

Epilogue

In a 2018 survey, 83 percent of respondents agreed that the ABC performs a valuable role in the Australian community, and apart from a vocal minority of reactionaries, most people don’t want to see it diminished. It was felt that the cuts over the past six years have seriously impacted morale, with staff anxious about tenure having seen senior staff axed.

Despite News Corp’s aversion to public broadcasting, the community values its ABC. It is felt that although some countries control state broadcasting, whilst others leave it entirely to the commercial sector, strong democracies realise that independent public media is essential to maintaining informed commentary not influenced by governments or commercial interests.

Next article – EU elections – Checkmate Conservatives and Social Democrats

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