From Invasion Day to the Hottest 100: what is the ABC Coalition really waiting for? | Australian Broadcasting Corporation
In early February, the federal coalition government announced that it would end its three-year freeze on indexation of CBA funding. After cutting ABC funding by a total of $84 million since 2019, the move was a thinly disguised effort to neutralize the public broadcaster as an issue ahead of the impending election.
Given its record of open hostility towards the national broadcaster over the past nine years, it’s important to ask what the Morrison government really wants for the ABC if re-elected?
One thing we know the government doesn’t want the ABC is for its comedians to call people “assholes.” He doesn’t want the ABC to use the phrase “Invasion Day”.
We know the government would not Triple J’s Hottest 100 date has changed, and so he’d probably prefer he be back where he came from, so to speak – on January 26th. He wants the ABC to do more “public service journalism”, but do not if it comes to allegations Australian troops killed unarmed men in Afghanistan, do not if it’s about private lives in the Canberra bubble, not about conspiratorial individuals in the Prime Minister’s orbit.
What does the government want for the ABC? First, settle for what he gets. “Everyone should live within their means, including the ABC,” Scott Morrison said in 2018. He does not want the ABC to respond to budget cuts by cutting programs: “That would be cowardly”, declared Malcolm Turnbull. Nor by closing offices: “A deliberate act of political vandalism”, Christopher Pyne said. He certainly doesn’t want public campaigns on the cuts, which Senator James Paterson has double clumsy “political blackmail”.
In 2018, Morrison scoffed at the idea of increased ABC funding, and suggested with a hint of menace that those at the ABC who ask for more should be ashamed: “They got a free ride.” According to the Prime Ministerthe safest workplace for journalists is the ABC, precisely because it is government funded.
Therefore, aside from the fact that ABC journalists are reprimanded in a way and with an intensity that those of other news outlets are not, the government seems to have neither the time nor the inclination to ask questions about how he provides for ABC. He would prefer that national broadcaster employees assume a position of gratitude, say thank you and move on.
A good section of deputies in government, if given their way, would like to see the ABC privatized. Others would prefer it to be downsized, turned into a market failure-only broadcaster, with a charter that keeps it on a leash. A chosen few would prefer its scope to remain as it is, but with a radically recalibrated understanding of “objectivity”, perhaps in line with Tony Abbott’s Suggestion this included “basic affection for the home team”.
For Malcolm Turnbull, a new objectivity would include “truly accurate and unbiased” coverage, in which the ABC would rise above the fray.
Those most pro-ABC in government think it should be more positive. National MP Darren Chester told us the ABC had a “negative view of Australian culture and society”, that it “diminishes the country a bit”. He should reconsider, he said. For a story about disadvantage in Indigenous communities, how about a “more constructive” story about solutions? The ABC, in that thought, should sound a lot like her old moniker, Aunty: cheerful, benign, harmless.
The more transactional the money provided by the government, the more the ABC should follow government guidelines. They have little time for niceties like editorial independence. “We have to pay for you” Barnabas Joyce said when an ABC reporter pushed back on his suggestion, he should cover a particular story. “And, you know, that’s a big part of the budget.”
Likewise, some in government believe the ABC needs to be more responsive to complaints and reach out more: to find the mythical “right-wing Philip Adams” and air it, preferably in prime time and on a foreground. After all, one conservative commentator told Jonathan Holmes, right-wing audiences didn’t think anything about the ABC resonated with them and were irritated by it. “They just don’t see why they should keep paying for it,” Holmes remarked.
Given the energizing effect of this anger and the government’s interest in stoking it in order to unite supporters against a common enemy, it seems fair to assume that the government, at the root of all its rhetoric on the prejudices and security standards and funding, would really like Aunt to be Aunt Sally: a target for sticks and stones who neither dodges nor defends herself but stands, staring, smiling and silent.
The heads of Australia’s mainstream media no doubt have their own desires. Some would rather see the ABC continue to develop talent and content they can poach. Others, harmed by the belief that they are taking on unprofitable obligations, would prefer that the ABC be given exclusive distribution of areas that no longer interest them, such as children’s programming or rural and regional content. Moreover, faced with a difficult and turbulent business environment, would prefer the ABC to be overhauled and compelled by legislation to do anything that could replicate what the commercial media are already doing.
A particular ideological current also infects these desires. When the Australians Paul Kelly supported that “politics defines a media’s position in the marketplace”, he was referring to the supposed hoax of an unbiased public broadcaster in the modern age. But Kelly could also have written about the organization he worked for most of his journalism career.
To embrace his vision of a politically defined media market is to see that News Corp Australia’s newspapers and TV shows are positioned to cater to that right-wing audience that Holmes referred to, to attract subscription dollars and advertising revenue. So there is a creeping ideological and commercial self-interest in beating the ABC – even on the most spurious grounds.
Where that leaves the ABC stands at a turbulent intersection of political, ideological and commercial criticism: indeed, as one front in a wider culture war that spans from academia to the arts to the welfare sector . It’s an unpleasant place. The goal of a culture war is never to defeat the target of criticism. Culture wars, such as those on terrorism, drugs or poverty, are never won, never declared over. They only exist to create and foster new lines of division. Or, as the satirical online site The Onion once put it, “Drugs are winning the war on drugs.”
The ABC should not be a player in this culture war.
While the case for maintaining a thriving public broadcaster in Australia is clear, there are areas for improvement.
These include adhering to an appropriate process for appointments to the CBA Board, ending the use of tied funding and freezing indexation, extending the funding period of three to five years and a respectful and constructive relationship between the government and the CBA in which politicians recognize they are only gatekeepers to the office and bear the responsibility of passing on to their successors a country and a government better off than those whose they inherited.
These solutions are, on one level, technocratic. But leaving them to be implemented by technocrats and our elected officials would be a mistake. The future of the CBA depends less on the Liberal-National Coalition and the Labor Party than on us. The CBA is a national institution that belongs to all of us, and its future should concern us all.
In 2007, when the ABC turned 75, the Sydney Morning Herald asked what Australia would be like without the ABC: “You can imagine a Australia but not this Australia. Let’s ask ourselves another question: imagine the ABC if its funding hadn’t been cut, if its governance hadn’t been so politicized, if its journalism hadn’t been so subject to self-serving attacks, if it hadn’t been sucked into the culture wars. Imagine if her role had been celebrated and defended instead of dismissed and damned. What would that look like?
It is possible to envision a dynamic, relevant and confident ABC, producing and broadcasting world-class programs, in various forms, attractive to all; who is interested in Australian life and culture; who explores with a liberal and adventurous spirit what might be possible. It is also possible to envision a world where the government and the ABC recognize the tension inherent in their relationship but act with respect for the institutions they each embody. In short, it is possible to envision a national broadcaster of which we are all proud and which continues to make an invaluable contribution to the life of this country.
So, as the ABC nears its 90th anniversary and heads toward its centenary in 2032, we offer this answer to the main question of our book, Who Needs the ABC?
We all do.
This is an edited excerpt from Who Needs the ABC? Why taking it for granted is no longer an option, by Matthew Ricketson and Patrick Mullins. Published March 29, Scribe, $29.99