Finding articles to criticise in The Australian is like shooting fish in a barrel, all too easy. It is also usually eminently resistible, like the paper itself. While the so-called national broadsheet and its weekend equivalent continue to outdo each other in paroxysms of confected right-wing rage, they are usually best ignored. However occasionally the paper publishes a particular egregious piece that so obviously serves no purpose other than the publisher’s own ends, it needs to be called out for the hyperbolic sham it is. Such an article appeared in the Weekend Australian this Saturday called “whose ABC?” penned by journalist and former Alexander Downer media adviser Chris Kenny.
The long piece appeared in the Inquirer section giving it a veneer of investigative journalism it did not deserve. This was 2,700 words of News Ltd propaganda, with complaints from a few politically motivated but unnamed sources and only one source on the record, former ABC board member Ron Brunton who despite being ideologically motivated as a member of the IPA, was only identified as an “anthropologist”. The self-serving article had a companion piece, an even more pious anti-ABC editorial that drove home the message from Kenny’s talking points.
The articles take as their starting point a piece in the Guardian (coyly described as a “progressive newspaper” by Kenny and “a left-of-centre newspaper” according to the openly more hostile editor) about ABC boss Mark Scott and his well-documented stoushes with News Ltd. The enraged Australian was anxious to do a gotcha on Scott, particularly on his use of the phrase “market failure broadcasting” which Kenny said was code for a political and cultural counterpoint to the commercial media.
Kenny achieves his aims with a remarkable leap of logic. Rather than go through the tiresome process of proving his points, he asks the readers “to assume, just for argument’s sake” the ABC critics are right. This assumption allows him to airily dismiss flaws in his argument and immediately swing into action rectifying the “problem”. Without a shred of evidence, Kenny suggests the organisation is unaccountable and then gets to the nut of his complaint, the ABC “caters for an inner-city progressive elite”. Apart from the breathtaking arrogance of ignoring how many people in the bush enjoy the ABC, it also brings in the familiar right-wing weasel words “inner-city” and “elite” which are conflated to mean “other” (never mind that it insults the paper’s own demographics) in opposition to equally imprecise but culturally loaded phrases like “battlers”. According to the editorial, the ABC had the temerity to turn to Qatari Al Jazeera for its Osama news instead of the less well-informed but racially more acceptable BBC or CNN. What this proves is Auntie has been the victim of “a left-wing coup” where a “coterie of like-minded inner-city” staff members “commandeered” the airwaves to broadcast to “the vocal minority that share their prejudices”.
Both editor and Kenny were keen to share their prejudices too. Kenny’s ones are dated and rehashed from the culture wars of the John Howard era. There is a tired argument about Counterpoint, a program seven years old, and a tedious diatribe about David Hicks, who has not been a newsworthy citizen for over four years. He also reheats the coals of the long-forgotten Brissenden/Costello affair (which also embroiled two non-ABC journalists) from 2007 and has a moan about The Drum, the ABC’s public opinion site.
Kenny’s and the editor’s central argument is their fury over market failure broadcasting: that of “taxpayer’s funding” serving a “small audience”. The ABC audience remains a lot larger than the Australian’s audience but more to the point it has always been a market failure broadcaster. Scott denied making the politically sensitive market failure statement and the actual words in the Guardian was that Scott “thinks of the ABC modestly as a ‘market failure broadcaster’”. The use of “thinks” rather than “said” suggests the Guardian is paraphrasing rather than quoting but Scott need not back away from it.
From the start of radio in the 1920s, there was a strong tradition of public ownership of broadcasting medium (except in the US where market failures are anathema) both as an information service in the service of democratic debate and decision making and also as a counterpoint to the partisan and usually right-wing press. The ABC was founded in 1932 along these lines but it also had a cultural aim inherited from the BBC. As its boss in 1934 WJ Cleary put it, the ABC’s task was to promote “the finer things in life” in order to teach people to “find interests other than material ones to live by more than bread alone”.
This paternal Reithian philosophy was conservative and hypocritical at the time – the BBC refused to cover the 1926 General Strike – and it still exists in some parts of the ABC but today’s market failure broadcasting is not about bringing ballet to the hoi-polloi. It is about defending the public’s supposed right to have free access to news in digital platforms, and this is where the ABC steps on News Ltd’s commercial toes. Whether ABC should have that right is an economic argument well worth having, though the Australian studiously avoids it in its sanctimonious stance. Perhaps they don’t want anyone looking too closely at their own market failures. One could argue given several full page ads from Telstra in the same edition, your telco bills are subsiding the Australian’s own small, elitist audience.