There are good questions about why Australia needs a taxpayer funded national broadcaster in the 21st century, it’s just that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp Australia is not asking them. Murdoch’s minions declared open season on Auntie after the election in a sustained campaign based on the boss’s self-interest and the political motivations of his editors.
One after another, we saw pompous editorials in the Australian which parodied themselves as they listed the ABC’s heinous crimes while lauding their own dubious journalistic talents. The editorial campaign was backed up by a barrage from News “trollumnists”.
That bastion of fairness Andrew Bolt suggested the timing of the leak was deliberate to embarrass Tony Abbott, while we had the shrill demands from Janet Albrechtsen, herself a former Howard-appointed board member, for the ABC managing director to step down. Greg Sheridan weighed in with his usual confused ideological claptrap, while Fairfax-convert Gerard Henderson toed the new party line with unflagging earnestness. The gold medal for propaganda went to News warhorse Piers Akerman for his suggestion the British children’s program Peppa Pig was a feminist fanzine.
Piers’ Peppa problems stemmed from the fact News Ltd confused two aspects of the problem, ABC’s role in public culture and the journalism practiced by its news division. Murdoch wants ABC out of the way so he can make profits from the vast space in television/radio/internet the broadcaster currently inhabits. His minions rail about the fact Auntie had fallen into the hands of “40-something announcers obsessed with their inner-city leftie lifestyles”.
The public broadcast funding model is an accident of its history. The growth of radio after the First World War and then television after the second, convinced government they needed control of these new media. This was unthinkable for newspapers as in many case they pre-dated the parliaments that would prescribe them.
The conundrum in public broadcasting that the only way to keep institutions genuinely independent is to fund them from the public purse. But the politicians that fund them detest the unfettered reporting and analysis of their activities while the columnists that denounce the ABC for being elitist never mention that even a modest rating ABC program is seen by three or four times as many people as those who see their anti-ABC rants in a newspaper.
Media commentator David Salter in Crikey was critical of the ABC conversational news style and lack of studio debates but defending it against News’s charges. Salter was the executive producer of Media Watch during its early years and saw the worst excesses of the Australian media at close quarters. His 2007 book The Media We Deserve is still relevant seven years on from its publication.
The ABC comes in for a fair deal of criticism in his book for complacency, poor governance, occasional cowardice and self-backslapping. But he admits they need defending too. No other group of public servants is so regularly defamed in parliament by the people who allocate their funding.
The real decision makers at the ABC are its cadre of managers and executives, who are much like the ABC’s audience: upper-middle class, suburban, political inactive and family-oriented.
The ABC is governed by an act of parliament and a charter and it has obligations to standards in areas of quality and community service. Where its opponents do have a point is the ABC’s monoculture. Its factual programming, says Salter, has a common stance of “assumed progressivism.” There is a core of passionate people at the ABC dedicated to its continuing success. The real question is whether program makers can put that aside when producing content.
The ABC can only continue as a credible public broadcaster, says Salter if it is prepared to “allow, and even encourage, the odd angry passages of self-inflicted damage at the hands of its own staff.”
The self-inflicted damage of News Ltd hacks can only be wondered at.