ABC FIGHTS FOR SURVIVAL

Threats to the national broadcaster abound. ABC funding must be at the heart of the election debate.

In trying to defend the ABC as an institutional pillar of a fearless free media in Australia’s robust democracy, first, we have to confront paranoia.

It comes in the form of constant Murdoch Press complaints that the ABC is biased and a force for “left wing” ideology. “All the ABC’s presenters are left wing!” columnists and ABC critics have written.

I found myself on a recent Monday night (4 February 2019) on Sky News “after dark” being interviewed on the Chris Kenny on Media program. And again the paranoia was in the air.

“Name me one conservative or right-of-centre presenter at the ABC?” Mr Kenny demanded. I said I wasn’t going to fall into that trap by offering up a name. And, of course, to do so would be to make an admission that the question was valid and did have a basis in fact.

I suppose when you look at it, it’s a have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife type of question. I confess to you in this pub* that as a television interviewer myself I might even have tried to devise similar guilty-as-charged trap questions when interviewing slippery politicians.

I told Mr Kenny that his “ABC-is-left-wing” charge was a defamatory smear of professional ABC staff whose duty it was to abide by the editorial policies requiring objective journalism practice as set by the ABC Board. The smear was used by Rupert Murdoch and his outlets as a tactic to vilify marketplace rivals, especially public broadcasters, ABC, BBC and PBS, here in Australia, in the United Kingdom and in the United States of America.

Similar tactics have long been apparent in the US where there is a constant charge about the malign influence of the so-called “liberal media”, including The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Chris Kenny protested that I was implying he was taking instructions directly from Rupert Murdoch. I replied “no” but I believed Rupert was communicating with him “telepathically”, as he does with all his appointed editors and many of his hand-picked columnists, TV and radio shock jocks. Mr Kenny laughed it off.

(If you don’t believe me about Rupert’s telepathic control of his editorial output, read Emeritus Professor Rod Tiffen’s exceptional book Rupert “Murdoch: A Reassessment” (New South Books, published in 2014). After 326 pages of forensic examination of Murdoch modus operandi and abuse of power through intimidation of politicians, Professor Tiffen came to the criminality, breach of privacy and unethical conduct in the phone hacking scandal in the UK which exposed News Corp culture to the world. He writes:

“It was not inevitable that these scandals occurred in News Corp, but neither is it simply an unfortunate coincidence. These outrages were not the product of a few rogue individuals so much as of a rogue corporation. Of course the great majority of News Corp’s 50,000+ employees – and the overwhelming majority of its journalists - are as repelled as the rest of the population by the abuses that have been revealed. However, the scandals were the product of a corporation where power is, perhaps uniquely, concentrated, and where a confirming hierarchical culture makes it difficult for instructions to be questioned or challenged. This is a corporation impatient with any ethical impediments to achieving the results it wants, and which greets external criticism with blanket denial, and often, aggression. And as Murdoch has said, ‘For better or worse (News Corp) is a reflection of my thinking, my character, my values’.”

THE "OLD ABC LEFTIES" TROPE

In Australia “the ABC is left wing” charge has been used for decades by Fairfax and now Murdoch columnist Dr Gerard Henderson. It has been taken up by many Murdoch mouthpieces and columnists across his outlets. Gerard Henderson is always on the lookout for reds under the bed.

When the threat of communist infiltration of unions, universities and institutions including the ABC led to a referendum to prohibit the Communist Party in Australia, the electorate said “no”. Australia is a demonstrable democracy and even includes the constitutional rights of anti-democrats.

But in the ABC’s case the communist paranoia went on for years. ASIO continued to vet ABC staff appointments for many years through the 1950s and 60s. Perhaps they still do. That must be an official secret. But now the paranoia extends to other influences. Now it’s “progressives” or “left wingers”.

In the early 1990s I remember a conversation with Gerard Henderson where he remonstrated with me and complained that ABC staff introduced their reports of his comments with the descriptor “right wing” as in “right wing commentator Gerard Henderson”. I conceded the point after thinking about it. Why should anyone’s contribution to public discourse be pre-emptively categorised? Let the words speak for themselves, after which the audience can unpack those words and only then consider possible motivations behind such an utterance. But give the speaker the respect of listening without pre-judgment. I conversationally told my ABC colleagues to please stop using the “right wing” descriptor. Gerard was sensitive about it. And they did. So much for decency.

For decades since that conversation I’ve been laughing and groaning each week as Dr Henderson in the Herald or the Oz denounced anyone with whom he disagreed as “left wing”, particularly ABC presenters, reporters and interviewers.

The charge is a defamatory smear of the entire ABC effort. Fortunately the Australian public does not agree with Gerard Henderson or Rupert Murdoch and all his henchmen. The latest trust survey shows that 82 percent of Australian adults aged 18 to 75 trust the information that the ABC provides. Eighty-three percent of Australians believe the ABC performs a valuable role in the Australian community.

ABC MEETS HIGHEST STANDARDS

The ABC is not an infallible institution. It makes mistakes, there can be bias, factual error, inexperience, misinterpretation and faulty analysis. They are dealt with through an often-tortuous formal process of internal complaints handling involving published corrections, admonishments and discipline. Unlike the Murdoch Press, the ABC is subject to statutory regulation of its code of conduct with external oversight through the Australian Communications and Media Authority. The ABC annual report publishes ACMA birchings of ABC journalists and programs. The latest example was an ACMA birching of Canberra political editor Andrew Probyn who had reported that Tony Abbott was “the most destructive politician of his generation”. The ACMA found the report was not duly impartial. Although Mr Probyn’s expert analysis may be vindicated by the judgment of history there is no right of appeal.

He and the ABC copped it sweet.

The point is the ABC’s standards are held to account by internal disciplines and external oversight. And on top of those accountabilities come the defamation and contempt laws – federal, state and territory – and the privacy and anti-discrimination statutes.

Yes - the ABC is not perfect.

But the record of the ABC’s exceptional contributions to public interest journalism in this country, I think, more than redeems its occasional mistakes.

· There’s now a royal commission into aged care in this country following “Who Cares” the Four Corners’ exposure showing what may be systemic malpractice, failed quality assurance and under-servicing.

· Before the Productivity Commission and the South Australian Royal Commission, Background Briefing on Radio National last year broadcast two investigative specials, “Best Laid Plans”, by journalist Sarah Dingle, exposing the first concerns about what’s known as “regulatory capture” of the Murray Darling Basin Authority.

· Who can forget investigative journalist Linton Besser’s Four Corners’ expose of water theft from the Murray Darling.

· ”Money for Nothing”, another Four Corners program, exposed the AMP’s less than tender mercy for its trusting investor clients.

· “Weather Alert”, yet another on Four Corners, showed how the farmers of Australia were already dealing with and adapting to climate change, well ahead of political leaders who can hardly bring themselves to utter the words.

· Adele Ferguson, Fairfax and the ABC’s Four Corners have exposed Comm Insure and bad banking, negligible enforcement by regulators ASIC and APRA, leading to the Hayne Royal Commission whose findings were published this week (early February 2019).

· When then Prime Minister Julia Gillard saw ABC Lateline reports showing police cover up of child sexual abuse allegations within the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese of the Catholic Church she called state Premiers (Labor and Coalition) to set up a royal commission into responses of all institutions, not just the Catholic Church.

PUBLIC BROADCASTER - PUBLIC BENEFIT

Friends, the public benefit which comes from your taxpayer investment in the ABC is clear for all to see. Institutional culture in relation to sexual abuse is changing to ensure that in future Australia’s children will be better protected from predators. The historic lesson from this awful phenomenon of cover-up is: Call the police immediately, child protection comes before your organisation’s reputation.

In my time at the ABC in Queensland and New South Wales the code of silence that was behind corrupt police culture was smashed. The cops didn’t fight the crime, they organised it – with their criminal associates. They verballed people and lied under oath in the witness box. It was vicious.

A corrupt political culture in both Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland and the Sussex Street branch of the Labor Party in New South Wales has been exposed. The polity now knows what really goes on behind closed doors thanks to the ABC, its journalists, in-house lawyers and its courageous informants.

The entrenched disadvantage of Aboriginal Australians has been exposed fearlessly by the ABC from the 1960s with the conclusion that dispossession lies as its root cause. We particularly remember the work of the late Liz Jackson. May she rest in peace. Paul Keating may never admit this but the ABC’s efforts helped to change public consciousness about indigenous disadvantage, about what we as a polity have done and have not done.

Mr Keating expressed a hatred for the ABC around the time Chris Masters and Peter Manning broadcast “The Big League” on Four Corners, which led to the Wran Royal Commission in the 1980s. In reprisal the Hawke government at one stage toyed with the idea of appointing Neville Wran as chairman of the ABC, but appointed the Wran apparatchik David Hill instead. Hawke and Keating facilitated Rupert’s takeover of the Herald and Weekly Times conglomerate in 1989, making a mockery of competition policy, and giving Rupert the advantage of immense cash flows with which to make his acquisitions in the UK and the US.

The ABC is committed by its legislated Charter to strive for excellence in its independent, without-fear-or-favour journalism and its programming across all genres.

If that’s not worth eight cents a day I don't know what is.

The ABC strengthens Australian democracy. It does not work to subvert it as Gerard Henderson and Rupert Murdoch allege. As part of a free media it safeguards the separation of powers.

And now the ABC, from the Reithian model of public broadcasting, is evolving and breaking new ground through the digital revolution. More people are accessing content through smart phones and digital devices. This is the content-on-demand era and the ABC must be on all platforms where audiences are hungry for quality and engaging video, audio and text.

FIGHTING FOR SURVIVAL

But right now, 2019, the ABC is fighting for its life.

There are contemporary allegations of political interference at the highest level. And the current Senate inquiry into the conduct of the former chairman Justin Milne is expected to substantiate those allegations with what’s on the evidentiary and public record to date.

For audiences, the defunding of the ABC has been devastating. Defunding was initiated from 2014, with Tony Abbott’s dishonouring of his election commitment that there would be “no cuts to the ABC or SBS”.

· Lateline is gone. Stateline is gone. Four Corners’ budget has been hacked into.

· The Drum, a text-based online publication to facilitate the clash of ideas with opinion, research and analysis to inform and engage Australians, has been closed down.

· The original Fact Checking specialist staff unit has been axed. ABC television productions in Brisbane, Hobart, Adelaide and Perth have been closed down.

· Radio news bulletins and radio current affairs shows have been defunded, staff slashed and broadcast time reduced.

· Foreign Correspondent has been reduced to ever fewer outings.

· The ABC drama budget and output has been slashed.

· Documentaries are increasingly cheap and low quality buy-ins. There’s product placement on Grand Designs Australia … a bloody Range Rover.

· Radio Australia is now just a website with podcasts.

· Then Foreign Minister Julie Bishop destroyed the ABC’s Asia Pacific broadcasting effort in 2014 when she unilaterally terminated the DFAT Australia Network contract. The ABC lost the great Sean Dorney and 80 wonderful international broadcasters operating out of Melbourne and in situ correspondents throughout the region. Vandalism. Shame on you, Julie Bishop.

The ABC prime time TV schedule largely consists now of wall-to-wall shelf programs acquired from other broadcasters. Vera, Midsomer Murders, endless Agatha Christie. One exasperated viewer screamed at her TV set: “It’s like there’s a gruesome murder every week in every village in all of merry England!!”

A once great ABC supporter, reeling from all this, recently sent me a Christmas card: “Quentin .. it’s hard to keep waving the flag”.

Yes, it is when we see the ABC in such a distressed and diminished state.

There are forces in this country out to destroy the ABC and public broadcasting.

The Liberal Party peak council carried a resolution on June 15 last year (2018). It is now Liberal Party policy to privatise the ABC. The parliamentary Liberal Party says it is not bound by this. But neither the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, nor the Communications Minister, Senator Mitch Fifield, or any other prominent voice in the Liberal Party has said they will seek to have the party rescind this policy.

The National Party has been mute. Even though many Nationals MPs know the ABC’s services and programs are vital to their rural and regional constituents, no one in the Nationals has gone in to bat for the ABC. Where’s Barnaby? Where’s Michael McCormack? We seem to have lost Pauline Hanson. She didn’t take kindly to the ABC’s exposure of One Nation’s own distressed members, branch treasurers and executive officials who went on camera to complain about her dictatorial administration of their party. It’s her party and it seems the current cult of personality goes beyond Xi Jingping, Donald Trump or Kim Jong-Un.

Senator Hanson persuaded Mitch Fifield to put the boot into the ABC in return for her vote on media reform – reform which has resulted in further consolidation of media ownership with the likely disposal of regional mastheads later this year.

At this very moment the $41.4 million provided over three years for what’s called the ABC Enhanced Newsgathering Program is soon expected to be discontinued. Senator Fifield has yet to pronounce its termination. If and when he does the ABC will have to restructure its regional digital state-based news gathering.

The $83.7million so-called ‘indexation pause’ announced in Mr Morrison’s 2018 budget will apply from 1 July this year. The loss of these funds is likely to result in the retrenchment of around 400 broadcasters and support staff and yet another constraint or restructure of program output.

This comes on top of defunding of $254 million in operational base funding since 2014, with the termination of 1000 full time equivalent staff.

With the loss of more than 3000 professional journalists in private media corporations and newspapers throughout Australia brought by the digital disruption and the diversion of advertising revenue to global digital platforms, why would any government, claiming to be operating in the national interest, seek to gut the ABC?

But this is why we now need all hands on deck in the coming federal election.

I thank the Greens and all those parliamentary cross bench independents who have publicly expressed their support for the ABC, despite all its known faults and deficiencies.

I also now thank the national conference of the Australian Labor Party and its parliamentary leader Bill Shorten for having elevated the survival of the ABC to a major federal election issue. Over the years Antony Green, the ABC’s psephologist, always told me that the ABC was barely a blip on the political radar at election time. That is why the Coalition always lulled ABC supporters into a false sense of security before dishonouring their commitments on gaining power: John Howard and Richard Alston in 1996 and Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey and now Mitch Fifield from 2013.

This time, 2019, the hostility is raw and must be confronted by all people of goodwill in Australia. That hostility is totally unnecessary.

Public broadcasters appeal to the Prime Minister Scott Morrison to think again about the great contribution an adequately funded public broadcaster can make to national cohesion and democratic engagement in Australia. We appeal to Mr Morrison to appoint a new ABC chairperson committed to its independence and its crucial Charter obligations and transition as a major player in digital content creation.

It is not too late for the Liberal Party and the National Party to think again.

If you place all your adversarial political cards with the Murdoch methodology don’t be surprised by the Murdoch double cross. Pubs full of sacked editors can attest to Rupert’s ruthlessness. When the worm turns Rupert will leave you lying in the gutter, laughing at your gullibility.

Public broadcasters demand of Bill Shorten that he and his shadow expenditure review committee declare on the public record before the federal election exactly how Labor in government would ensure the ABC’s survival. We appreciate that he has declared the indexation pause will not be implemented.

But the ABC desperately needs to be refunded to rebuild its capacity.

· Bring back Lateline.

· Bring back Stateline. Rebuild Foreign Correspondent to 46 weeks a year.

· Build more specialisation into Radio National, not less. Every piece of distinctive audio and video can be used to much greater and cost-effective audience engagement through digital devices.

· Reverse the ABC’s Sydney-centrism which has resulted from defunding.

· Rebuild regional and state-based radio and digital programming.

· Rebuild science and educational programming.

· More live broadcasts from Australia’s great orchestras on Classic FM.

· More original Australian music composition broadcast on TripleJ.

· Rebuild ABC international broadcasting before Xi Jinping and the politburo in Bejing win all the hearts and minds of our Pacific neighbours, and do it through projecting Australia as a liberal democracy where dissent is not a crime against the state.

· Build innovative content creation to take the ABC into the digital future so that its great contribution to the success of Australia as a functioning cohesive democracy is guaranteed.

Friends, we now have to smash through our cynicism and stand up for the ABC and all it provides to the Australian people.

In the final scene of David Williamson play “Rupert”, the Murdoch character stands up before the audience as a hideous gorgon1 .. “I’m still here,” the monster spits .. “So what are you going to do about it?”

1 Gorgon – used here to mean a frightening or repulsive person (with apologies to the female gender-specific Greek mythology).

___________________________________________________________

This is an edited version of an address by public broadcasting advocate and ABC Alumnus Quentin Dempster, delivered to Sydney’s Politics in the Pub gathering on Thursday 7 February 2019.