On Sunday, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) Chair Ita Buttrose released a blistering statement in response to New South Wales, Senator Andrew Bragg, setting up a senate inquiry to review the ABC complaints process.
The complaints process for the ABC has been scandal ridden, with months of intense criticism, including over the handling of editorial failings of the error-ridden documentaries ”Ghost Fire” and ”Juanita Nielsen: A Family Mystery.”
Buttrose claims that an inquiry initiated by the Senate will create a “parallel process” which will “threaten the ABC’s independence at the expense of the integrity of this irreplaceable public service.”
This is an act of outrageous overreach by the ABC Chair.
With no sense of irony, Buttrose, the chair of a taxpayer-funded organisation, accused a democratically elected senator of “political interference,” then in the next breath demanded the Senate “terminate” a senate inquiry.
One could only imagine the reaction if the Australian Tax Office or the Bureau of Meteorology made similar demands of the Australian Senate.
In our liberal democracy, the parliament is sovereign. We send politicians there to represent us, the taxpayer.
No taxpayer-funded organisation is beyond scrutiny, especially one that is so consistently biased and scandal-plagued as the ABC.
As Senator Bragg told the Institute of Public Affairs’ documentary podcast “Their ABC” in regards to its staff social media activism: “for an organisation that receives a billion dollars a year taxpayer funds, the least the taxpayer can expect is the people will be impartial.”
Those comments could equally apply to the outrageous way the ABC Chair addressed and criticised a democratically elected senator.
The ABC has consistently promoted former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s ludicrous idea for a “Murdoch Royal Commission” and happily supported and submitted to the Senate Media Diversity Inquiry, set up by Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, as a mini-substitute to the Royal Commission idea.
So just to clarify, the ABC is happy to support senate inquiries looking into their media opponents. But not when the inquiry may be looking into themselves, even though they are the only organisation solely funded by taxpayers to the tune of over $1.1 billion (US$810 million) per year.
Hanson-Young said of the ABC complaints inquiry: “I will move in the Senate to protect the ABC from the blatant attack launched on it by the Morrison government. The independence of our public broadcaster is an essential part of our Australian democracy. It shouldn’t be up to politicians to dictate what the ABC can and cannot report on.”
Again, said with no sense of irony, from a senator that launched a senate inquiry into media diversity and has used that inquiry to haul in News Corp bosses to question them on their reporting.
Our media market should be as free and diverse as possible. And the evidence shows that Australians have never had more access to different sources of media.
Every Australian has access to hundreds of news sources from Australia and around the world at the click of a computer key.
It is for that reason the case for the continued existence of a taxpayer-funded public policy program to have a national broadcaster is no longer as strong as it once was.
But as we’ve seen with the response to the inquiry into the ABC’s complaints process, any minor incursion on the ABC is met with a sensitive and furious response from the broadcaster and its supporters that its independence cannot be challenged because it is “trusted.”
However, that “trusted” line is getting tired.
The most recent Roy Morgan survey on trusted brands, released last month, found that the ABC has gone from 10th to 19th place in Australia’s ranking of trusted brands and fallen 14 places in the space of two years.
Social scientist Ross Honeywill said the ABC ”risks falling out of the top 20 most trusted brands completely.”
Roy Morgan CEO, Michele Levine, said of the ABC’s support in the community: “There has always been a group of very strong right-wing conservative people who felt the ABC was biased and probably always will, but this is becoming the view of the vast majority.”
But if we take ABC at their word and it truly is “trusted” and “beloved” by all Australians, then surely its existence would continue to be well supported by transforming it into a modern subscription service like Netflix or Stan.
That way, those Australian taxpayers who don’t watch or consume the ABC would no longer be forced to pay for it.
Its independence should also be taken one step further, it should be freed of the shackles of dependence on taxpayer funds.
Once it is genuinely independent of government money, its freedom and editorial independence should rightly be defended.
However, while the ABC is taxpayer-funded, it should rightly expect scrutiny from the Parliament, which represents taxpayers. It is not a law unto itself.