Only A Flesh Wound

Only A Flesh Wound

Howls of outrage from the ABC and its fans on social media over the most mild of cuts to the broadcaster’s budget ignore the fact of an institution that has drifted far away from its charter’s demands for objectivity.

Judging by the howls of outrage echoing through twitter it seems that the Turnbull government has destroyed our democracy, if not Australian civilisation itself. But no. The Turnbull government has frozen ABC operational funding for three years. That translates to a ‘funding cut’ of some $83 million.

Not $83 million per year, mind you. Over three years.

Not quite a rounding error, but hardly a crisis.

The ABC only has itself to blame. In the pre-budget period it went well out of its way to annoy the government. The prime minister – a former communications minister – is something of a fan. Yet the ABC chose to publish a highly opinionated and factually challenged analysis by the ABC’s Chief Economics Correspondent of the government’s centrepiece economic policy. Then there was the small matter of pooh-poohing the current communications ministers’ complaint about a conservative politician being pointlessly abused in a comedy skit.

These hostilities have not come cheap.

There may well be a market for ‘edgy’ humour, but the ABC’s efforts tend to boorishness. Reproducing flawed ALP and Greens talking points on company tax cuts as being ‘independent’ and ‘trust worthy’ is arguably a greater problem. These are not minor lapses in editorial policy – the ABC is politically biased and incapable of self-regulation.

Rather than viewing the ABC as a ‘trusted’ news source we should recognise it as being a political actor in its own right. Not just any sort of political actor. Journalists, as David Marr has suggested, are usually ‘vaguely soft-left’ and sceptical of authority.

The ABC, however, is not so vague and not so soft. A 2013 survey of journalists revealed that 41.3% of ABC journalists intended to vote Greens at the 2013 election. That compares with 19.8% of journalists at both Fairfax and News and just 8.7% of the electorate.

ABC journalists are well to the left of journalists in general, and nearly five times more likely to vote Greens than the general public.

To be fair – there is nothing wrong with voting Greens or being left-wing. Journalists are citizens too. But the ABC claims to be a bulwark of our democracy. While nearly 80% of Australians claim to believe that the ABC is balanced and even-handed there is a huge drop off in actual audience numbers. There are three to four times as many Australians who claim to trust the ABC than who actually watch the ABC. Sure 86% of Australians value to ABCs service to the community, but that probably reflects its status as an emergency broadcaster.

Generally there is no reason why political opinion should cloud professional performance. Coalition voting journalists are a minority even at News. Yet none of the mechanisms that crowd out personal preference operate at the ABC. It does not have to please advertisers, it does not have to earn a profit, nor does it not have to explain itself to controlling shareholders.

To claim that the ABC Charter constrains it is laughable. The Charter is written in legislation but it is not law. It doesn’t require anyone to do anything, it contains no penalties for non-compliance, and it has no enforcement mechanism. If only the Tax Act worked on the same principles.

The ABC pleases itself; in practice that means it pleases its staff. To the extent that many ABC journalists are professional in their activities that is a personal preference and not institutional discipline.

Unsurprisingly the ABC does as it pleases and largely it gets away with doing as it pleases.

Being stripped of a mere $83 million over three years is a very mild rebuke from an otherwise indulgent government. Yet the ABC seems to have chucked a temper tantrum in response. Threats to bully the government into restoring funding indexation should be resisted.

Rather than simply restore indexation after three years the Turnbull government should be looking at innovative market solutions to commercialise and professionalise the ABC. Expecting value for money from the ABC is not an attack on its independence but rather a minimum expectation of any government program that costs the taxpayer $1 billion per annum.

Chris Berg and Sinclair Davidson are in the School of Economics, Finance and Marketing at RMIT University and senior research fellows at the Institute of Public Affairs. Their book Against public broadcasting: Why we should privatise the ABC and how to do it, will be published by Connor Court later this month.

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