Their ABC Must Be Worried

Written by
17 November 2020
Originally appeared in Catallaxy Files

Joe Gersh – ABC board member – has an op-ed in The Australian this morning.

Chris Kenny has been a vigorous critic of the ABC while previously “resisting calls for its privatisation or abolition”, but after last week’s Four Corners, Media Watch and Q&A he has asserted that it now “is beyond redemption”.

True – Chris Kenny has long been a critic of the ABC. But his argument – as is many journalists – has been that the ABC needs to have conservative voices. To my mind that criticism is that the ABC should employ him.

This follows similar calls from the Institute of Public Affairs and other respected organisations.

To be clear; the IPA recommendation for the ABC is:

Break up the ABC and put out to tender each individual function

Moving along.

I cannot agree. I declare my centre-right bias; a long-time reader of The Australian, I was appointed to the ABC board by Turnbull government communications minister Mitch Fifield.

Ah Mitch. Lovely guy.

The ABC is frequently criticised and sometimes for good reason. Even the most passionate friend of the ABC could not argue that Aunty is beyond criticism.

… and yet. Here we are.

Calls for the abolition or privatisation of the ABC (essentially the same thing) are a thought bubble for which there is no constituency on either side of politics. 

Fake news! The Liberal Party adopted a platform of privatising the ABC after the publication of Chris Berg and my book.  Mitch Fifield – yes that same Mitch – immediately stated that privatisation of the ABC was not government policy. This demonstrates the extent of Liberal politician capture – they simply refuse to implement the policies of their own party.

Each time it is repeated, it damages the ABC’s quest for the long-term, stable funding it needs and that underpins its independence.

More fake news! The ABC has stable funding of about $900 million each year for operational expenses. Then about another $120 million or so for transmission. That funding is paid upfront by the government irrespective of whether anyone actually consumes ABC content. Unlike every other media organisation, the ABC does not have to work for a living; the food is on the table when they get there.

It may irritate the critics, but the ABC remains Australia’s most trusted source of news and current affairs.

Some polling company told them that. Their viewer numbers suggest otherwise.

Who but the ABC can we rely on for emergency broadcasting, which attracted universal appreciation yet again in the most recent bushfires? Likewise with coronavirus.

There is no reason why taxpayers should pay $900 million for emergency broadcasting – that function could be tendered out for a lot less.

Add to the list rural and regional Australia, Australian drama, comedy, children’s shows, women’s sport, music, Indigenous issues and the arts.

Ah yes. Comedy. The only contribution the ABC makes is to rebroadcast quality BBC shows.

Unsurprisingly, the ABC’s political coverage attracts the most controversy. But how can it be consistent with liberal values to call for the ABC to be defunded every time a controversial story is aired?

We need to get away from this notion of judging the ABC by small-l liberal values. The ABC does not practice small-l liberalism. The ABC is infested by extremist left-wing progressives who use small-l liberalism as camouflage to destroy our way of life and civilisation. All their ‘controversial’ stories are one-sided.

Cancel culture, which conservative columnists abhor, is just as absurd when applied to the ABC.

We don’t want to cancel the ABC, we just don’t want to pay for it.

I do not share in the hysteria about Rupert Murdoch. News Corp, in my view, plays a valuable role, and if more media diversity is sought (and it should be) it can be achieved by encouraging as broad a range of competing voices as possible, including those that may require some taxpayer support.

Good to hear – yet some many individuals who work for an organisation where Gersh is on the board use organisation time and resources to bag Rupert Murdoch. Has he told them that News Corp plays a valuable role?

But I do find it hypocritical when journalists and commentators conflate issues of competi­tion with issues of bias. News Corp is well able to deal with its commercial interests.

True – News Corp is not above rent-seeking. Their campaign against FaceBook and Google has been disgraceful.

Concerns about balance at the ABC, on the other hand, are an entirely legitimate issue for debate and the views expressed in the columns of this newspaper should be heard; as should the views of others that may robustly differ.

Excellent advice – yet the ABC doesn’t seem to adopt that sort of approach.

The ABC is taxpayer funded, it does not accept advertising, and therefore it is not a commercial rival. Nonetheless, it competes for eyeballs and clicks. Some resent this.

A tad disingenuous. Media companies are platforms – they have to compete on two fronts; for paying customers (advertisers) and consumer attention (eyeballs). The ABC competes on neither front.

Freed of the obligation to satisfy advertisers or a proprietor, the ABC is able to do things others cannot do; things that may not have a commercial return but that have profound civic benefit.

I’m going to have to break up that sentence into three parts.

Freed of the obligation to satisfy advertisers or a proprietor

As I said, the ABC does not compete on any margin. This is the first problem.

the ABC is able to do things others cannot do

That is the second problem.

things that may not have a commercial return but that have profound civic benefit.

For example?

The case for public broadcasting in today’s disrupted media environment and the era of “fake news” is stronger than ever.

Well? Let’s hear it then. That is simply an unsubstantiated comment. A large proportion of the Australian population thinks the ABC is a source of fake news.

I accept that some people were uncomfortable with Four Corners on Monday night last week.

So what is he doing about it?

Four Corners often does that.

So, um, nothing.

By its nature, long-form investigative journalism can make those under investigation feel exposed. 

I can only imagine the horror George Pell must have felt. A tad more than ‘exposed’.

That goes with the territory. To demand intervention by the ABC board is misconceived.

Yep. Doing nothing. I suspect being an ABC board member comes with a salary and they put on a nice lunch. Actual corporate governance? Not so much.

The role of the board is to ensure that the ABC conforms to its charter, and it does so via its editorial policies as explained clearly by ABC managing director David Anderson at Senate estimates last week in an extraordinary exchange in which he was asked to justify a program that had not yet gone to air.

Here is another sentence I’m going to have break up.

The role of the board is to ensure that the ABC conforms to its charter

Any time you’re ready …

and it does so via its editorial policies as explained clearly by ABC managing director David Anderson

Perhaps an example could clarify our understanding …

at Senate estimates last week in an extraordinary exchange in which he was asked to justify a program that had not yet gone to air.

How dare those pesky politicians ask questions? Was David Anderson feeling exposed? Estimates often does that.

Critics often portray the ABC as a “conservative-free zone”. 

Fact Check: True.

Yet Kenny’s greatest criticism of Q&A was the heated exchange between Malcolm Turnbull and Paul Kelly, two leading, respected men I would describe as conservatives. 

Two guests on a show? That covers that particular criticism? Anyway, nobody serious would describe either Paul Kelly or Malcolm Turnbull as being ‘conservative’. They are both small-l liberals.

Agree with either, or neither, but what sin has the ABC committed in putting these important issues — climate change and media diversity — to air?

‘Media diversity’ is ABC code for that evil monopolist Rupert Murdoch and how they – the ABC – need even more money for nothing from the taxpayer.

Kenny’s throwaway line, “Sorry Ita, we had high hopes for you”, apart from being inappropriate and patronising, fails to appreciate some of the bold and strategic thinking adopted under the leadership of Ita Buttrose and Anderson during a time of financial challenge.

Chris Kenny is a nice guy. I had no expectation that Ita Buttrose would make any impression on the ABC. Nobody else ever has.

This board has adopted a five-year plan to decentralise the ABC. Three-quarters of content-makers will be outside Ultimo headquarters by 2025 and enhanced recruiting guidance will encourage greater diversity on and off air.

Oh dear god. There will be even less managerial oversight than there currently is. Define ‘diversity’.

These are not “woke” words. 

‘I am not a racist, but … ‘. Seriously?

They represent a fundamental shift to make the ABC more representative of today’s Australia.

Like actual Liberal voters? Or net taxpayers? Patriots? You know, people who actually love Australia. Who take pride in the nation. Is the ABC going to employ those people? They sure as hell can’t seem to find any for the Q&A audience, how are they going to find any to employ?

People in different parts of the country and from different cultures and backgrounds see issues differently.

Ah yes. Post-modernism. There are no facts, only social constructs.

In a measured and thoughtful way, this plan addresses the “unconscious bias” at the ABC that Buttrose identified early in her tenure.

Ha! The bias is ‘unconscious’. Hmmmmm, no.

The ABC does not require redemption; it accepts constructive criticism but needs support and stable funding. 

Here is the thing: The ABC cannot be redeemed. It does not take on, or even ever recognise, constructive criticism. It has stable funding already. That is the problem.

Believers in a robust media would benefit from dial­ling down threats to its funding and continuity.

ABC Delenda Est.

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Sinclair Davidson

Sinclair Davidson is an Adjunct Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs

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