Smashing the Glass House

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ABC TV’s The Glass House is a great show by (almost) anyone’s standards. It’s a tight half-hour of rough-and-tumble, semi-scripted silliness with a nice line in social and political satire. Performed to a proven (and obviously not costly) formula, by a talented, regular cast who share an effortless on-screen chemistry, its recent ratings have been among the best of its five-year spree.

So it’s hard to understand exactly why the program has been axed, and on what commercial or creative grounds.

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NSW Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, however, doesn’t like The Glass House. Her complaints  during last week’s Senate Estimates Committee hearngs were just the latest in a long line of objections made by Coalition MPs and their sympathisers about the program in recent months. Such people don’t find it amusing when Wil Anderson, Corinne Grant and Dave Hughes poke fun at George W Bush and John Howard, or at the politics behind the war in Iraq although they don’t seem to mind so much when the barbs are aimed at Kim Beazley’s weight.

Satirical comedy has always raised the ire of those who, being figures of authority, are rightly its primary target, but The Glass House and its contemporaries are nowhere near as savage as such classics of the genre as Rubbery Figures, The Gillies Report, or Britain’s Dead Ringers. Today’s power-brokers have got it pretty easy in Australia, but apparently they can’t cope with the sort of roasting regularly meted out to their predecessors.

Despite ABC’s Head of Television Kim Dalton’s protestations to the contrary, it’s impossible to avoid the impression that the axing of The Glass House represents yet another instance of ABC management’s independence crumbling. While it appears that the decision to axe the program was made some time ago, the timing of its announcement seems designed to appease the more ferocious culture warriors who have been baying for the program’s blood for months.

Of course, much like the accusations of excessive ‘Left-wing’ influence at the ABC, the role and extent of political influence upon management decisions there is virtually impossible to quantify. Staring down Opposition accusations of ‘censorship’ after the announcement of the program’s demise, John Howard made the obvious point that he wasn’t responsible for the decision: ‘ If [The Glass House] has been axed, then it has been axed by a decision of the ABC.’ So that’s that, then. No Government involvement here, folks. Move on.

But influence, like bias, doesn’t declare itself openly. It works by a process of infiltration and manipulation a process that the Government has applied to its Board appointments for our public broadcaster with unprecedented ruthlessness. The current Government’s appointments to the ABC Board have gone beyond the typical ‘stacking with like-minded mates’ that all Australian governments indulge in. As ALP Communications Spokesperson Stephen Conroy noted recently, the ABC’s direction is now being set by a ‘tiny minority of ideological zealots on its Board who really don’t believe in public broadcasting‘ (my italics).

Conroy, not usually known for his dedication to his own portfolio, has, in this instance, hit the nail on the head. There are very real forces at work within the Howard Government who not only do not believe in public broadcasting, but vehemently and ruthlessly oppose it.

Just days before ABC General Manager Mark Scott’s new editorial guidelines for the ABC were announced, failed Liberal Party candidate and successful corporate spin doctor Rudi Michelson stepped valiantly into the breach created by Janet Albrechtsen upon her appointment to the ABC Board with an op-ed piece in The Australian. In ‘Privatise the ABC,’ Michelson, an old mate of Peter Costello’s, compared the ABC to the kind of ‘Government broadcasting … favoured by totalitarian States and Islamic theocracies,’ and asked the disingenuous question: ‘ Why is a government broadcaster competing in [the Australian media market]?’.

The simple answer, as Michelson probably knows, is it’s not. The ABC is not a government broadcaster it is a public broadcaster. The phrase ‘Your ABC’ is not just a catchy marketing slogan; it tells the truth. That those who seek to undermine this truth are now calling the shots at the ABC is a very real threat to Australian democracy.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

Gerard Henderson, among others, has complained that the real problem with the ABC is not that it criticises power, but that it does so from an inherently ‘Left-wing’ perspective.  

But such arguments about Right and Left are not helpful to the debate and, as we are now seeing, can be twisted to accuse the ABC of losing its essential ‘impartiality.’ As David McKnight, author of Beyond Right and Left has argued, the culture of journalism is better understood through a framework, first elucidated by US writer Robert Miraldi, which posits a tradition of objectivity against one of muckraking.

It is the job of the public broadcaster to question governments and others in positions of power, not from an avowed ‘Right’ or ‘Left’ position, but from a position that upholds the public interest one that places a premium on the rights of citizens, the pursuit of truth and the responsibility of those in power to those they serve.

Regardless of which Party ‘Right’ or ‘Left’ has been in power, the ABC has always been a thorn in its side. As it should be. Henderson acknowledges that the ALP, when in power, was just as frustrated with the scrutiny of the public broadcaster as the current Coalition Government. All this proves is that the ABC is doing its job holding those in power to a higher standard, demanding accountability, seeking the truth. This is the role of journalism.

The problem we have in Australia now is that objective, investigative journalism, when focussed on members of the powerful conservative coterie, is too often dismissed as muckraking witness the outrage over Chris Masters’s Jonestown.

Inherent in virtually every complaint about ‘Left wing bias’ at the ABC is a mind-set that believes that power, once granted by a democratic vote, is somehow not beholden to the greater public that it serves, or at least not legitimately subject to public scrutiny. These warriors of the ‘Right’ seem to believe that Australia would somehow be strengthened by a weakening of those institutions (like, say, ABC News and Current Affairs) that exist in order to scrutinise and criticise
executive power and to clearly distinguish between the government and the public interest.

This is far removed from a traditional conservative position, and the opposite of the classic liberal ideology that such people supposedly espouse. In fact, it’s closer to an authoritarian or fascist mind-set: the proponents of this twisted view of democracy seem to believe that, once elected, a government has the same kind of divine right to rule that was the entitlement of kings and emperors.

When our public broadcaster criticises or scrutinises power, the powerful rely on a proven range of antagonistic responses: from accusations of bias, to proposals that the very idea of the public interest be sacrificed to the rule of the market: ‘the best solution lies not in politics but in economics.’

The Howard Government has gone to great lengths to ensure that some of the most trenchant advocates of this anti-public broadcasting view are now firmly ensconced at the top of our ABC. The axing of The Glass House is just the latest decision taken by a management installed, and increasingly cowed, by a Board that is far too closely aligned with the Government. It’s this cosy alignment rather than any ‘Left-wing’ bias that threatens to create Rudi Michelson’s feared ‘totalitarian State.’ And it’s this that must be opposed vigorously by the real owners of the ABC we, the Australian people.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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