The ABC wars have broken out again. The current round of this seemingly endless conflict was sparked by the ABC’s coverage of the Edward Snowden revelations: specifically, that the Australian government’s spy agency, the Defence Signals Directorate, had been spying on Indonesia
Coalition politicians are not happy. They see the reporting as an attack on Australia’s interests. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has told journalists that the ABC was “guilty of poor judgment in broadcasting that material which was obviously difficult for Australia's national security and long-term best interests”.
Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull apparently gave ABC boss Mark Scott a dressing down. This week, Senator Cory Bernardi launched a grandiloquent attack in the Coalition party room, fulminating against the national broadcaster’s bias.
“It's a taxpayer-funded behemoth that is cannibalising commercial media while spreading a message that ignores the majority views of Australians,” Bernardi reportedly told his colleagues. One can only imagine the chorus of hurrumphs that must have followed.
All too predictably, many of News Limited’s finest have joined in, issuing a volley of anti-ABC opinion pieces in The Australian, the Daily Telegraph, Network Ten’s Bolt Report, and so on. Greg Sheridan called the ABC “morally compromised and journalistically discredited”. Janet Albrechtsen called for Mark Scott’s resignation. There’s plenty more where that came from: the cries of “their ABC” have bounced around the right-wing echo chamber with their usual hollow clang.
Mark Scott has defended the ABC's reporting of Australian espionage. In an interview on ABC24 he argued it was in the public interest. “We're an independent media organisation,” he said. “Sometimes we publish stories that politicians won't be happy about but we are an independent media organisation, that is the role we need to play.”
We’ve heard it all before. Accusations of ABC bias are nearly as old as the broadcaster itself. During the previous government’s dreadful run of bad polls, there were many on the left getting stuck into the ABC, claiming it was obsessed by opinion polls and singing from News Limited’s song sheet. Now that the Coalition holds power, the ABC’s natural role exerting scrutiny on the government of the day is enraging conservatives.
The ABC is a perennial political football for good reason. As a billion-dollar-a-year public broadcaster, the ABC dominates Australia’s mediascape in a way comparable only to the BBC in Britain. As the onslaught of free news on the internet has eroded the business models of competing organisations, the ABC looms all the larger.
It doesn’t help that the ABC is running rings around its commercial cousins in terms of technology. The slow death of the printed newspaper only heightens the contrast with a muscular and surprisingly nimble ABC. While Fairfax and News Limited have struggled to come to terms with the digital universe, the ABC has proved itself adept at the new environment, rolling out important new services online.
The result has been a sustained level of public approval that puts other media organisations to shame. The ABC consistently rates as the most trusted news source in the country. Voters love it, whatever their political affiliation.
Nonetheless, we should care about what the ABC's critics think. A strong public broadcaster is an essential pillar of Australian democracy. The ABC plays a critical role in holding governments of all political persuasions to account; in breaking news; and in essential public broadcasting roles, such as emergency broadcasting during natural disasters.
The spying revelations prove the point. Here we have a very significant disclosure about the actions of our intelligence agencies, about which citizens were previously uninformed. Whatever the views of the government and the spooks, in a democracy voters need to know about critical issues of national security, so they can make their own minds up about Australia’s national interests.
Of course, merely stating that argument won’t make the current controversies go away. The ABC is an inherently political organisation, and Mark Scott himself a rather canny political player.
In recent times, the ABC has not been above playing the national interest card itself – most notably in its pursuit of the tender for the Australia Network, where the ABC has repeatedly argued that the ABC has a role to play in “soft diplomacy” in the region.
In 2009, for instance, Scott gave a lecture in which he explicitly positioned the ABC as a tool of soft power for Australian interests abroad.
The Australia Network, Scott claimed, “should project images and perceptions of Australia in an independent, impartial manner; foster public understanding of Australia, its people and its strategic and economic interests; and raise awareness of our economic and trade capabilities … This is a contemporary statement of the value of public diplomacy."
As Gerard Henderson has pointed out, Scott’s various manoeuvres on this issue are at odds with his current stance on the importance of the ABC as an independent news organisation.
Henderson is worried that reporting on Snowden’s cache of NSA documents is against Australia’s diplomatic interests; he hurls some typical insults about the ABC’s “greens-left agenda”. But the bigger concern for those concerned with the integrity of the national broadcaster is the potential for the Australia Network to erode the credibility of the ABC’s independence.
The ABC should neither be a tool for Australia diplomacy, nor a shill for Australian business interests. It should remain a public broadcaster focused on informing and entertaining ordinary Australians, particularly in the provision of basic newsgathering, a service which commercial rivals are increasingly unable to provide.
All in all, the ABC Charter has it about right.
“The functions of the Corporation”, it says, “are to provide … innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard.” If commercial media companies are struggling to compete with the ABC, it may be because their standards are not as high.
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