Emasculating the Public Broadcaster: Tony Abbott and the ABC

At first glance, there is not much similarity between the young dictator of North Korea and the Prime Minister of Australia. But over a few drinks, Kim Jong-un and Tony Abbott might find a few points of similarity. One is the idea that a public broadcaster, by necessity, broadcasts the views of the government. The authoritarian mentality, by nature, demands conformity and consistency. The instinct is not alien to the Westminster system. Eventually, if certain agencies do not tow a distinct line, the life support, usually in the form of funding, is turned off.

In democracies, nominal or otherwise, governments still demand a degree of compliance from their state broadcaster. There is no guarantee that the broadcaster, in this case, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, will comply – but it suggests the tussle between the government’s agenda and the reporting of it will be a matter of attrition. Hapless government officials fume that the broadcaster got it wrong – how could they not report that policy properly? The broadcaster was merely pointing out, as is often the case, that the government stumbled. Reporting on an atrocious policy can be a thankless task.

Australian prime ministers would rather, one suspects, do without a broadcasting commission funded by the public purse. It creates a range of issues – ownership (the government may hold and provide the money that funds the broadcaster, but presumptive ownership is with the public) and effect. The U.S. model must seem so much more inviting – a landscape populated by private broadcasting corporations, with NPR having the barest sliver of funding from Congress.

During the Gulf War, yet another conflict distant and inconsequential to Australia, Prime Minister Bob Hawke made no secret of his anger at supposedly “biased” reporting that stemmed from the 7.30 Report. But it would take an ideologically obsessed Howard government to make attacking the ABC a regular sport.

The current Australian government has lurched from one reactionary policy to another, insisting that the country is in a conflict with those illegal human masses who dare consider Australia as a place of asylum. For the policy to sell, it must have amenable reporters. So far, the ABC has proven to be a less than enthusiastic playmate.

Abbott’s unhinged Defence Minister David Johnston has been the latest to add a round of tirades, taking issue with the ABC’s comments about naval conduct regarding asylum seekers. A particular point of disagreement lay in an account on the broadcaster’s current affairs program AM on January 22, suggesting that passengers were “forced by the navy to hold on to hot metal” on board an asylum vessel.

Johnston’s view is a simple one. The navy personnel, who have been ruthlessly politicised as a proxy wing of the immigration department, were “heroes”. “If ever there was an event that justified a detailed inquiry, some reform, an investigation into the ABC, this event is it. They themselves have cast a giant shadow over the veracity of their report – and yet they’ve besmirched these hardworking people” (The Australian, Feb 8).

The minister was is no mood to be pacified. Naturally, no Australian service personnel could misbehave. The assumption dictates the truth. “The good men and women of the navy – the Royal Australian Navy – have been maliciously maligned by the ABC and I am very dissatisfied with the weasel words of apology that have floated around by senior management of the ABC.”

Peering closely at the remarks of the Senator, and his humanitarianism seems misplaced – a weasel word, if you like. Behind every misuse of a human life is a stab at finance and power. It is basic, and unimaginative. Here, Johnston has argued that such a review on editorial standards would include the budget of the broadcaster, which he considers “too big”.

This reasoning is barely refined nonsense – a budget and editorial standards do not necessarily meet on the same road of discussion. If anything, a limited budget, one savaged and severed, would be a greater incitement for creative, rather than reliable reporting. Would a smaller budget have made the story more palatable to the indignant Senator?

The underlying attack on the broadcaster has other motivations. According to the minister, the ABC was against Australians in general, and evidently an open supporter of Edward Snowden. How dare they go so far as to report his material on warrantless, global surveillance, implicating Australia in the process?

Abbott’s view of the news, and the role played by those who expose government improprieties, is a blinkered one. The only business worth reporting of government is good business. To not do constitutes an unpatriotic act. Reporting such dirty tendencies as tapping the phones of Indonesian President Susilo Yudhoyono and his wife Kristiani Herawati at the behest of Washington was improper. The ABC had seemingly delighted “in broadcasting allegations by a traitor.”

In March, the ABC will be bracing itself for the cabinet’s expenditure review committee. Cuts are most likely. Protests, albeit of the meek sort, have been registered. But what of the actual effect? Even Johnston is not sure. “I think that’s pointless; they’d just jack up and go on strike.” Certainly, the ABC has shown a thankful obstinacy against reforming in according with government wishes. During the conservative tenure of Howard, the ABC board found itself populated by ineffectual Tories in a vain effort to change its culture. It will simply have to keep doing what any responsible broadcaster does: infuriate the government of the day.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.