The last lie Tony Abbott told before this government was elected was that there would be no cuts to the ABC. It set the course for a relationship that reached an astounding low this week, one founded on deprivation and justified mistrust from the broadcaster.
Standing on the edge of a sports field in Penrith, he said a Coalition government would promise “no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS”.
In government, he said: “Of course I made that statement … but under the circumstances that we subsequently found ourselves in it was important to make sensible savings.”
Since then, $254 million has been cut from the ABC. Another $84 million will be taken in a freeze on indexation. Across the same period, 600 staff have been lost.
The chaos at the ABC this week is not simply one of personalities. It is the result of five years of concerted interference by government, of public criticism and censure.
Perhaps the Coalition did not direct former chairman Justin Milne to “shoot” ABC political editor Andrew Probyn or “get rid of” chief economics correspondent Emma Alberici. They didn’t need to.
Perhaps Milne never discussed with Malcolm Turnbull his view of Triple J’s Australia Day broadcasts. He obviously knew the then prime minister well enough to know that changing those broadcasts would make him “ballistic”.
The government’s view on the ABC was so obvious that the chairman didn’t believe it needed to be sought. And the chairman was so seemingly obsequious that he was happy to act in anticipation of it.
The view was obvious in the politicisation of the broadcaster’s operations. It was there in a string of vexatious inquiries and loaded appointments, in the boycott of programs and the running commentary on stories.
It was there in Tony Abbott, as prime minister, accusing the ABC of “betrayal, if you like, of our country”. It was there in him intervening in programming decisions, saying, “frankly, heads should roll”. Both these statements would be extraordinary, save for the fact they became routine.
This campaign against independence was there in Peter Dutton saying the broadcaster was “dead” to him over its reporting of special arrangements for white South African farmers. It was there in the appointment of a communications minister who is also a member of the Institute of Public Affairs, a minister who 10 years ago was arguing in favour of privatising the broadcaster.
Milne didn’t need anyone to tell him Probyn’s reporting was “putting the future of the ABC at risk” and risking “half-a-billion dollars”. The government had already let its pettiness be known, its willingness to trifle with the broadcaster’s independence and punish it for its reporting.
Scott Morrison said the chairman made the right decision in resigning this week. On that, he is right. “Time for the ABC to resume normal transmission, both independently and without bias,” he said. “That is what Australia’s taxpayers pay for and deserve.”
A return to normal would be welcome. Perhaps the government could reinstate the ABC’s funding, too, and leave its board appointments to an arms-length process. Perhaps it could reaffirm the broadcaster’s editorial independence and cease this appalling campaign against it.
The ABC may be better without Milne and Michelle Guthrie, but it will not be itself without a change to how this government treats it.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 29, 2018 as "Aunty maimed".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.