News

This week’s failed senate attempt to tighten control over the national broadcaster highlights the sway One Nation has over the Coalition. By Mike Seccombe.

The Hanson plot to kill the ABC

ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie.
Credit: AAP / Mick Tsikas

Fox News never announced that it was dropping its famous slogan “Fair and Balanced”. A reporter for Vanity Fair broke the story on June 14 this year.

These days Rupert Murdoch’s American cable network tags itself “Most watched, Most trusted.” That is also untrue: MSNBC now regularly outrates it, and Fox is the most negatively fact-checked news network in the United States.

Since no explanation has been given, we can only guess why the old tag was dumped. It seems improbable that Fox management decided they could no longer maintain the pretence. More likely, they realised their slogan had become a punchline.

In newsrooms everywhere, on evening comedy and satire shows, among reasonable and well-informed people in the US and around the world, to say something is “fair and balanced” now is to imply quite the opposite.

Yet despite this context, the Turnbull government introduced legislation into federal parliament this week to inflict the old Fox slogan on Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC. Indeed, the title of the bill brought into the house on Wednesday by Communications Minister Mitch Fifield was the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Fair and Balanced) Bill 2017.

Around the corridors, though, people are apt to refer to it by a shorter title, “the One Nation Bill”. That’s who originally came up with the idea.

One Nation loathes the ABC. Loathes it for the Four Corners exposé that was done on the party’s dodgy governance, loathes it for its reality-based reportage on issues ranging from climate change to immunisation, for its championing of cultural diversity and for its general intelligence. As one critic summarised One Nation’s demands: “They want equal time for ignorance.”

Earlier, the party threatened it would not agree to support any government legislation unless the ABC budget was slashed by another $600 million over four years. There was no appetite for this, so Hanson has changed tack.

The “One Nation Bill” is one very small part of a bigger picture. But the fact that Fifield obligingly introduced what ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie calls “legislation designed to further a political vendetta” is seen as indicative of the government’s general lack of regard for the importance of public broadcasting and its willingness to sacrifice the ABC’s integrity at the behest of an array of vested interests.

Make no mistake, a lot of powerful people are gunning for the ABC, and Guthrie is gunning right back. And it’s about time she did, in the view of former senator Margaret Reynolds, now president of the national group dedicated to protecting the ABC’s role, ABC Friends.

“She finally came out fighting and we were very pleased that she did,” Reynolds says.

“The ABC is facing a perfect storm. They face an unsympathetic, opportunistic government – they’ve got real haters of the ABC in both government and crossbench ranks – and now they’ve got commercial attack dogs on them as well. As if that isn’t enough, they’ve got a media platform revolution…

“We’re fighting for the ABC against government and commercial rivals and maddies in the parliament.”

For more detail, let’s go to Guthrie’s speech to the ABC Friends from a couple of weeks back. It was a cracker, and while it will have made her no friends in the Turnbull government, it has gone a long way to redeeming her in the eyes of ABC staff and reporters who were suspicious, if not outright hostile, when the former Murdoch and Google senior executive took up her position in May last year.

“It is somewhat perverse,” Guthrie told the Friends, “that while technology has given us a sea of content abundance – no borders, an endless stream of new content producers, distribution platforms and devices – diversity is being threatened.”

In the face of competition from global giants such as Google, Facebook and Netflix, Australia’s existing media players had determined they needed to get big. And the government had obliged by bringing on new media laws, Guthrie said, “to allow [them] to build scale through mergers and acquisitions”.

There could be no pretending the changes would increase the diversity of media voices in Australia, she said. “It will, in fact, achieve the reverse.”

Still, she wished them luck.

“But as a former Google executive, I question whether consolidating the number of local players to build size is the panacea the CEOs are proclaiming it to be. The combined worth of the three major commercial free-to-airs is about $A2.1 billion. Southern Cross and Prime add another $1 billion. Fairfax has a market cap of about $2.2 billion.”

In contrast, she noted, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, had a market capitalisation of $US660 billion, and Facebook $US500 billion, and Netflix $US70 billion.

But instead of focusing on the real challenge posed by the international giants, and concentrating on making money from their audiences, which were now bigger than ever, Guthrie said, Australia’s commercial media owners wasted their time “whingeing” about how the ABC posed a threat to their audiences and revenue.

The commercial media is lobbying for the government to restrict the public broadcaster’s right to use evolving digital platforms and the content it could provide. “My advice to them,” Guthrie said, “is that attacking the national broadcaster does not – and will never – constitute a viable business model.”

And her advice to government: “The ABC Act and Charter should not be tampered with simply to suit political or commercial agendas.”

But, as Fifield’s actions on Wednesday showed, political and commercial agendas are exactly what the government is about.

At the same time as he introduced the “fair and balanced” legislation, Fifield brought in a separate bill to appease the National Party. It requires at least two members of the ABC board to represent rural interests, establishes a new Regional Advisory Council to be consulted on programming or technical changes affecting rural and regional audiences, and imposes new reporting requirements on the broadcaster. As well as this, it adds expensive new layers of bureaucracy.

Fifield is threatening a third piece of legislation, again at the behest of One Nation. Unless the ABC voluntarily reveals the names of all staff earning more than $200,000 by the end of next month, he warned in a letter to ABC chairman Justin Milne, and promptly leaked to Murdoch media last week, he would change the law to force the issue.

Why so many different bits of legislation? Because the government had to do a variety of deals with various members of the senate crossbench to secure passage of those media ownership rules referred to by Guthrie in her speech. They needed the support of Nick Xenophon Team senators, who would not support the Hanson demands. If the government had tried to put it all through in one package, it would have pranged the whole thing.

Pauline Hanson’s party was made a promise by the government: support our legislation benefiting our big media mates now, and we’ll help you whack the ABC later. And One Nation had every reason to trust the government to keep its bargain. It knows many in the Coalition have no great love for independent broadcasting, either. As John Howard’s former chief of staff, Grahame Morris, put it many years ago, the ABC “is our enemy talking to our friends”.

But Fifield’s sneaky little Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment (Fair and Balanced) Bill 2017 was dead on arrival – in fact, long before arrival. Labor, the Greens and the three Xenophon senators all signalled their opposition as far back as mid-August.

Within hours of its introduction into parliament on Wednesday, Labor and the Greens jointly reaffirmed their opposition in a senate motion that made a pre-emptive strike against the other threatened legislation, proposing: “The senate agrees it will not support legislation that forces the ABC or SBS to publicise the salaries of its staff, breaching their right to privacy.”

When the vote was taken, crossbench senators Derryn Hinch, Jacqui Lambie and Lucy Gichuhi joined Labor, the Greens and the Xenophon party. Things can always change in politics, but right now it looks as though the public will not learn how much ABC talent get paid for their work.

Let’s not jump to the conclusion, though, that the senate’s rejection of Hanson’s demands amounts to a defeat. Quite the opposite – the government, Hanson and, above all, commercial media keen to damage a quality competitor can now truthfully say the ABC and its supporters oppose statutory fairness and balance.

Fifield, in fact, was arguing this ahead of the bill.

In a piece in The Australian last week, he claimed to have difficulty understanding how anyone could oppose the Hanson bill.

“Some have wrongly and mischievously suggested that ‘fair’ and ‘balanced’ means giving equal time and weight to fringe views,” he wrote.

“Reasonable people understand the ordinary meaning of ‘fair’ and ‘balanced’. In fact, chapter four of the ABC’s own editorial policies requires ‘a balance that follows the weight of evidence’ and mandates ‘fair treatment’.”

One might ask why the additional words were necessary at all, if they simply reiterated what was already there. The answer is obvious: people understand that the words convey something other than their ordinary meaning when the likes of Pauline Hanson want them applied to the ABC. They mean something akin to the Fox News definition.

Fifield affected surprise at a “reaction to the government’s enhanced transparency and accountability measures for our public broadcasters [that] has ranged from the hysterical to the slightly unhinged”.

But what this government is proposing is something potentially far more damaging in the long term than mere budget cuts, what they call a “competitive neutrality inquiry”.

As Fifield explained it in The Australian: “This will examine whether the ABC and SBS are adhering to their charters and whether they use their status as taxpayer-funded government entities to unfairly compete with commercial media.”

Such an examination would properly be carried out by the Productivity Commission, whose remit it is to examine issues of competition within industry sectors. Fifield struggled to explain on Lateline on Wednesday night why he did not want the commission to do it.

The suspicion, naturally, is that the government wants a hand-picked review panel, so that it can get a predetermined outcome.

Says Margaret Simons, professor in journalism at Monash University: “At one level it is not unreasonable that we should have a look at what public broadcasting should and shouldn’t do within the new media environment, but in the current climate it’s hard to believe it will be an ideologically neutral inquiry.”

We’ll get a better handle on that in coming weeks, once the personnel and terms of reference for the inquiry are known. But Fifield has repeatedly stressed the concerns of commercial media that the ABC must be reined in and that he is open to legislating changes to the ABC Charter.

He did it again on Lateline. “Well, look, the ABC obviously tell me every day that they always act within their charter,” he said. “Commercial media organisations tell me every second day that the ABC doesn’t always act within its charter. It’s one of the reasons why we want to have this competitive neutrality review, so the public broadcasters can put their views forward and the private broadcasters can put their views forward and have it ventilated.”

One ABC executive interpreted it as an invitation for everyone to pile on the public broadcaster. “This is not a review. It’s designed to give the commercials a chance to really go after the ABC.”

He said the ABC expected this from News Corp – “We’ve always had News sniping at the ABC. It’s in their DNA. It’s ideological. They just oppose public broadcasting” – but now even media companies that previously were supportive of the ABC, such as Fairfax Media, were lining up to attack.

“Given the straitened circumstances in which commercial free-to-airs find themselves, the ABC is a convenient scapegoat to explain the dwindling revenues, and finds in Fifield a minister who is receptive to this argument.”

The irony is, there has never been a greater need for quality media, and in particular quality news.

“The best estimate is that about 3000 jobs have gone from the industry in the past six years,” says Matthew Ricketson, professor of communication at Deakin University.

“That’s a huge loss of memory, experience, simply of bodies on the ground reporting.”

Over the same period, he notes, a number of things have happened to shake people’s trust in media.

“We’ve seen the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, which is still seeing it being worked out in the UK courts now. We’ve seen Facebook and Google take over the world, and seen the rise of fake news and Donald Trump bashing the media mercilessly for 18 months. So who’s standing up and championing good-quality news?”

Short answer: not many in the ranks of Australia’s media proprietors or the government. And none at all in One Nation.

But this week, at least, a bare majority in the senate did.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 21, 2017 as "The Hanson plot to kill the ABC". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.

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