ABC, SBS funding cuts expose pre-election lies

In the television cross, Tony Abbott stands on the grass of a Penrith stadium. The sun is down and the 2013 election campaign almost over. Lights make wax of his skin. Behind him, for witnesses, are bank after bank of empty seats. “I trust everyone actually listened to what Joe Hockey has said, last week and again this week,” he tells SBS’s Anton Enus. “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.”

As election commitments go, it was unequivocating. The budget made lies of the first two promises, and asked questions of three and four. This week, the government welshed on five and six.

On Wednesday, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a $254 million funding cut to the ABC across four years. Another $25.2 million will be cut from SBS during the same period. Hundreds of jobs will go and foreign bureaus will likely close. Some shows will be axed.

“Well – well, look, you know, I mean, I’ve defended the prime minister on this today and earlier in the week,” Turnbull told Leigh Sales, having been asked how Abbott’s commitment not to cut the ABC’s budget squared with cutting the ABC’s budget. 

“I think you’ve got to take his comments – which, look, I mean, what he said, he said, and, you know, it’s there, it’s on the record – but you’ve got to take that in the context. And I can only assume that what Mr Abbott was referring to, or was thinking about anyway, was the proposition that there would be cuts… with the intent of reducing ABC services. And we’ve ruled that out.”

Elsewhere in the conversation, he tried a different tack. “The prime minister said that in one interview, I think the night before the election. But Joe Hockey and I had made it very clear on a number of ABC programs [that if] there were going to be cuts across the board, as plainly there would have to be … then the ABC and SBS couldn’t be exempt.”

Finance minister Mathias Cormann was more direct, if less believable: “Well, they’re not cuts.”

Plainly, they are. Plainly, Abbott was not telling the truth. An efficiency built into a budget is a cut. To say otherwise is to lie.

But these cuts are about more than budgets. Abbott made that plain in January, when he complained about the ABC’s coverage of allegations that naval personnel had mistreated asylum seekers. “It dismays Australians when the national broadcaster appears to take everyone’s side but our own and I think it is a problem,” he told 2GB. “You would like the national broadcaster to have a rigorous commitment to truth and at least some basic affection for the home team, so to speak.”

Earlier he had criticised the broadcaster for working with Guardian Australia on a story that revealed the Australian government had spied on Indonesia. “Why,” he asked, “should the ABC be acting as an advertising agent for a left-wing British newspaper?”

The ABC is one of the most effective news outlets in the country for a simple reason: it is well funded. Abbott’s government is not the first to be frustrated by this fact. Indeed, the broadcaster spends much of its time seeing down threats to its independence and its operations.

But it is also universally popular. Polling frequently shows no appetite for reducing its size. Despite arguments that the broadcaster has an unfair advantage alongside commercial media, its work remains vital – even more so as those commercial rivals struggle to fund the journalism on which well-functioning democracies depend.

The ABC and SBS will weather these cuts. But it is important to see them for what they say about this government’s promises, and its willingness to punish the public institutions that seek to hold those promises to account.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 22, 2014 as "Peppa spray".

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