Quentin Dempster
Abbott’s assault on the ABC

Since the Coalition took power last year, there has been a ratcheting up of attacks on the ABC and SBS from the government and its friends in the Murdoch media. The ABC board seems to be on the backfoot and reeling. The public broadcasters are now working on their survival strategies as hostility intensifies before the May 13 budget, expected to deliver them drastic funding cuts despite promises to the contrary.

On election eve, 2013, Tony Abbott declared that neither the ABC nor SBS would suffer cuts, but indications are that his government’s forthcoming budget will administer reductions in operational base funding in real terms. There is much reference to the application of an “efficiency dividend”, an assertion of yearly whole-of-government deficit discipline in which the broadcasters must play their part.

The effect of major cuts is expected to be cumulative and therefore destructive over the forward estimates. At a reported efficiency dividend – or cut – of 2.25 per cent or $22 million over 2014-15, the ABC faces an immediate restructure of its operations. Applied yearly, this can only mean ongoing restructure, as ordinary operational cost increases would not be covered year on year.

With digital free-to-air transmission costs contractually fixed, total revenue reduction can only mean an operational reduction of program acquisitions, program output and recurrent payroll – that is, staff redundancy. ABC and SBS managements have been working on contingency plans for possible funding reductions of up to 15 per cent. Cuts from 5 to 15 per cent, and/or an “efficiency dividend” without relief, could only indicate a government’s ideological determination to do longer-term structural and sectoral damage to Australia’s public broadcasting services.

In recent months, an ominous series of reviews and acerbic attacks have been visited upon the ABC and SBS. Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced in late January an “efficiency study” of the ABC by former Seven West financial executive Peter Lewis. “Nothing to fear,” the minister said. ABC executives answering Lewis’s questions about staffing, which initially demonstrated little recognition or valuation of quality assurance, gave the distinct impression that perhaps Turnbull could not be trusted after all.

There has also been a marked intensification of vilification of the ABC by News Corp, with vitriol from every polemicist and provocateur on Rupert Murdoch’s payroll including new recruit, former Fairfax columnist Gerard Henderson.

Controversy about the ABC was escalated through a number of contrived “outrages”: the “burnt hands” case, where the ABC reported asylum seekers’ claims of mistreatment by Australian navy personnel, and the ABC’s co-operation with Guardian Australia in jointly publishing embarrassing material from the holdings of Edward Snowden about security services tapping the telephones of the Indonesian president and his wife.

The prime minister himself offered this extraordinary commentary on 2GB: “A lot of people feel at the moment that the ABC instinctively takes everyone’s side but Australia’s … You would like the national broadcaster to have a rigorous commitment to truth and at least some basic affection for the home team.”

These “outrages” and some lesser firefights have received simulcast front page and commentary coverage in News Corp publications and are expected to help provide justification for impending budgetary retribution.

1 . Howard's precedent

When the incoming Howard government also dishonoured election commitments to preserve the ABC’s funding levels in 1996, an industrial “execution” of 1000 public broadcasters and support staff resulted. Colleagues in Fairfax, News Corp, commercial television and radio have since suffered the wholesale destruction of job opportunities due to the digital revolution. In the face of a new round of gutting, rather than seeing the public broadcasters as an industry bulwark as the media is reshaped, the provocateurs seem to want to see the ABC punished and its influence diminished.

The ABC board’s reaction to these assaults – in particular, the seemingly defensive tactics of the ABC’s chairman, James Spigelman – is disturbing. In a now familiar pre-emptive buckle, the board devised ad hoc audits of editorial “bias” on subjects apparently chosen by the chairman. Spigelman seems to have accepted the Murdoch press smear that ABC editorial staff are out-of-touch, inner-city latte and chardonnay sippers. He outlined this thinking when addressing the National Press Club late last year: “The allegations of bias are, I believe, more often a function of the topics chosen for reporting, than of the content. Journalists – all of you, not just those at the ABC – tend to have a social and educational background … that may make them more interested in, say, gay marriage than, say, electricity prices. As a public broadcaster we must endeavour to engage with those sections of our community who are concerned with the latter.”

Not happy, Jim. The ABC is a flawed institution, to be sure, and a culture of continuous improvement, mentoring and training should be the management priority to sustain quality in return for the taxpayer investment. But consider the checks and balances in place without the addition of “bias audits”. Beyond the defamation, discrimination, privacy and contempt laws (federal, state and territory), the ABC’s employees must also comply with: editorial policies promulgated by the board; a “chief censor” in the form of a director of editorial policies; complaint adjudications by an internal Audience and Consumer Affairs unit; and external oversight of its code of practice by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Despite this, there will now be four audits of editorial subject selection a year.

Editorial or news value judgments made by executives at the ABC are exactly the same as those applied by any professionally objective mainstream news organisation. The real exception in Australia, of course, is News Corp publications themselves, which endemically suffer Murdoch’s distorting prejudices and narrow world view. Same-sex marriage gets an appropriate run at the ABC and SBS, for example, because it is a social justice phenomenon now at the forefront of the human rights and equality-before-the-law debate internationally. It does not seem to get much of a run in News Corp publications perhaps because editors there are very well aware of Murdoch’s homophobia.

To see the chairman fall for the stereotyping of the ABC’s staff and devising a formal strategy to address it has unsettled the broadcaster’s journalists. It was seen as an appeasement to a vexatious complainant. Sure enough, after the chairman’s first hand-picked auditors effectively exonerated the ABC, Piers Akerman in the Sunday Telegraph demanded Spigelman’s resignation, condemning the exercise as lenient self-appraisal. Never try to appease Rupert Murdoch and his henchmen. They will only take it as a sign of weakness. The ABC as a regulated broadcaster is statutorily and demonstrably accountable. More intellectual depth please, Mr Chairman.

The News Corp attacks are not simply ideological – the culture wars of the media industry – but also stem from cutthroat commercial competition. Speculation that the ABC will lose its Australia Network contract, despite its success this week in securing an agreement to access the Chinese market, has raged since News Corp headlined it after the change of government. This reflects Murdoch’s aim to snatch the contract for himself. The government, enjoying the prospect of financial and ideological gain, is naturally sympathetic. With a footprint across Asia, China, India and the Pacific, the ABC’s Australia Network provides immediate, reliable, ethical and quality content, including business and finance news, with added credibility through in situ correspondents. The audience growth being achieved through the digital revolution has huge potential for Australia’s engagement with the region. To destroy that now after years of relationship-building in Asia would be an act of vandalism and clearly against the national interest.

2 . SBS board left without chairman

At SBS, after a five-year term, last month Joseph Skrzynski’s services as chairman were declared no longer required, reportedly at the insistence of the prime minister. Skrzynski, the first SBS chairman to be appointed through the merit assessment process, worked hard to get SBS back on to the straight path of multicultural relevance, after the previous board leadership introduced in-program advertising in a failed attempt to make SBS Australia’s fourth fully commercial free-to-air channel.

Skrzynski has been running a rearguard campaign after his departure to urge that the ABC and SBS definitely not be merged. The ABC would subsume SBS and its special role, he says. SBS’s survival as a standalone entity seems more important now than ever before.

It’s not clear when his replacement will be named. The Abbott government reportedly doesn’t like the arms-length merit selection process for the appointment of ABC and SBS directors required by law from 2012. We are waiting to see who the government appoints to the four-person selection panel that actually chooses the shortlist from expressions of interest solicited by newspaper advertisement.

In light of likely cuts, ABC managing director Mark Scott, seven years into a 10-year term, now confronts his greatest managerial challenge – downsizing the ABC. Scott has earned industry credit points by making the ABC an innovative, audience-engaging digital revolutionary. Through multichannelling ABC services he secured more funds from the Rudd-Gillard governments for an era of modest expansion, to the annoyance of Fairfax Media and News Corp, which are in the difficult transition to subscriber-based digital services requiring paywalls. ABC content remains free. The ABC has a recently legislated obligation to provide online digital services. The Abbott government would have to order a review of the ABC’s role and functions and an amendment to the ABC Act (highly problematic given senate numbers from July 1) to prescribe the broadcaster’s user-pays or constrained online future. Cuts will have to come elsewhere.

While the ABC Act declares that the institution is independent of executive government, the realpolitik, as always, lies with funding. Abbott’s “word” – in speech and writing – is now on the line. He said he would not cut the ABC or SBS. He has no mandate from the Australian electorate to do so. Is he, then, his own man or a creature of Murdoch and News Corp?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 19, 2014 as "Vandalising the ABC".

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Quentin Dempster is an ABC journalist and advocate for public broadcasting.