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A hostile government could be the ABC's best friend



With promised cuts to the ABC upon us, the Corporation’s friends and enemies are out in force. 

This week’s bad news for the ABC was the Government’s appointment to its Board of commercial media financial controller Peter Lewis, who conducted the recent efficiency review that is the precursor to the imminent cuts. That makes it more likely than ever that the forces of economic rationalism will control the destiny of one of Australia’s most important creative and intellectual institutions.

The good news is that Essential polling has revealed that a majority of Australians is worried about cuts to the ABC. So if the government is more driven by polls than ideology, it will go easy on the public broadcaster. As Crikey pointed out on Thursday, there’s not a lot a government can do about the ABC’s popularity and the reality that cutting its revenue would be electoral poison.

Perhaps the greatest threat to the integrity of the ABC is that its management might be tempted to also go easy on the Government, in the hope that a relatively cosy relationship might work for both, minimising both electoral fallout for the government and cuts for the ABC. 

There are already signs of this occurring, with ABC management compliant in foreshadowing cuts to programs it considers expensive and expendable, thereby shielding the minister from public criticism and from having to justify his government’s blood-letting. Management appears, here, to be playing a politically partisan role which is certainly not in the national interest.

There is always a danger that ABC management will, wittingly or unwittingly, do the government’s work for it in a number of ways, including some that appear to be in the best interest of all Australians. For example, there is the coming week’s Mental As program blitz that is designed to promote mental health awareness. 

It is all about healing individuals, overcoming stigma, and enhancing the well-being of all Australians. Hardly anything we would want to discourage. But there is the sense that the ABC is doing what is properly the task of a government funded agency, rather than a broadcaster that usually aims to include in its programs a healthy dose of skepticism that is not compatible with such campaigns or focused messaging. 

Of course an exception can and should be made for a cause such as mental health. However there’s a good chance this will create a precedent, and the government might lean on the ABC to do something similar to push contentious causes such as the Anzac centenary next April. The revival and promotion of the Anzac myth began under former Prime Minister John Howard, and is criticised as a conservative ideological construct that is brainwashing the nation’s children.

The ABC will always have a complicated relationship with the government. Perhaps Malcolm Turnbull is mistaken when he talks up the importance this relationship when he says ‘a public broadcaster’s revenues are a function of its lobbying skills’. The Corporation is at its best when it ignores the government and focuses on its purpose and the people who are its audiences. If the people love their ABC, it won’t be necessary for its management to lobby poll-sensitive governments for funding. 

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, ABC, Malcolm Turnbull, public broadcasting, Peter Lewis, Australian Broadcasting Corpora



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Existing comments

Disturbingly well said.

Noel Kapernick | 06 October 2014  

The fact that a small country like Australia would sustain so many news outlets both within and without the country, with innumerable repetitions of the same news, is a fair indication that something has to be "cut". Added to that, is the absolute bias the ABC ha shown towards liberal-minded people and the promotion of idiotic, supposedly clever live shows that are boring in the extreme, as well as b eing accompanied by offensive language. For the first time in many, many years, I have been compelled just to switch off the ABC. Maybe the government has senses the feeling of the total public and not just one section of the so-called intelligentsia.

shirley | 06 October 2014  

And your incisive second last sentence should be widely disseminated. Well said.

Tonykevin@grapevine.com.au | 06 October 2014  

I agree with some of what Shirley has written. However I would take issue with "a small country like Australia". True Australia has a small population, a large proportion of it located in two great metropolises. But it is a physically large country with many challenges for those who try to exploit its resources. The result is that there is great variety in what the total population would want and/or expect from its ABC. "The greatest happiness of the greatest number" (to quote Jeremy Bentham quoting Francis Hutcheson) may be "the foundation of morals and legislation" but it cannot be the guiding principle for what the ABC does. By default, I think, the ABC (and SBS) has had to make up for the deficiencies of the pap served up by commercial broadcasters. Of course the ABC (and SBS) serves up some boring and rubbishy shows, which stir me into channel surfing. This ironically leads me to find solace in some very good commercial sports coverage - in fact the best that money can buy.

Uncle Pat | 06 October 2014  

Apart from the rural population (10% or so) does anyone under about 50 years of age listen to ABC radio or watch ABC TV?

john frawley | 06 October 2014  

I hate to say it, Shirley, but the shows you mention will not be the ones that get cut.

Margaret McDonald | 06 October 2014  

I'm always saddened by simplistic slogans such as "Save Our ABC". Yes of course we want to save it, but not exactly as it is - some programs are excellent, some are trash. Yes, there's more foul language (we have to suffer this, but woe betide anything that is politically incorrect!), and on ABC 2 over 12 hours of cartoons each day, in addition to ABC 3 - how on earth can this be justified? Schedules for ABC News 24 I find to be totally incomprehensible. The move of Breakfast programming to ABC 1 and well s ABC 24 must be an admission of failure. Others have commented on alleged bias, endless repetition and duplication of programs, and endless Stephen Fry, while others of us mourn the loss of good programs and departments which no longer provide the range of social history, drama and features, and programs of an educational nature. So yes, please save the ABC, but let there be more open discussion - and indeed dialogue - with the ABC (and SBS) on what could be done better with however many cents a day we now pay to maintain these services.

Tony5073 | 06 October 2014  

I concur with Michael Mullins about the merit of the ABC engaging in a public health campaign (e.g. mental health) ... Why not tobacco and alcohol? Why not other population health issues? Having watched Compass last night (on mental illness) I am left feeling so frustrated at the limitedness of the discussion. Public health approaches also look at (and try and change) policies and systems that lead to these issues ... and there are plenty ... and what could improve societal health and well-being ...

mary | 06 October 2014  

Minister Turnbull has said that it will be an ABC Board decision whether the public broadcaster could charge for some services and axe a number of programs. It seems clear that the Abbott Government is cultivating such an impression in the hope that the Board will wear any anticipated odium. In giving support to the theory, several media outlets have reported that the ABC Board has refused to accept a petition from well over 57,000 concerned viewers amid such fears. The Board, as the national broadcaster's current custodian (it is not there forever) should think very carefully before committing such action(s), which would be tantamount to cultural treason. It is not a secret that the Abbott Government is ultra conservative and is (also not a secret) beholden to influential individuals in commercial media who have an interest in seeing the ABC dismantled. Hopefully, ABC Board will take its responsibility seriously and not capitulate to forces of mediocrity, censorship and control.

Jeff Kevin | 06 October 2014  

I'm a long time ABC fan and my little granddaughter loves ABC2 (not that she's allowed to watch it all that often). However, I must agree with shirley that some live shows are idiotic rather than clever. "Mad as Hell" is wonderful, though. Here we have a real comedian with his own style of belly laughing satire. Let's keep shows of this quality that we can enjoy. As for the ABC being biased, I am concerned these days that it is leaning too far to the right. If people want to watch a biased channel or read a biased newspaper, go to Murdoch. Citizens have the right and may I say, the responsibility, to be critical of the government and politicians in general to ensure that they are on the track to ensuring social justice for all.

Anna | 06 October 2014  

We have just returned from a 2 week holiday in Hawaii. When you look at the quality of American TV you realise how lucky we are in this country to have the ABC and SBS. Why is this Government obsessed with following American way of doing things>

Mike | 06 October 2014  

Obviously John thinks that anyone over 50 has softening of the brain, whereas I find that many below 50 years have difficulty using their brains. The ABC is a part of my quality of life. Those who are satisfied with the Murdoch media or American pap are welcome to their choice.

Joan Modder | 06 October 2014  

The ABC isn't just TV it's radio programs are full of interesting discussion about things that matter in life. Topical interviews, books & arts, country news, FM great music, Drive, Fran Kelly's breakfast, Geraldine Douge etc & they even have Amanda Vandstone! All professional people with integrity and who do their research. No Govt party when in power love the ABC! Also on TV some great Aussie dramas. Let's be loud and clear, leave the ABC alone.

Jan Taylor | 07 October 2014  

Well said Michael. It's good to see some sane comment in these trying times.

John Diamond | 08 October 2014  

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